Nairobi 2007

Prof. Jacques Herzog, Prof. Pierre de Meuron,
Manuel Herz, Ligia Nobre, Shadi Rahbaran
Exercise types: “P” (for diploma students) or “e” / “e+i” (for bachelor andmaster students)
Locations: Group work in Basel and in Nairobi
Start: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 10am at ETH Studio Basel, Spitalstrasse 8, 4056 Basel

Can we conceive of Nairobi as an ordinary city? Can we study Nairobi in terms of its basic human activities? Can we investigate how the city functions by looking at how people live and work or how people move through the city? Can we challenge the predominant way of approaching the “African City”, which focuses mostly on issues of development, disparate temporalities, and binary opposites such as formal vs. informal? This approach, which we have witnessed in recent examples of urban depictoions of the African continent, fails to take into account the complexities on the ground, taking recourse to a mere repetition of clichés and coming dangerously close to replicating a (post-) colonialist standpoint.
As the capital of the East African country of Kenya, Nairobi – just over 100 years old – has developed into one of the most international cities in the world. As the third UN city after New York and Geneva and host to the headquarters of some of the main UN bodies, it is thoroughly tied into a global network of policymaking, diplomacy, and governance. Since it is a frequent venue for large international conferences, such as the World Social Forum 2007, it has the necessary infrastructure and serves as a focal point for the global exchange of ideas and communication. With a population of approximately three to four million inhabitants, it is the largest city in eastern Africa. Nairobi has experienced a large increase in population, mostly based on rural-urban migration, and its urban growth rate is one of the highest in the world. The city is widely regarded as having potential and offering favorable economic possibilities.
Since Kenya’s independence, Nairobi has developed into a distribution center for humanitarian aid. Most of the emergency missions launched in response to the conflicts that the continent has witnessed in the last decades were administered from Nairobi. The city and its infrastructure serve as the logistical hub for collecting and distributing aid, tents, and other kinds of humanitarian provisions. Apart from the various UN bodies, the city has the largest presence of non-governmental organizations worldwide, resulting in a large international population of expatriates (“expats”). But Nairobi’s international character is not only due to the affluent expats . Since Kenya is a rather stable country in political terms, and borders on countries such as Uganda, Sudan, or Somalia, which have experienced long-lasting conflicts, it has been a host to large refugee communities since the 1970s. Thousands of refugees, mostly Somalis, have left the refugee camps that are located within the border zones, moved to Nairobi, and settled in various neighborhoods across the city. Their links to relatives and friends in their home countries as well as in other host countries all over the world have made Nairobi into a center of global commerce and cultural exchange.
Nairobi is shaped by strong contrasts in terms of wealth and quality of infrastructure. While some of the most affluent neighborhoods can be found in the west of the city, along with beautiful gardens and vast golf courses, Nairobi is home to one of the biggest slums of the continent, Kibera. But this simple opposition of affluence vs. poverty and its developmental logic ignores the very interdependencies and intersections that tie the different parts of the city together. The binary view labels as problematic all those features that do not conform to a Western standard, which in the external view is unanimously regarded as the goal to be achieved. Nairobi is not only severely affected by the problems of informal housing, it is one of the global centers for research in the field of urban development and spatial studies. Being home to the two UN bodies that directly deal with spatial planning and the quality of our environment, the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) and UN Habitat, it develops programs that aim to create sustainable urban environments and formulates policies of urban governance, amongst others, and applies them to cities worldwide. Thus, Nairobi as the host city of the world’s biggest think-tank on urbanism has the leverage and influence to influence urban development in cities across the globe.

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