The Sorry Saga of City Park

Just the other evening I was listening to this programme on the BBC World Service where there was a discussion about what should be the basic minimum standards when architects are designing our living spaces.

‘Everyone should be able to see something of the sky,’ one panellist said. ‘And at least one tree.’

Well, though I hardly needed it, this was another reminder of how fortunate I am to be living in a district like Lavington, where the only things that obscure the sky are the surrounding trees. (Do expats working for donor agencies still get ‘discomfort’ allowances for being posted to such suburbs of Nairobi?)

And then on Saturday morning I went along to a World Environment Day tree planting ceremony at City Park. Earlier in May I had been reading articles in the Nation warning that City Park is yet again at risk – the place that is one of Nairobi’s most precious green spaces, that in 1932 was designated by the Government as a public park, and that in 1997 was gazetted as a National Monument by the National Museums of Kenya.

Since 2005 there has been growing concern that a portion of the park has been allocated to a private developer – for which there is the proof of a lease agreement issued by the Nairobi City Council. It seemed that even the graves of the former Vice-President Joseph Murumbi and his wife, were threatened – graves that, once vandalised, have only recently been protected and surrounded by a garden of sculptures.

After much lobbying by the Murumbi Trust and the Friends of City Park, City Hall gave a public assurance that that the approved sub-divisions of the park had been revoked. But in mid-April there was the felling of trees, clearing of the ground and the moving in of construction materials. Incredibly, it seemed that the long saga wasn’t yet over….

Maybe the younger generations of Kenyans don’t know much about City Park – except for those who live nearby in Parklands. (Opposite the Aga Khan hospital and adjacent to the City market, it lies between the Limuru and the Forest Roads.) But there must be many older Kenyans who know the park well and have fond memories of family outings there – taking walks among the trees, picnicking in the glades, listening to music from the bandstand, or buying plants from the nursery that was once the main source for the greening of the city.

City Park is still a place of landscaped gardens adjoining a remnant of indigenous forest. It is a place where monkeys frolic along the pathways – and where, no doubt, small antelopes hide in the thickets. A place where hornbills call from the high trees and butterflies flutter among the flowering shrubs. A place where you can play games or take your rest. And all this is just a few minutes away from the frenetic city centre.

City Park is a precious asset. But it is in a very sorry state.

Last Saturday I took another look – and another beer – at the centrepiece, Bowling Green Restaurant. Yes, you can still see where the two stepped bowling greens have been. But I guess the lawns are now beyond repair. The covered seating areas that surround the old greens are dilapidated; the thatched rondavels and the wrought iron pergolas have completely gone. It is just a shoddy and tasteless nyama choma joint – though in a magical setting, surrounded by majestic trees.

However, there are reasons for hope. The Friends of City Park – a project of the East Africa Natural History Society and headed up by young and energetic Kenyans – has been actively defending the park for a number of years. In relation to conservation, it has taken up the issue of encroachment; in relation to improvements, it is developing a master plan for the park.

The Friends have successfully promoted a memorandum of understanding on the management of City Park between the Nairobi City Council, the National Museums of Kenya and the East African Natural History Society. Certainly, the park needs a more coherent, committed and imaginative management. Certainly, it needs a master plan, so that the park can once more become a valued place for relaxation and recreation.

And if you would like to play a part in ensuring that Nairobians enjoy more of the trees and the sky, then join the Friends of City Park by contacting Catherine Ngarachu on 0725-368254 or via cityparkfriends@naturekenya.org

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation