In Summary
  • The difference in height between parts of Nairobi also affects the drainage of the city. The law of gravity dictates that water flows downhill and with a flat area bordering a high area, it is no coincidence that Nairobi was described as a swamp by the British when setting up the city.

A little more than 100 years ago, the bustling city of Nairobi was an uninhabited swamp filled with wild animals.

The city came to be when the British took advantage of the last flat area they encountered before beginning the climb up the escarpment wall of the Rift Valley while constructing the Kenya-Uganda railway.

Where Nairobi stands today is where the British pitched camp for a breather before embarking on the difficult attempt to build the railway up and over the walls of the escarpment, into the Rift Valley and beyond.

The decision to pitch camp at Enkare Nyirobi, as it was known then, and the growth of the camp into the capital city has shaped and continues to shape the lives of its residents to date.

Before proceeding, it is good to understand the position of Nairobi relative to its surroundings for this piece to make sense. Nairobi lies a few kilometres to the east of the Rift Valley, with the closest distance being the 30 kilometres to Ngong’ Hills, which forms part of the escarpment. 

Unique geography

Nairobi’s position next to the Rift Valley has given it a unique geography, with the city roughly divided into two halves of different heights. The western half of Nairobi is higher than the western half.

The fact that the city is quite small better highlights the difference in height between its western and western halves. The division between the eastern and western halves is marked by the Thika superhighway and Langata Road.

As you approach Nairobi’s eastern boundaries from Athi River, you are in a relatively flat area — the Athi plains. This flat area covers Ruiru, Kasarani, across Eastlands, Industrial Area, Nairobi National Park all the way to Rongai in the South.

The city experiences a sudden rise on its western side as the climb up the escarpment wall begins. This has made Nairobi areas such as Karen, Langata, Ngong’ Road, Westlands, Parklands, Gigiri all the way to Kiambu being higher than the areas on the eastern side.

The division between the low and high parts of Nairobi is marked by a slope that cuts across the city. The slope runs from Rongai crossing Magadi Road near Multimedia University. It extends all the way across the national park to emerge on Langata Road.

If you have been to a game drive at the national park, you must have noticed that you drive from a high area with lots of trees— where the nature trail and offices are located— to a low flat grassland.

The slope cuts across Langata Road near Uhuru Gardens, hence the elevation as you approach Langata. Beyond Nairobi Dam, the slope crosses Mbagathi Road near Highrise and extends all the way to Upper Hill behind Kenyatta Hospital, Kasneb and Madaraka estate. Along this particular stretch, the railway runs adjacent to the slope.

The slope approaches the Central Business District and can be clearly seen on Bunyala Road, near NIC Bank and the Railway Golf Club. Along this entire stretch, the average height above sea level increases by up to 100 metres.

Uhuru Park is perhaps the most famous stretch of this slope that continues its division of the city along State House Road and Kileleshwa to resurface clearly on Waiyaki Way near Chiromo. Beyond Westlands, the slope is seen in Parklands and runs adjacent to Thika Superhighway in Muthaiga past Garden Estate and beyond.

The difference in height between the eastern and western side of Nairobi has shaped the lives of its residents in different ways. It has influenced the zoning of the city— marking apart the rich and working class areas of Nairobi.

While Thika Superhighway and Langata Road divide the city into an eastern-western half, the Northern Corridor— Mombasa Road and Waiyaki Way— further divides the city to have a northern and southern half. The intersection of these four roads near the City centre divides the city into four quadrants.

The higher areas to the west of Nairobi are relatively ‘richer’ than the eastern half of the city. The upper western quadrant bordered by Thika Road and Waiyaki Way (quadrant 1/colour) is home to the super rich of Nairobi, Kenya and the region in general. This quadrant contains suburbs like Gigiri, Nyari, Runda, Kitisuru as well as the UN headquarters and high-end shopping malls.

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