On paper, green infrastructure refers to anything from parks to arboretums to backyards to green roofs. In fast growing cities such as Nairobi, these two words don't go together often, but when they do, the results are breathtaking.
The ideal design of a perfect neighbourhood is one that encompasses well-thought-out residential areas, commercial sections, public utilities such as schools and dispensaries, and green open spaces such as gardens, parks, arboretums and grassy kids play areas.
Many property developers, driven by profit, have shunned architectural designs that include green spaces and trees in their housing plans to squeeze more houses into the available space.
The result, experts say, is mushrooming of estates that are increasingly becoming concrete jungles and constantly making residents sick. For instance, a research to establish the relationship between green spaces, urbanity and health, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2006, found that people who live close to green spaces have lower rates of depression and anxiety and better physical health than those who live in more urban settings.
The journal reported that incidence of anxiety was 50 per cent lower while depression cases were found to be 25 per cent lower for people living in areas with 90 per cent green space within two miles of their homes, compared to those living in areas with 10 per cent or less green space.
But perhaps a survey conducted by Harvard University in 2016 is even more telling. According to the report, residents who had any kind of green space within 200 meters of their homes had a 12 per cent lower rate of mortality than those living in areas without greenery. This is because natural environments decreased the rate of cardiovascular, neurological, respiratory and digestive diseases, mental illness, and musculoskeletal disorders. Gardens and green open spaces also encourage more physical activity. But even viewing nature scenes reduces blood pressure, respiration rate, brain activity, and the production of stress hormones within three to four minutes while improving one's mood.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of having vegetation within your surrounding has got to be its ability to clean up and improve the air quality. Noting that a mature tree can absorb up to 150kg of carbon dioxide per year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says trees play an important role in climate change mitigation, especially in cities with high levels of pollution to improve air quality, thus making the environment healthier to live in. Green infrastructure also improves the biodiversity of a particular area, attracting various species of birds, insects and animals, most of which have an important function to play in the ecosystem.
No one understands this better than Mr John Kabuye, an architect and vice chairperson of Kenya Green Building Society, an organisation that champions the adoption of green building techniques and green infrastructure.
He says: "With biodiversity, especially when you have trees you get various species of animals, birds and insects habiting a particular area. Those species do have some ecological functions to perform. For example, bees help with pollination and production of honey, so when we destroy their habitat, they disappear from the environment and do so along with their ecological function."
The repercussion of this, he adds, is that the production of honey will be hampered and that particular community might have to dig deeper into its pockets to buy honey or do without the commodity, which has been proven to be essential for good health. Additionally, urban parks and gardens play a critical role in cooling cities. As a matter of fact, research shows strategically planted trees have the capacity to cool the air by two to eight degrees Celsius, thus reducing the urban "heat island" effect, and helping urban communities adapt to the effects of climate change.
For long, consistent flooding witnessed every time it rains in Nairobi has been blamed on construction of houses on waterways and precipitation areas. Mr Kabuye agrees, saying that having green space is the surest way for the city to put the flooding menace behind it. But green open spaces, despite their benefits, are a luxury most residents of Nairobi cannot afford, especially those who live in the Eastlands estates. Environmentalists put it down to developers' sheer greed and poor urban planning.
"It is an urban planning problem because this is something that is supposed to be controlled at the development control stage by the city council," says Mr John Kabuye.
Apparently, the trend towards high-density properties that give little attention to green open spaces has opened a can of opportunities for developers keen to cash in on the opportunity by providing the much-needed space to breathe. Just this year, two property developers and a land-selling company have launched master plans whose selling point is largely the green spaces.
"Right on the edge of Nyari, Gigiri and Kitisuru, Enaki is an exquisite new addition to its idyllic suburban surroundings. The vision for this holistic 22-acre resort development is a fusion of nature-inspired design and contemporary lifestyle to create a world that captivates mind, body and soul," reads a statement on the website of real estate firm Hass Consult, introducing their newest project, Enaki Residential Resort Town.
Said to have been designed by award-winning architects, the company says about the botanical garden: "Five Senses is a sensorial botanical garden with an effusion of experiences where design meanders through nature. On one end (the garden) links to the vibrant Town Square on the other through the residences, all these carefully curating your journey from first light to sunset in the epitome of truly connected living."
Set on a 6.3-acre piece of land, the garden will come with a walking trail, cycle path, expansive man-made lake with an over-water restaurant, children's nature park, fitness circuit, events garden, outdoor amphitheatre, spa, wood pods and intimate retreats.
For this comfort, buyers will part with at least Sh11 million for a one-bedroom house, depending on where it is located within the complex and interestingly, its level on the building. A look at the pricing schedule on the company's website reveals that prices for these houses will go up as you climb up the stairs, with houses on the upper floors fetching a slightly higher price than those below them. The cheapest house will be on the ground floor.
Mid Last month, yet another real estate firm, Tilisi Developments Plc, broke ground for the construction of Tilisi Mega City's first housing project, said to be a break-away from the trend towards high-density properties. According to the developer, the 186 units will offer home-owners spacious green gardens on half of each plot, tree-lined streets, extra play areas in every hub of 15 to 30 villas and additional acres of communal recreational space.
"We have seen developers moving inexorably towards higher density developments as a way of supposedly lifting revenues, with even detached villas offering little more than a parking space for new owners," Kavit Shah, CEO of Tilisi Developments Plc, the developer of Tilisi Mega City, told DN2.
The houses sit on one-eighth, quarter, and half-acre plots. Located on Waiyaki Way, about 10 minutes from the intersection with Nairobi's Southern Bypass, the new residential estate, according to the master plan, will be surrounded by trees along the roads and will include nine play areas, one for each cluster of 15 to 30 villas, as well as two acres for a communal clubhouse, a recreation space and jogging tracks.
"Our goal with the project is to meet the needs of Kenyan home owners by offering a serene beautiful environment," says Mr Shah.
The prices of the villas will range from Sh19 million for three bedrooms to Sh60 million for five bedrooms. And land-selling companies have also not been left behind. For a long time, serviced plots that come with ready title deeds have been the competing edge for most real estate firms dealing in land.
However, it appears that some have opted to take the game a notch higher by introducing not just serviced plots, but pieces of land subdivided into an almost self-contained housing master plan.
Amani Ridge by Optiven Real Estate, for instance, comes with an array of additional features ranging from a club house to a community centre, central park, shopping mall to a public amenities section reserved for a pre-school and a police station. A piece of land in this complex located about 20 kilometres from Nairobi on Thika Road, described by the company as "a unique and extremely posh, leafy place for you" will set you back at least Sh5.35 million, depending on size and location. A factor to notice about these projects is that they are located far from Nairobi's CBD, with real estate insiders explaining those are the only places one can find substantial land to carry out such projects. Also, these projects do not come cheap and would be considered out of reach for the low-income earners.
However, that there are developers willing to come up with such projects that pay attention to green infrastructure and buyers who are willing to pay the price, Mr Kalungi observes, is a step in the right direction.
The way to proper urban housing, he observes, is through zoning, but certain things must happen first.
"We need to strengthen the capacity of the development control office so that staff have a grasp of the issues," he says.
"But we also need strong citizen engagement. This is where citizens, through their associations notice an ongoing violation of the zoning regulation and report it immediately to the authorities for action."