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Balancing Development and Preservation in an Urban National Park

Christopher Lewis (SIPA '16)
Christopher Lewis (SIPA ’16)

In the Science of Urban Ecology taught by Amy Karpati, one of the courses offered by the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program, students acquire an understanding of the ecology of human-dominated landscapes and the application of ecological principles to building sustainable urban communities.

The video featured in this post is from an interview that was part of Chris Lewis’ final project for the course. As a student in SIPA’s MPA in Development Practice program, Lewis enrolled in this sustainability management course to develop a better understanding of the interactions between urbanization and biodiversity and ecosystem function. The Science of Urban Ecology course is available to cross-registrants from across the Earth Institute’s graduate programs.

Lewis interviewed Glen Hyman, an expert in the complex relationships between nature and cities, and follows up on an article Hyman wrote for The Nature of Cities in 2013 entitled “Reimagining Nairobi National Park.” Hyman explains the importance of Nairobi National Park—the only wildlife park in the world within a city’s administrative boundaries—and he examines new developments since the original article was written. Some excerpts from the interview:

On Nairobi National Park’s urban boundaries, and how those boundaries have come under significant pressure within the last couple of years:

When [the park] was originally created in 1946, it was by no means an urban national park, because in Nairobi in 1946, the population was almost nothing. Hundreds of thousands, not the four or five million that you have today. And the park boundaries have proved to be one of the most effective barriers to hem in Nairobi’s sprawl. As Nairobi has grown, it’s grown against and around the park boundaries, but up until the past two years, really, it hasn’t severely encroached within them. But as Nairobi has really outgrown the space that it has available, the land that Nairobi National Park occupies is increasingly coveted.

Nairobi has some of the most horrible traffic in the world, and a big part of this is because of truck traffic. So they wanted to create a bypass to let trucks that were going from Mombasa to other parts of Kenya and to Uganda to skirt around the city rather than going through the city. This meant creating a highway. They had left a road reserve along the park’s boundary—which has subsequently been encroached by people—and what they wanted to do was try to sneak the southern bypass through, as part of Kenya’s development plan Kenya 2030. In doing so, they were almost able to sneak the road just along the outside boundary of the park. Where they weren’t able to was where the Wilson Airport is too close to the park’s boundary.

Expansion of Langata Road – NNP on the left, March 2012. Photo: Glen Hyman
Expansion of Langata Road – NNP on the left, March 2012. Photo: Glen Hyman

So they wanted to make a small incursion into the national park, taking a little bit of the land—which was quite degraded anyway—and use it for highway purposes. The idea was that by doing so they would be taking this degraded land and they would somehow compensate the national park by granting them additional land or funds to purchase additional land in places which were not yet under protection in the southern boundary.

What the conservation community was concerned about was that by allowing such incursions, it would set precedents that would then make all national park boundaries in Kenya, and in particular the boundaries of Nairobi National Park, no longer inviolable. And it would be possible for various agencies who covet the land for different purposes to take progressive bites out of this apple. And that’s exactly what has happened.

And so what has happened in the past two years since I wrote that article is that the southern bypass was approved and is being constructed. They undertook a study to identify areas which they could acquire, but they were under great pressure to do it very quickly. Road contracts had been signed and the highway had been built from both sides right up against the places where it was needed to enter the national park. And there was huge pressure from the central government to make a deal. And so the Kenya Wildlife Service really had very little choice other than to make a very quick deal.

On the important role that Nairobi National Park plays within its greater ecosystem, and how land development is negatively impacting that role:

The ecological benefit of Nairobi National Park isn’t directly on Nairobi city, or at least its largest effects aren’t north-facing. Its largest effects are south-facing, where you have very fast-growing municipalities. The fastest growing in Kenya are in Kajiado County, which is the county which borders Nairobi National Park to the south. And this is land which has traditionally been used by Maasai pastoralists for raising cattle and part of group ranches which have subsequently begun to be sold off as individual parcels.

There’s a lot of land speculation because people imagine that Nairobi’s going to continue to grow, so people imagine property values are only going to continue to go up, and until now that’s proven to be the case. And so there’s a lot of pressure to acquire and subdivide and fence off portions of land, making a de facto fence, irrespective of whether the Kenya Wildlife Service builds one along the southern boundary. Land owners on the southern side of the park, by building their own fences, are cutting off the 2,000 square kilometer ecosystem from the 117 square kilometers of Nairobi National Park.

