Luthuli Avenue before redevelopment. Photo: Mark Ojal / @kuyokuyo1.

Even in teeming Nairobi, Luthuli Avenue was considered a notorious traffic “blackspot,” earning a reputation as one of the most congested thoroughfares in the city. A major road near the city’s central business district, and a hub for technology shops, Luthuli Avenue was heavily polluted, incessantly noisy, and incredibly dangerous – with pedestrians walking among the chaotic stream of vehicles, cyclists and delivery carts.

This year, Nairobi reinvented Luthuli Avenue as a city showcase. A key stretch of the road gives cyclists a dedicated lane. Pedestrians now meander along wide walkways, lined with benches and newly planted trees. With the noise and fumes reduced, walkers have reason to linger, and businesses have seen an increase in footfall.

The project that underpinned the reinvention of a single street in Nairobi also has the potential to expand the traditional urban planning toolkit  – to incorporate art, poetry, storytelling, photography, 3D models, and mapping – and to bring more people into the process.

Implementing Creative Methodological Innovations for Inclusive Sustainable Transport Planning (i-CMiiST) – a project led by SEI and funded by the British Academy – seeks to spur creative collaborations between artists, policymakers, planners, NGOs, the private sector, and urban development specialists. The aim is to explore the potential benefits of using more creative methods to co-design urban infrastructure to address some of the ills of urban life.

This approach played a significant role in setting the stage for the May 2019 Luthuli Avenue re-development, a “legacy project” for the First UN-HABITAT Assembly,  “Innovation for Better Quality of Life in Cities and Communities”, held in Nairobi that month. The redevelopment took place through a three-way partnership, with funding from the Nairobi City County government and the World Bank, and implementation of the re-design from UN-HABITAT.

Luthuli Avenue after redevelopment. Photo: Mark Ojal / @kuyokuyo1.

The issues that surfaced along Luthuli Avenue involve far more than aesthetics. Urban congestion and mobility issues play a key role in agendas that seek to address climate change, and to promote sustainable development and human health and well-being.

The world is in the midst of a global road safety crisis. An estimated 1.25 million to 1.5 million people are killed on the world’s roads every year, and between 20 million and 50 million people are seriously injured (World Bank, 2014). Traffic accidents are so epidemic that deaths from road transportation now exceed those from HIV, tuberculosis, or malaria. Injuries and pollution from vehicles contribute to six of the top 10 causes of deaths globally (Bhalla et al., 2015). Road injuries are the number-one killer of young people ages 15 to 29 years.

These problems are especially pronounced in – but not exclusive to – cities, where a growing portion of the world’s population in developing countries now live. Urban areas in developing countries have high volumes of traffic, a lack of infrastructure for walking and cycling, and fast-growing populations, the result of mass rural-to-urban migration.

To deal with these issues, urban planning needs new approaches, particularly if governments are to deliver on promises to improve human health, reduce climate change impacts, provide resilient infrastructure, and enable wider participation – as signalled by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement.

“Creative methods are a set of tools we can use as we are consulting with both National and City Governments and other stakeholders” Carly Koinange, who leads the UN Environment’s Share the Road Programme.

A three-dimensional model of Luthuli Avenue’s redevelopment plans. Photo: Mark Ojal / @kuyokuyo1.

The i-CMiiST project work in Nairobi included a number of events designed to engage people and their creativity. In October 2018, Luthuli Avenue was closed to traffic for a week to hold a “Placemaking event” in conjunction with the Nairobi County Council. The street was opened up for walking and cycling. Colourful road markings set out different zones for seating and planting areas. Bicycle stands were provided, and road users invited to contribute to discussions.

On another occasion, commuters, businesses, residents and public service vehicle owners interacted with a detailed, scale-model of Luthuli Avenue, complete with shop signage created by a design team. People were asked to contribute their own visions for how the street might be re-designed using models, paper, character figures, and even toy cars. More than 500 people participated in a charrette (public meeting) using the model.

An urban design competition held in conjunction with the Architectural Association of Kenya, attracted designs from around 50 interdisciplinary teams of creatives and planners. The teams responded to the set challenge: to propose novel solutions about how the street could be improved to make it safer, cleaner, more amenable for pedestrians and cyclists, and better for shop owners and street vendors.

In 2018, a section of Luthuli Avenue closed to traffic during its “Placemaking Week” to demonstrate how the street could be developed to make it safer and more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: Howard Cambridge / SEI.

The Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority also served as a key supporter, by taking an active interest in stakeholder engagement activities, including holding a series of Urban Dialogues. The authority also took part in the research and evaluation carried out by the SEI project team.

“Use of creative methods for communication to decision-makers and stakeholders (shows) how best to use road space” said John Mwangi of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (NaMATA). “ We can to come up with creative ways of engaging…so we can work together to change the system.”

Time-lapse footage of Luthuli Avenue showing pedestrian and vehicle flows over the course of a day during “Placemaking Week” (above) and on a  day prior to the redevelopment (below). Video: Mark Ojal and Howard Cambridge, i-CMiiST Videos / YouTube.

Results from the i-CMiiST project are having an impact beyond Luthuli Avenue itself. Crucially, Luthuli Avenue itself became part of a wider plan to improve traffic flow in the area, and to establish designated waiting areas for matatus, the mini-buses used for public transportation. Plans are underway to use similar designs on three other streets in Nairobi. A street in Kampala, Uganda, that was the subject of another i-CMiiST case study, has also undergone redevelopment to improve safety for walking and cycling.

In a broader respect, the work demonstrates that it is possible to shape planners’ beliefs in the benefits of using creative public engagement approaches to address urban mobility issues. Feedback indicated that planners saw real value in ensuring that their interventions fit the needs and desires of residents, and that creative approaches engaged people more constructively than had been the case in previous approaches.

“Creative approaches can be used for getting feedback of people, and for putting that into the design of the infrastructure,” said Moses Kuiyaki, Nairobi City County government engineer.

Re-thinking how we design streetscapes can provide safer and cleaner streets for everyone. Photo: Howard Cambridge / SEI.