Management / Rene Carayol: Why new thinking should be exploited by those who do not yet have sustainable lives

Rene Carayol: Why new thinking should be exploited by those who do not yet have sustainable lives

The growing industry and expertise around sustainable cities is both necessary and exciting. But most of the excitement is generated by some of the latest developments, from China where many new cities are under construction, to Europe where futuristic visions are becoming reality.

rene-199x300These developments are attracting the best brains, the most progressive businesses and breathtaking amounts of investment. This is good news, and certainly must continue.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, there are many old and moribund cities that are creaking and crumbling, not only because of a lack of investment, but mainly because there was never an overarching plan for their future development. Far too many of these worrying cases of a lack of structured urban development, unfortunately, are experiencing rapid growth and are in Africa.

I was recently in Nairobi, the sprawling capital of Kenya. In 2000 its population was just over two million. By 2010, it had grown to 3.3 million and, by 2020, it will be 4.8 million. In a further five years it will be nearly six million. This is explosive growth by any measure, but becomes dangerously so when the creaking and unstable infrastructure is taken into account.

The first sign of the lack of planning and provision was the journey from the airport to my hotel in Nairobi. It’s only around 12 kilometres but it takes a depressing three hours to get there. This is nothing compared with the four to five hours it takes first thing in the morning – hitting the back-to-back traffic at 5am on the return to the airport.

Like many of Africa’s cities, when Nairobi became the capital, the one road that connected it to the hinterland of Kenya, and to the capitals of its neighbours, is still the only route in and out of town. The traffic congestion is alarming, and the fumes and potholes left by the gargantuan trucks travelling from the ports to various regional capitals leaves the roads in a state of constant disrepair.

There are many tourist excursions to the infamous Kibera slums in Nairobi.
While there is much to admire, especially the entrepreneurial zeal of most of its inhabitants, it is impossible to leave without starting to understand why the few who become able to do so leave to change their lives for the better.

Slumdog Millionaire has given us a rose-tinted view of life in the slums but, while being impressed by the ingenuity of the inhabitants and the ad-hoc architecture, and perhaps smiling at stolen electricity and “free” satellite connections, this is still just so unacceptable. Many of these slums appear to be sustainable, mainly due to local self-regulating communities that really do look out and care for each other, but scratch beneath the surface and day-to-day living becomes seriously tenuous with little guarantee of tomorrow.

We happened to be in Kibera when a flash storm came pelting down. The well-heeled tourists were gone in a flash, whisked away in smart minibuses. The locals have nowhere else to go.

In Africa, the onus is always on a much beleaguered government to sort all social problems, especially housing. It might just be an idea to think about bringing new investment in, alongside new ideas. There is much to be learned from the new thinking around sustainable cities, but there is no reason why this cannot be also exploited by those who do not yet have sustainable lives.


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