In the history of public servants, few rival the kind of hate received by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the French urban planner credited with one of the most significant renewals of the city of Paris.
When Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte arrived in Paris from London — where he had lived for 12 years in exile — coming back home to become Emperor Napoléon III, he disliked what the city had become — congested and unkempt.
The emperor, therefore, asked for an urban planner to turn Paris upside down and make it a modern city, like London, where Napoleon III had lived and loved.
No one was more ambitious and up to the task than Haussmann, who ended up catching the emperor’s eye. Upon seeing the his idea of what Paris should look like, Haussmann turned Paris into one of the largest construction sites, a project which started in 1854 and lasted for over a decade and a half, costing a total of 2.5 billion Francs.
By the time Haussmann was done implementing Napoleon III’s plan, there was a hue and cry all over Paris. The huge boulevards — created by flattening over 12,000 buildings — were called elitist. With them came an elaborate sewerage network, water reservoirs, a water supply system, street lights, and other embellishments.
Despite what would be seen as — in retrospect — the building blocks of modern day Paris, Haussmann went down as one of the most despised individuals — accused of extravagance — much as his admirers laud him as a revolutionary urban planner who put together what turned out to be one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Without the initial discomfort of Napoleon III, coupled with his London-inspired ambition, and without the willingness of Haussmann to rise to the occasion, and without the suffering of Parisians at the time, nothing would have happened — possibly for a long time — and Paris wouldn’t be what we know it to be today.
For the last many years, there has been continuous talk about reimagining and transforming Nairobi.
There was the one time idea of designing a metropolis, roping in satellite towns in neighbouring counties which continue housing a lot of Nairobi’s workforce, and connecting them through light rail. That idea presently seems like a faraway pipe dream, seeing how things are going.
A few months ago, President Uhuru Kenyatta constituted the Nairobi Regeneration Committee, an inter-ministerial formation — with representation from the Nairobi County government — meant to give both political and technocratic impetus to the city’s ambition for renewal.
That the committee has the President’s ear, and that in one sitting it has all the heads of all infrastructure-related ministries in one room seemed to suggest that finally, Nairobi had landed on a working formula. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
First came the demolition of select properties erected on riparian land and road reserves. After the flattening of a number of buildings — notably Ukay Centre, Shell Kileleshwa, South End Mall and Taj Mall — the exercise seems to have gone on a complete hiatus.
This unexplained retreat communicates a number of things, including that the policy was never well thought-out, or that there was interference by the high and mighty to stop the exercise, or that the damage the demolitions caused to the economy and the fear inflicted on property developers was getting out of hand.
Whatever the reason for the back-peddling, it doesn’t look good because what are those whose properties went down supposed to feel and think?
Then a few days ago, the Ministry of Transport — whose Cabinet Secretary is an integral member of the Nairobi regeneration team — declared Wednesdays and Saturdays car-free days within the central business district — with a few streets earmarked for the piloting phase of the initiative, partly aimed at creating space for small-scale traders to sell their wares on sidewalks.
Just like the halted demolitions, it didn’t take long before the ministry retracted its proclamations, announcing that traders first needed to be identified biometrically before being allowed to operate, thereby shelving the plan.
It should be common knowledge that ambition is good, but ambition without requisite preparedness — without a plan, to start with — can be dangerous. There is no doubt that the Regeneration Committee and its constituent Cabinet Secretaries have ambition — and possibly good intentions — but it is continuously becoming clear that the team may not have the readiness and gravitas required for the task it is set up for, or that its implementation firepower — as is the case traditionally with most government agencies — is lacking. For now, the Nairobi Regeneration Committee should share with Kenyans whatever their master plan is.