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Why are we busy destroying Nairobi’s trees?

The green city in the sun. That was what our beautiful Nairobi was famously known as. Well, we’re still in the sun (and increasingly so), but the ‘green’ part of the description may soon be hard to justify.

Why is no one worried about the pace at which trees are being destroyed in our city? Driving around Nairobi provides many chilling moments these days. You come round a familiar corner, and suddenly feel a sense of change, of loss, of a hole in the picture. The hole is caused by the trees that some idiot has brainlessly destroyed.

Large swathes of the city are suffering this fate. Usually, senseless behaviour of all types is laid at the feet of public-sector officials. In this case, however, the private sector is also revealing its rapaciousness when allowed to go unchecked.

The city fathers of yore were forward-thinking fellows who understood the value of trees and planted them diligently along all our main roads and avenues. This foresight gave Nairobi much of its beauty and grandeur, more so than its buildings and skyline.

Why are all the trees being brought down? Partly for a good reason: we are building quite a few new roads in many parts of the city, and road reserves are being reclaimed. But do observe: big roads are constructed all over the world, and not always at the cost of pulling the trees down. Environmentally sensitive planning demands that cutting down trees is a last resort – the thing you do when you have exhausted all other possibilities. That is why the beautiful cities of the world have trees along all their major roads and walkways, even when they are surrounded by tarmac or concrete. The road is built around the tree, and the tree is protected by barriers.

Here, we have the opposite knee-jerk reaction. These trees are in the way – chinja! A gang wielding ugly power-saws is immediately assembled to do the deed. Let’s cut the damn trees down first and think later.

We have an even dumber reason for bringing out the power-saws: beautification! It seems obvious to some that trees are ugly, so the many that lined Uhuru Highway have come down simply to be replaced by landscaped shrubs. Recently we had the fiasco of trees being replaced by coloured pebbles. That project lasted all of two months, and the part of the highway that was subjected to this outrage now looks like a wasteland. Who pays for this nonsense, and why do we condone it?

Our property developers and contractors are hardly any better. As they go about their mission of transforming Nairobi into a city of ugly and malformed apartment blocks, they also have another agenda: let’s kill all the trees. Again, this is a failure both of regulation and of imagination. There are rules about how much green space any developer should leave in a site – but these are being flouted everyday. Visit those ugly parts of Kileleshwa and Kilimani that are now just apartment hells – and look at the number of developments that are wall-to-wall, with barely a ‘compound’ to speak of.

Even those who respect the need for green spaces are being absurd in their approach. Rather than respecting the existing trees and building around them as far as possible, their approach is rather cruder: flatten everything first and plant new things later. Learn from the handful of sensible developers and architects who use their imaginations to keep existing ecosystems and species intact. They are the ones who are providing better living spaces, and are able to charge more for it.

This is not an anti-progress stance. I recognise fully the need to expand Nairobi’s transportation and housing infrastructure. I accept without hesitation that some of our ancient trees will inevitably have to go. This is a rapidly growing city that will need to house many more people and move them around. But what we are doing right now is not intelligent. Trees are not just a sentimental attachment: they are fundamental to ecological survival. As individuals go around bedding their own nests, they are destroying the prospects of future generations.

If you doubt what I say, visit Lagos. This vast and teeming city is memorable for one thing: concrete. With hardly a tree in sight, it is hot and unattractive. Nairobi has always been different, but it soon won’t be. While we all get preoccupied with the political machinations around the Mau Forest, Nairobians are missing the tragedy unfolding under their noses.

Trees are a national asset. They are the lungs of the planet, and bring untold environmental benefits. They provide beauty and shade, they create rain, they support bird life. Without those things, this city will be a lesser place for people of all social classes. A system of rewards and penalties is needed urgently. We cannot allow inept officials and money-crazed developers to destroy what is the heritage of every city-dweller.

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