Cramped outdoor markets in Kawangware urban informal settlement (Nairobi, Kenya).
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a number of failings in urban planning. This debate is catalysed by the national and county governments’ ongoing struggle to contain the spread of the virus especially in densely populated urban areas where the anticipated number of infections are bound to exceed the medical capacity of our country’s health systems. Nairobi currently leads with the highest number of infections while other counties slowly follow suit.
According to the 2019 National Housing and Population Census, 27 per cent of Kenya's total population lives in urban areas and cities. By 2030, this figure is predicted to increase to 50 per cent. The World Bank reports that an estimated 62 per cent of Kisumu’s population resides in informal settlements while 41 per cent of Nairobi is comprised of similar settlements including Korogocho, Mukuru, Mathare, Majengo and the well-recognized Kibera, which is arguably the largest urban informal settlement in Africa.
Notably, Kisumu and Nairobi house the largest number of informal settlements despite modest poverty levels amongst residents which indicates a shortage of housing infrastructure in both cities.
Therefore, there is tremendous pressure on housing, road infrastructure, water, sanitation, health, and transport, which inhibit the implementation of otherwise well-intentioned calls to curb the spread of the virus. With these prevailing scenarios, the informal settlements stand to be adversely affected by the pandemic since government regulations on physical distancing prove difficult to implement, enhancing their vulnerability to infection.
The World Health Organization has recommended several medically approved measures to curb the spread of the virus: social distancing, frequent hand washing, sanitizing and wearing facemasks. However, the government struggles to effectively enforce these measures due to structural inadequacies, and in the process, the country’s precarious political system has revealed Kenya’s poor urban planning. For instance, a lack of space and no piped water makes it nearly impossible to practice the CDC recommended measures of social distancing and frequent handwashing. In addition, poor road infrastructure within these settlements pose a challenge to emergency response efforts, as most of the houses are inaccessible by ambulances, while the overcrowding of inhabitants within poorly constructed housing units makes self-isolation unthinkable.
In 2016, the Kenyan Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development published a national report on human settlements and the new urban agenda. It offered several recommendations including; the need to prioritize urban management and shelter strategies geared towards provision of affordable housing; prevention of slum growth; effective slum and informal settlement upgrading; reinforcing rural urban linkages and development to harness the entire continuum of human settlements and harnessing the potential of urbanisation by emphasising the need for effective urban planning for human settlements. In addition to this, the National Spatial Plan (2015-2045) and the country’s Vision 2030 provide excellent policy frameworks to curb regional imbalances, ineffective development measures and unsustainable human settlements.
Unfortunately, lack of improvement in the quality of life for Kenyan residents, especially in informal settlements, proves the need to set aside further resources to implement urban planning reforms. Unless the government prioritises urban planning, a majority of urban dwellers will remain helpless in the wake of COVID-19 and other unanticipated disasters.
In the meantime, the government has an obligation to safeguard its citizens against the spread of the virus regardless of where they reside. Hence, the urgent need to set up immediate measures in informal settlements that can help minimise the risk of spread. Some of these include setting up public handwashing zones, distribution of masks, soaps and hand sanitisers as well as creating awareness about the virus.
Lucy Mbuvi is a Research Associate at the Aga Khan University’s East Africa Institute.