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Sustainability of High-Rise Tenements in Nairobi

In recent years Nairobi has seen the massive growth of mammoth high-rise developments in the name of apartments. They have attracted some research by Marie Hzermeyer and Baraka Mwau among others. They come up in many shades - but typically they are dense and feature small rooms. From one perspective they are viewed as the answer to the housing shortage and alternative to slums. On the other hand they are seen as accidents waiting to happen. Many of them have poor infrastructure and are poorly designed. Their social impact is least studied.

Looking at the rapid growth of Nairobi's mammoth high-rise apartments, one can search for experiences elsewhere. Will they survive as the manhattans of tomorrow or the discredited postwar federal public-housing in USA? What comes to mind here is the story of St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project.   St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project is arguably the most infamous public housing project ever built in the United States. A product of the postwar federal public-housing program, this mammoth high-rise development was completed in 1956.

Only a few years later, disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe. The project's recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe.

In 1972, after spending more than $5 million in vain to cure the problems at Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis Housing Authority, in a highly publicized event, demolished three of the high-rise buildings. A year later, in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it declared Pruitt-Igoe unsalvageable and razed the remaining buildings. Its 33 buildings were demolished with explosives in the mid-1970s, and the project has become an icon of urban renewal and public-policy planning failure.

Pruitt-Igoe has lived on symbolically as an icon of failure. Liberals perceive it as exemplifying the government's appalling treatment of the poor. Architectural critics cite it as proof of the failure of high-rise public housing for families with children. One critic even asserted that its destruction signaled the end of the modern style of architecture.

The growth of informal settlement in Nairobi was initiated by the flourishing intra-regional trading networks between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Global concerns and a call to slum free cities in the 1970’s prompted the Kenyan government to devise ways to respond to slums. Over the years, the government of Kenya has experimented with different settlement development policies and strategies, ranging from forced eviction, resettlement, site and services schemes and upgrading-

The massive silhouettes represent a sign of hope and better livelihoods for the residents of Nairobi. They provide modern living environment with 2 to 3 rooms compared to the single shack majority of the dwellers previously resided. However, there lurks the real challenge of maintenance of these units by the concerned stake holders. Poor maintenance or lack thereof of projects is a common occurrence in Kenya witnessed through the degrading infrastructure in the city. Therefore prompting the question; will the Kenyan government put in place a maintenance framework or will these housing projects end up like Pruitt-Igoe?

In order to ensure sustainability in high-rise buildings in Nairobi, there should be proper and thorough assessment of a building functionally and structurally. Arch. Charles Karisa (University of Nairobi) recommends that to guarantee functional sustainability of these developments, they should be located in the recommended zones. These zones are established through a land suitability analysis by undertaking a geo-technical study of the site. He insists that safety factors should also be put in to consideration which include climate, wind loading, fire and earthquake safety.

Structurally, developments should respond to the environmental conditions and developers should ensure that walls, roofs, reinforcements and all construction materials are sound and approved for the particular type of building. Post occupancy control should be undertaken frequently so as to monitor the building’s conditions. A proper regulatory framework is required to intervene from the time the development is conceived from the building/soundness of construction to make sure that the developers stick to the recommended standards.

Sharon, CURI

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