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Promoting Sustainable Urbanization in Kenya

The 2022 World Cities Day, themed Act Local to Go Global, was held on 31st of October. The annual commemorations aim at promoting global sustainable urbanization and encourage countries to collaborate in addressing urbanization challenges. The theme, Act Local to Go Global, emphasized on the potential and utilization of local actions and strategies in empowering cities to become greener, more equitable and sustainable.

Currently, cities occupy about 3 per cent of the world’s land area and on average host 50 per cent of the world’s population. It is estimated that the percentage will rise to over 66 per cent by 2030, representing close to 5 billion people. This is driven by the search for better job opportunities, and rapid population growth, especially in the Global South. It is also approximated that African cities will be home to over 1 billion people by 2040. This will be mainly because of the region’s population growth, estimated to account for about 52 per cent of the total global population increase between the year 2019 to 2050.

Kenya currently has 4 cities – Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa and Nakuru. Nairobi became a city in 1950 and the country’s capital since 1907. It is now the largest city and contributes an average of 27 per cent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The city started off as a construction camp along the Kenya-Uganda Railway and currently has more than 4,397,073 people living in it. Prior to 1907, Mombasa was Kenya’s capital, and it was originally established as a trading port given its proximity to the Indian Ocean. Arabs, Greeks, Romans and other visitors of the East African coast would carry out trade here. Currently, Mombasa has a population of about 1,208,303 people. Kisumu was also originally a terminal for the Kenya-Uganda railway, founded in the early 19th century. Over 1,155,574 people now reside in this city, which borders Lake Victoria. Kenya’s youngest city is Nakuru, which became a city in 2021 following endorsement by the Kenyan Senate. Nakuru County has an average population of 2,162,202 people. As Kenya’s population continues to grow, the urban population has also increased from 12,387,375 in 2009 to 14,831,700 in 2019. Therefore, Kenyan cities are expected to have increased inhabitants in the coming years. This comes with a rise in urbanization challenges that negatively affect the sustainability[1] of cities.

Status of Urban Sustainability

The Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index 2022, which measures urban sustainability across cities, ranked Nairobi at 96 out of 100 global cities. Oslo was ranked 1st as the most sustainable city in the world. Under the planet, people and profit pillars, Nairobi was ranked 82nd., 98th and 95th, respectively. Among the featured African cities, the leading cities for the planet, people and profit pillars were Cape Town at rank 72, Cairo at rank 79 and Johannesburg at rank 87, respectively. These three pillars represent the common sustainability dimensions that include: environmental, social and economic . For a city to be sustainable, it must be socially inclusive, environmentally safe and economically productive. Technology and governance are other dimensions used to measure urban sustainability. Compared to the other cities, Nairobi had low rankings and thus needs to do more to improve its urban sustainability. Other Kenyan cities – Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru – were not among the 100 global cities featured in the Index.

The economic pillar represents indicators that boost the city’s economic vibrancy, such as access to and affordability of utilities (e.g., water and electricity), availability of quality jobs and transport infrastructure. Increased competition for limited resources and infrastructure, inability to afford quality electricity, Internet and water access by some, presence of poor transport infrastructure, traffic congestion and limited quality jobs have been major concerns for cities contending with growing urbanization affecting the economic pillar. Presence of green spaces, use of renewable energy, pollution and waste management, greenhouse gases emissions and sustainable transport are some factors that make up the environmental pillar. Examples of urbanization challenges affecting this pillar are increased use of non-renewable energy, air pollution and poor waste management. Lastly, the social pillar addresses the social aspects such as health, education, security, quality housing and equality. In some cases, increased urbanization brings about the uncontrolled growth of informal settlements, limited accessibility to quality social amenities, services and infrastructure, health issues caused by pollution and poor waste management, rising crime rates and increased social inequality and alienation that are bottlenecks in the social pillar. Urbanization challenges negatively affect economies, the environment, the quality of lives for citizens and heighten the populations’ vulnerability to climate change effects and natural disasters. This reinforces the urgency for adequate urban sustainability in cities such as Nairobi.

On a global scale, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11 aims to make cities safe, inclusive, suitable and resilient. A prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable growth is one of the aspirations of the African Union’s development strategy – Agenda 2063. Among the goals of this aspiration is environmentally sustainable and climate resilient economies and communities, which may include cities. Further, Kenya’s Vision 2030 has sustainability at its core in making the country achieve middle income status by the year 2030. The Vision envisages an adequately and decently housed nation in a sustainable environment under housing and urbanization. The Medium-Term Plan II of the Vision also targets to make cities productive and environmentally sustainable.

