Nairobi Placemaking and Public Space Networking | Big Bold Cities

Nairobi Placemaking and Public Space Networking

three colored squaresNairobi Placemaking and Public Space Networking


Placemaking Nairobi and the Public Space Network have raised an appreciation for green and public spaces in Nairobi. They began their individual works at roughly the same time, and they build on Nairobi City County’s (NCC) expressed commitment to make public space a priority. Organisers brought together local stakeholders to engender ownership of public streets and parks in the central business district (CBD,) as well as courts within residential estates. As a result, people are vested in the redesigned and welcoming street space, and there is ownership in how it looks, what programming is taking place and its security. This raising of awareness of urban public goods also inspires protectiveness by those who worked to transform the spaces, which is a deterrent to land grabbing.

Placemaking Nairobi and Public Space Network partnered with the County to access public spaces without interference and leverage public resources like machinery, tools, and policies. These projects took rise at a time when the County was being called to address overreaching developments (e.g. higher or larger than allowed) which have grown rampant. Additionally, land grabbing of road reserves, plots and school playgrounds is an everyday occurrence. Land grabbers are emboldened by any appearance that a property is not being utilised or not cared for, or that owners can be intimidated. 

Embedded in the projects is the notion that public-space design must come from a user-experience perspective, and serve as a building block for social capital. Placemaking Nairobi corralled energy into one iconic project in the business district, and Public Space Network provides opportunities for teams to transform many public spaces across the County. Both projects signal to the County that it must focus its policies and implementation on catching up with these initiatives. Their innovation is the use of tactical urbanism and cost-effective, participatory approaches to transforming urban public spaces, engaging political leaders at the highest positions as well as residents at the grassroots level. 

Democratic Challenge

A 2015 World Health Organization report recommends a minimum of nine square meters of green space per person in a sustainable city. Ideally, a city would have 10-15 square meters of green space per capita. Nairobi currently has less than one square meter of green space per person.

The misappropriation of public lands has drastically reduced since the Kenyan government established the "Ndungu Commission" to inquire into the extra-legal allocation of public lands to private individuals and corporate entities. But it still continues. The Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations (KARA) has received numerous cases from its members regarding grabbing or misuse of public spaces. According to Nairobi Urban Renewal Ltd., a local think tank on Nairobi’s urbanization, the County’s governance and development problems stem from past injustices and government failures with regard to public land and public open spaces, including misaligned and outdated council by-laws with new county bills and policies needing to be streamlined; inadequate identification and mapping of public land and public open spaces; and impediments to quick resolution due to case backlogs and corruption in the judiciary. Together, these leave out of reach the restoration of grabbed land and ultimately, faith in government structures. 

How did you do it? 

For a long time, Nairobi’s Central Business District has experienced flight and plight. Public spaces are called “jobless corner,” a national park would be described as a barrier to development, and you might be arrested for sitting in public spaces.

The New Urban plan showed that east of Tom Momba Street in downtown Nairobi needed regeneration to bring people back to downtown and encourage new economic opportunities. In 2017, with support from the British Academy through the Stockholm Environment Institute, Placemaking Nairobi got support to engage local people in participatory design that would optimize retail turnover and bring about urban transformation. In 2018, they identified a vibrant street in downtown Nairobi, Luthuli Avenue, which had empty storefronts. 

The initial step was to create awareness on the benefits of urban transformation, such as walkability as part of climate action and public health. Very little was known about the space, so Placemaking used digital storytelling to mobilize key decision makers. They pitched to County leaders using art and infographics to highlight issues on Luthuli Avenue such as road safety and pollution that contribute to economic challenges. They also provided design ideas that would not only create an environment for business to thrive but would also transform the city’s image. Many of the leaders, although supportive, adopted a wait-and-see attitude since a lot of innovations pitched to them don’t see the light of day.

Placemaking then used billboards and LED screens to reach out to the public on possibilities for cycling and walkability. They started small, one street at a time, working on creative approaches that triggered enthuthiasm with the young creative community. A tactical approach was adopted and design was done on location, not in the office. 

The process has been long, but the movement has in many ways shaped the development of urban designs and control guidelines for Nairobi.

How is it going?

Nairobi’s placemaking movement has created an entry point for urban transformation and regeneration, building the capacity of City County officials and encouraging the city to test solutions and embrace placemaking. The first placemaking week was sponsored by the Nairobi County Government, and now they have now fully owned the process.

In Nairobi City, chaos and congestion had been normalized but the transformation of Luthuli Avenue changed that. Luthuli Avenue is now a beautiful one-way street set up with pedestrian walkway, a cyclist truck, proper street lighting and all the necessary road marks. By 2020 it is expected that it will have enough turnover, footfall, more business and improved air quality. Based on this success, the County is set to convert six more roads into a one way street.


Lessons from implementation include:

  • County officials often believe they are helping organisations with their agenda, rather than seeing it as furthering County effectiveness.
  • The flow of information within the County was a challenge, especially getting information to the top leadership. Find ways to ensure there’s engagement at the highest ways, such as social media or live suggestion box. County middle managers distort or withhold information getting to policy makers to protect each other in the event of something going wrong. There is an urgent need for a culture change that allows people to share the responsibility and see each other as collaborators, not as competitors.
  • The current legal system discourages public officials from innovating due to risk. A change in how our court system works would make legal decisions good for the public. For innovation to thrive, we have to turn around the approach of creating policies first and then implementing. We should test solutions, conduct real catalytic pilots and from the learnings revise policy.

Placemaking work is cemented by the Kenya Constitution, Nairobi Neighborhood Act and human-rights principles of civic engagement, public participation and rights to expression and to people shaping their living environment.

The New Urban Agenda also talks about Placemaking as a way of implementing the aspirations of public spaces. In 2015, the role of public spaces in sustainable development received unprecedented recognition by the international community by including a target to “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities” in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, Target 7 of SDG 11 on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements.