Urban green spaces are vital to the overall liveability and sustainability of cities across the world. Green spaces offer a range of social, economic and environmental benefits to cities, and the loss of these spaces can hinder sustainable development.
Recently, I discovered the People’s Park in Korogocho, Nairobi - a community-led green zone along the Nairobi River that has catalysed the transformation of one of the city’s largest informal settlements. But where did it all begin?
The People’s Park was previously a dumping site and crime hotspot in Korogocho. In 2017, as part of the Korogocho Slum Upgrading Programme, young people in Korogocho were employed to work on the development of a bridge between Dandora and Korogocho. Prior to this, Korogocho's youth often engaged in criminal activity as a way to make a living. This lifestyle proved to be very dangerous as many lost friends to mob justice, police brutality and gun crime. The bridge was completed in 2018 and after this, many young people feared they would be forced to return to crime to survive. Thankfully, three locals, Mzee Muchina, Dredrick Okinda and Christopher Waithaka, decided to mobilise the youth of Korogocho to form a youth-led volunteer group called Komb Green Solutions. Since the completion of the People’s Park, there has been a reduction in crime in Korogocho and local residents now have access to greenery, cleaner air, and a safe space - particularly for women and children.
What we can learn from the People’s Park
The People’s Park is a testament to the power of community mobilisation and the importance of community participation (especially of young people) in slum upgrading initiatives across Africa. Projects like the People’s Park offer a range of social and environmental benefits including improved quality of life, an increased sense of safety and security, reduced air pollution, and the promotion of social interaction across different demographics. There is also educational value to be gained through the creation and maintenance of urban parks - particularly related to environmentalism and sustainability. Most importantly, initiatives like the People’s Park present a strong case for pushing the creation and preservation of green spaces further up the agenda in slum upgrading initiatives and urban development in African cities.
Despite their importance, there are various barriers hampering the preservation of green spaces in African cities. For example, in Kampala, Uganda, urban parks make up approx. 0.04% of the land area, revealing how the government and private landowners do not prioritise the retention and creation of green spaces. In South African cities, the legacy of apartheid is reflected in the unequal distribution of green spaces across race and income geographies. This is referred to as ‘green apartheid’ - a phenomenon that affects 96% of South African cities. Aside from the entrenched socio-political and economic inequalities that are prevalent in some African cities, there are a number of other factors that hinder the development of urban parks in Africa. These include inadequate legislation, development pressures, budget constraints, competing demands for other services, and a lack of awareness about the importance of recreational spaces. Moreover, despite their value, urban parks are also the spaces in which crime, substance abuse and environmental harm, such as illegal waste dumping, occur. Therefore, it is not enough to simply provide these spaces; proper maintenance is equally important to ensure that everyone, especially vulnerable groups, can feel safe in these spaces and enjoy all the benefits.
But it’s not all bleak. Projects like the People’s Park and many others being developed in African cities prove that it is possible to create change with the right tools and the political will. Here’s to hoping that the success of these projects sparks a bigger movement to preserve green spaces and develop more urban parks in African cities, thereby transforming urban livelihoods and building community resilience.