Housing built just beyond the NNP fence; Southern Bypass is to be built along the dirt strip that still separates them. In the foreground is Michael Wanjau, then-Senior Warden for NNP. Photo: Glen Hyman
Housing built just beyond the NNP fence; Southern Bypass is to be built along the dirt strip that still separates them. In the foreground is Michael Wanjau, then-Senior Warden for NNP. Photo: Glen Hyman

That has a lot of complicated consequences. You might think that 117 square kilometers on 2,000 isn’t all that much, so maybe it’s not that big a deal. Except that the particular area where Nairobi National Park is located is liminal area, it’s where you start moving from hills to savannah. You also have the Maasai pastoralists who have been able to peacefully coexist with wildlife because there is land enough around that they were able to move their livestock away from migration corridors at times when hazardous wildlife were passing through. And now that this land is subdividing, there’s less and less available for the wildlife to migrate, but also less land available for the Maasai to maneuver around. And what this is doing is when one’s cattle are eaten, one gets very upset and takes revenge on wildlife.

If protected areas are meant to be forever, they need to adapt. And that means having broader landscape level conversations about the role of a protected area in the ecosystem and its role in preserving ecosystem function. Because if you end up with a fenced off protected area that’s a zoo, then that’s an expensive thing to manage and it’s not particularly useful. I mean it’s useful for the wildlife that happen to be trapped in it, until they inbreed to the point of jeopardizing their own health. It becomes much more expensive with much less meaningful conservation value.

Now there are other things: Even the land which is protected is being consumed. This is already happening. Similarly, the larger ecosystem which allows wildlife to come in and out of the park, that larger ecosystem is being changed. It has already been drastically transformed, such that while the wildlife migration patterns which existed 10 years ago—let alone 50 years ago—do not exist in the way that they used to. They’ve fragilized if not to the point of being broken. Can they be recovered? Perhaps. Are there still vestiges which are viable? Absolutely. But one shouldn’t imagine that it is the protected area since ’46 that has done it, and that the question is to look forward. I mean looking backwards, it’s already in many ways deteriorated. But this doesn’t change at all the importance of the place, not only for the ecosystem to the south but also for the citizens of Nairobi, many of whom never get out of the city of Nairobi.

On the value of the park as a venue for Nairobi’s residents to experience nature and raise awareness about conservation:

This is their only chance to encounter nature; their only chance to learn to love nature. And as Kenya is transforming, having constituencies that love nature and that value nature is of primordial importance. Otherwise there’s no political pressure at all for conservation in other places. Other benefits are invisible to people who never love nature. Every school child in Nairobi goes to Nairobi National Park. The Kenya Wildlife Service [provides] buses … and they come and they visit the park and they become enamored with nature. That’s meaningful. And the opportunity to provide that is of huge importance—not only for the people of Nairobi, but for the people of Kenya and for the protection of all the protected areas. So Nairobi National Park must be saved, for these reasons.

On the conservation community’s reaction to his article in 2013:

I took a lot of flak from the conservation community when my article was written because they were not pleased that somebody should write that reimagining the park boundaries was healthy. I felt they were maybe being a bit narrow about it. Because it’s true that the boundaries weren’t sacred in and of themselves; the function of the ecosystem was the real prize. And favoring the ecosystem function, and using the fact that this land is so coveted for leverage to ensure the functioning of the ecosystem, rather than ensuring the integrity of the preexisting boundaries, was more helpful for ecosystem function, seemed like a net gain. In retrospect it seems like only half of the argument was taken to heart: It’s OK to enter into the national park without considering the broader ecosystem. I’m not terribly pleased with how things worked out.

On how the argument for protecting Nairobi National Park might be heard:

Look, the development pressures are real, and the needs of people are real. The arguments for the economic benefits of conservation and the arguments for the cultural benefits of conservation, they can only be heard by people who are receptive to them. And they can only be made by people who have the time to make them. And though both of those things—the capacity to make the arguments and the willingness to hear the arguments—it’s not obvious that those will always be in large supply. And so the existence of a national park like Nairobi National Park nurtures the capacity of people to be willing to hear the arguments, but nurturing that takes away from the available time for making the arguments. So it’s tough. I mean it’s tough everywhere. It’s a wicked problem, as it were.

Chris Lewis graduated from Columbia University in 2016 with an MPA in Development Practice from the School of International and Public Affairs. He is interested in pragmatic and innovative approaches to solving urban governance, growth and sustainability problems in East Africa. He lives with his wife in Nairobi, Kenya.

Glen Hyman is a deputy chair of the Urban Specialist Group of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, which provides informal technical and policy advice on the interdependence of urban people and their natural environments. Hyman’s academic research is similarly focused on the governance of relationships between nature and cities. He is currently concluding doctoral work at Sciences Po with the Center for the Sociology of Organizations CSO. His thesis is a comparative study of the consequences of introducing UNESCO Biosphere Reserves near urban areas in Australia, Canada and South Africa.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.


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