In Summary
  • Cities like New York and Singapore’s urban areas are bold examples of “green space” initiatives to remove concrete and make room for trees and vegetation.
  • According to WHO, trees play an important role in climate change mitigation, especially in cities with high levels of pollution to improve air quality, thus, making the environment healthier to live in.
  • Strategic placement of trees in cities can help to cool the air by two to eight degrees Celsius, thus reducing the urban “heat island” effect, and helping urban communities to adapt to the effects of climate change.

When builders of the ‘Lunatic Express’ railway line arrived in Nairobi in 1899, the Kenyan capital was just a swamp for herders and their animals.

The city’s dramatic perch between many green hillocks and a national park made it an instant attraction.

Over the years, however, rapid urbanisation accompanied by real estate development has seen Nairobi’s green spaces cleared to create concrete jungles.

Today, few city residents would be lucky to see any trees or vegetation in their estates. Most of them see trees along the streets and in open spaces such as Uhuru Park, City Park and the Arboretum.

The irony is that most city residents would prefer to live in more ‘natural’ neighbourhoods away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city. No wonder Nairobians openly marvel at the blooming Jacaranda trees in the month of October.

Some of them even take to the social media to thank those who planted those trees. Indeed, there are even cases of foreign tourists, who visit the City of Nairobi just to admire jacaranda in bloom.

Path of destruction

Sadly, many property developers, driven by the profit motive, are reluctant to let architects include green spaces and trees in their housing plans.

Instead, real estate developers want to squeeze as many houses as possible into the available space, especially in residential housing. The result is that estates end up becoming concrete jungles.

In Nairobi, the Eastlands estates of Imara Daima, Embakasi, Umoja, Huruma, Donholm and parts of Nairobi West and South B, are characterised by less trees and more multi-storey buildings, providing good examples of the concrete jungle.

Residents of these areas will agree that their estates are sunnier, dryer and dustier than those with more vegetation cover.

But it is not only real estate developers who are cutting down trees to put up houses; we have witnessed the government doing the same to create space for road expansion.

And yet major cities like New York and Singapore’s urban areas are bold examples of “green space” initiatives to remove concrete and make room for trees and vegetation.

Mr Raphael Obonyo, a policy specialist and member of the UN-Habitat Youth Advisory Board (YAB), reckons that Nairobi has few trees compared to world cities such as New York City, Turin, Toronto, Canada, and Johannesburg.

Born and raised in the Eastlands, Mr Obonyo says that Nairobi is trailing its peers with a tree cover of 7.78 per cent. The City of Singapore leads the world at 29.3 per cent tree cover.

“Cities such as Nairobi should be encouraged to grow more trees beyond parks and streets. We need more green spaces, and denser greenery in our cities,” he says.

Dr Alice Kaudia

Dr Alice Kaudia, former Environment Secretary. PHOTO| COURTESY

Environmentalists point out that living in a concrete jungle does not only lower the quality of life, but could also result in stress.

They argue that the presence of nature in a living environment is beyond a “nice to have thing”; rather, it is a way of counteracting the psychological downside of increased interaction in cities.

High levels of pollution

A study by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment in 2015 indicated that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area had a lower risk of depression compared to their participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting.

A mature tree, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), can absorb up to 150kg of carbon dioxide per year.
Therefore, trees play an important role in climate change mitigation, especially in cities with high levels of pollution to improve air quality, thus, making the environment healthier to live in, WHO says.

By enhancing liveability, green spaces make cities more desirable places to live and work in.

Former Environment Secretary at the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Alice Kaudia says a multi-sectoral effort is needed to ensure we have sufficient vegetation cover in the city.

Dr Kaudia, who currently chairs the Climate and Clean Air Coalition — a global network that seeks to improve air quality and ward off climate change — says that the housing sector should ensure green growth and replicate such efforts in the counties.

Adopting green buildings, she says, is one way of fighting air pollution, which can also be addressed by having a clean transport sector.

Increasingly, researchers are suggesting that planting more trees in urban areas, if done correctly, could save tens of thousands of lives around the world each year by soaking up pollution and cooling down deadly heatwaves.

Strategic placement of trees in cities can help to cool the air by two to eight degrees Celsius, thus reducing the urban “heat island” effect, and helping urban communities to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Even though air conditioning is the usual choice for many urban dwellers to cool their homes, air conditioners are electricity powered and it can be expensive to run them, besides that fact that they also add to atmospheric carbon pollution.

To help cities adapt to rising temperatures, green technology which includes street trees, green roofs, vegetated surfaces and green walls — is emerging as a viable way to help cities adapt to increased heat.

While Nairobi isn’t entirely left behind in green infrastructural development, a concerted effort is needed to push the agenda beyond cleaning of rivers and planting trees in forested areas.

Extensive tree cover

Compact city land-use policies and urban forest policies need to work together to ensure that cities have high-quality built environments and extensive tree cover.

“We need to create more awareness, give people more information on the importance of having green cities, and give incentives to encourage landlords to plant more trees.

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