Why the race to the city complicates the math for community planners

Aerial view of the city of Eldoret [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Nakuru, the latest addition to the list of Kenya‘s cities, overtook a host of other communities widely touted as emerging.

There is a possibility that the pursuers have simply become more motivated and are staggering down the home stretch.

And with the revision of Urban Areas and Cities Act #13 of 2011 nearly three years ago, more communities are now qualifying for city status.

Some requirements for elevation of a municipality to a city, including a population of at least 500,000, have been revised in the Urban Areas and Cities (Amendment) Act 2019. The required population in the amended law was 250,000.

Other requirements such as having a five-star hotel, an international airport, a national television station, a national radio station and a consulate were removed. More municipalities qualified.

But are our best communes justified in the race to the city? How many cities can or should we have in the end?

While the Chair of the Town and County Planners Association of Kenya, Mairura Omwenga, says urban area status doesn’t really matter, Nakuru’s story looks like the first of many such stories in Kenya.

It does not matter whether it is a city, a municipality or a city. The stakes lie in political pride and status, he says. “It doesn’t matter in institutions with effective systems of governance, administration and management.”

If county governments were operating as effectively as they should, decentralization would bring much-needed political, economic, and social benefits to the headquarters of the decentralized entities. It doesn’t have to be cities.

But Nelson Bosuben, a civil engineer at Bosko Engineering Consultants, says communities would want to become cities to share in the benefits that come with elevated status.

“A lot of municipalities will want to be cities because the national government’s budget is larger for cities,” he says. “The city status will also attract a lot of investment and jobs, as well as higher revenues for the administrative units. Also, higher interest rates mean more income.”

The 2011 amendment to Law No. 13 on Urban Areas and Cities, he says, helped municipalities that couldn’t possibly meet the collection threshold. Admittedly, the previous requirements were so high that few if any of today’s municipalities could keep up with them.

In the 2019 Gross County Product (GCP) report, the average per county contribution to gross value added (GVA) over the period 2013-2017 was about 2.1 percent, with Nairobi taking the lead. The capital contributed around 21.7 percent to gross domestic product (GDP) in the reporting period.

It was followed by Nakuru (6.1 percent), Kiambu (5.5 percent) and Mombasa (4.7 percent). Kisumu contributed 2.9 percent. GVA is an economic productivity metric that measures the contribution of a corporate subsidiary, business, or community to an economy.

Nakuru was also ranked first in terms of greater potential for improved production in agriculture and fourth in terms of potential for services.

Nakuru has performed well on a number of economic metrics, ranking shoulder to shoulder with the other three cities of Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.

While lagging behind in some aspects here and there, the communities of Eldoret and Kakamega have been touted as possible contenders for city status in the future. Nyeri was also thrown into the conversation. Meru also had his advocates.

In the city, workers’ wages must increase. Local government will earn more from property taxes. But there is a problem that is likely to always arise after the survey.

“If you drive a few kilometers out of the city’s central business district (Nakuru), you’re practically outside of the community. If these boundaries are adopted as city boundaries, many people from the peri-urban areas will be prevented from accessing the services that the city authorities will provide,” says Bosuben.

This is all the more true as many people who are now coming to the city to work are trying to buy land outside of the city and outside of the old community where land is cheap.

Such areas develop into satellite towns. “As you expand the reach of the city to serve the people in the larger environment through which you are creating a metropolitan area, you find that the amenities you have are stretched,” he says.

This requires good planning, he says.

According to Bosuben, an expansion of the borders is necessary because the abseiling in the satellite towns around the city will develop them according to plan. You are able to have amenities: maintained roads, water, electricity and waste disposal.

Considering all the effort, it’s better and easier to keep communities and make sure they provide good services than to encourage many of them into cities and burden the facilities.

Additionally, as more municipalities earn the prestigious promotion, government budget allocations will increase — an expense that may not be among the state’s current priorities.

Admittedly, the allocation to the districts has had some problems, with endless haggling between the Senate and National Assembly over increasing the amounts paid out.

But the journey for municipalities to become cities will not be over; The potential for cities to grow and generate tremendous revenue cannot be overstated.

Thika-headquartered Lesedi Developers says areas such as Thika city outskirts, Juja and Nakuru remain in high demand as these are fast-growing areas and people need houses.

“We’re also seeing increased demand for office space in certain cities where office jobs are growing the fastest. For example, this is a good opportunity to invest in Nakuru City. Real estate will outperform by the end of 2022 for three reasons – scarcity, utility and demand,” the company said in a report.

This could be the scenario for municipalities that want to become cities. If they really shy away from their dream or fail to achieve city status, the county government should continue to prosper. The call for promotion will be unnecessary. “What is important is that district governments ensure that service delivery is good, that taxes or levies or resources are well used, and that citizens are effectively involved in decision-making,” says Omwenga.

Decentralization, he says, gives county capitals adequate political and socio-economic impetus for growth and development. “There is an appropriate constitutional and legal framework. However, the challenge is insufficient political will and support for policies and plans at national and district levels, as well as insufficient resource and financial allocation,” says Omwenga.

“All county capitals should have an appropriate budget allocation, a city or township board, a manager, and key technical departments and officials — treasurer, town planner, engineer, architect, and surveyor. Unfortunately, that is missing in many districts, that is missing.”

“The city and local councils should be fully established and left to the administration of the district capital and not micro-managed by the central district government,” he explains. However, it won’t come as a shock to see new names for possible promotion to cities.

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