Ruined by roads

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Ruined by roads

Nanjala Nyabola is sad about the loss of Nairobi's trees, and writes about the expansion of cities.


Credit: Nina Stock/Pixabay

Nairobi used to be the ‘green city in the sun’, but over the past year there has been an attack on the green part. The government of Kenya has cut at least 200 trees across the capital and plans to cut many more as they plan to build an elevated highway to connect the airport in the east to the western suburbs. They will build it over the top of the main road that runs from Kenya’s coast all the way to the border with Uganda. All this in the pandemic that has forced more private cars onto the road than ever before.

Parts of Nairobi are now dustbowls where the wind, with no trees to slow it down, picks up dust and sprinkles it over cars and pedestrians like salt from a shaker. We have no evidence to prove it, but those who live here have noticed that temperatures are now much higher. The destruction of the city’s famous trees results from state and private action, with unplanned urban expansion and crowded residential neighbourhoods with zero green spaces. There are so many apartment complexes with no common areas, especially in working-class districts. All of the city’s protected green areas are in rich neighbourhoods except for two parks in the central business district. Both of them came from the protest actions of women like Wangari Maathai and Zarina Patel.

At the same time, big old trees are torn down to make way for roads. That changed the character of the city but did little to help the traffic problems. Usually after a road is expanded, the traffic jams return, sometimes worse than before. Thika Road, Lang’ata Road, Outer Ring Road – all packed again only months after expensive expansions. Nairobi is learning the lessons that larger cities have also learnt – more roads don’t reduce traffic jams. Only investment in good public transport can do that. Most people in the city walk to work and more and more try to use their bicycles, but almost none of the new roads have pavements or bicycle paths.

There’s a big lesson to learn from Nairobi’s road-building. For the last 50 years, development has seen the natural environment as less important than the need to build. In the early 20th century, cities in rich countries expanded quickly, destroying forests and rivers. Now Amsterdam is changing roads back into canals, and cities across the United States are changing freeways and elevated highways into parks and public spaces. But cities in Africa and Asia are destroying their green areas to continue trying to look modern.

We live in a world where we cannot deny climate change but we are baking cities and choking under dust and smog. To stop the planet becoming impossible to live in, cities in poor countries have to move away from development that destroys the natural environment. To live in cities, we need trees.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)