To this effect, the National Urban Development Plan, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), County Integrated Development Plans, Solid Waste Management Act 2015, and urban resilience plans are examples of polices that wholly or partly aim to promote urban sustainability in Kenya. City-specific policies and strategies such as the Nairobi Zoning Policy, Nairobi City County Development Control Policy, Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Master Plan (NIUPLAN), Nairobi Climate Action Plan, and the Nairobi Metro 2030 Strategy also boost urban sustainability as they have main objectives that positively contribute to the sustainability pillars. As an example, the Nairobi Metro 2030 Strategy aims to make the city a sustainable global metropolis with a dynamic and inclusive economy, world class infrastructure and enhanced linkages and accessibility, thus promoting the economic, social and environmental pillars.

Even with the efforts and policies done by both National and County Governments, urban areas in Kenya require significant improvements when it comes to urban sustainability. Under the social pillar, urbanization issues such as informal settlements, social inequalities and limited access to social amenities such as education and healthcare are still a challenge. This can be further highlighted by the fact that 60 per cent of Kenyan urban families live in slums. Inadequate waste management, illustrated by data showing that only about 40 per cent of Nairobi residents have access to sewage system, and other issues such as air pollution are still very prominent city challenges under the environmental pillar, exacerbated by urbanization. High levels of unemployment, poor quality roads and limited access to stable and quality electricity are some factors that negatively affect the economic pillar.  Data from the Kenya Roads Board’s Road Condition Survey 2018 showed that Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru have 30.9 per cent, 12.96 per cent, 30.88 per cent and 33.29 per cent of their county total paved roads in poor condition, respectively.

Strategies to Address Sustainability of Cities

Kenya can leverage more on its local characteristics to achieve sustainability through the various strategies.

One strategy can be by further embracing emerging trends and technologies such as e-mobility, mass transport systems and the smart city concept. As a result, reduced air pollution, utilization of renewable energy by e-mobility and reduced wastage of natural resources such as water by integrating smart water management will be beneficial to the environmental pillar of urban sustainability. There will also be increased access to social amenities such as health facilities, reduced health issues emanating from reduced air pollution, and lower levels of social inequalities that promote the social pillar. The economic pillar will gain from reduced traffic, improved affordability of transport services, the created quality jobs along the value chain, and the maintenance and spare parts’ markets within the transport and ICT sectors. A study by the European Association of Electrical Contractors shows that by 2030, a total of one million high quality, local, green jobs could be created globally in various fields from e-mobility adoption. The cities could develop incentives such as free parking, city charging spots and discounted fees and taxes to promote the adoption of e-vehicles, mass transport systems and the smart city concept.

Kisumu, Mombasa and other urban areas could look into more ways of tapping into the blue economy (e.g., promotion of small-scale fishing, marine fisheries and local tourism), given their proximity to water bodies and scenic locations as a strategy. The Kenya Vision 2030 recognizes the blue economy as a priority sector in achieving the targeted 10 per cent annual economic growth. The jobs created can promote both the economic and social pillars by improving the economic status of the cities and citizens and reduce social inequalities through improved living standards. The conservation of marine and freshwater environments as an aspect of the blue economy also positively impacts the environmental pillar.

More waste management systems and policies that incorporate recycling and plastic waste management can be adopted by cities, collaborating with other relevant stakeholders, as another strategy. The members of the communities can be more involved in the implementation to promote inclusiveness and the circular economy. The economic opportunities such as trading recycled plastic and new jobs in the waste industries will boost the economic pillar. Reduced pollution and cleaner environments that lead to more health residents are positive outcomes under the environmental and social pillars.

Kenya’s youth population (75% of the total population according to the 2019 KNBS Population Census) is an example of the nation’s untapped resources that could be used as a strategy to boost urban sustainability. The Kazi Mtaani is an example of a government initiative that does this by offering the vulnerable youth income generating opportunities that improve the environment and service delivery. Cities could continue offering the youth employment and provide additional spaces such as ICT hubs and cultural centres for them to develop innovations, effectively harnessing their skills. All the sustainability pillars will be positively affected as there will be reduced social inequalities and crime incidences, more youth with skills to improve their social and economic status and more improved environments.

There is also need for more public advocacy and stakeholder engagement to promote communal responsibility, ownership and awareness on matters sustainability. Focus can be on informal settlements as they are also sources of innovative solutions to sustainability challenges. Cities could adopt and improve upon such innovations and develop policies that cater for the slums as well. As a result, there will be improved social inclusion and general cleanliness of the environments, which positively resonate with the social and environmental pillars, respectively. 


As the urbanization rates continue to increase, so do the urbanization challenges that hinder urban sustainability in cities. Kenya’s cities could Act Local to Go Global by embracing more local actions and strategies to promote sustainability, while addressing these challenges. This will also create more opportunities for innovations, uptake of emerging technologies and trends, inclusion, equity, and equality among urban residents.

By Brian Nyaware, Policy Analyst Infrastructure and Economic Services Department

Image: Courtesy of Kenya News Agency

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