Rethinking Emali: Designing the Kenyan Town Square

Edith Honan interviews Jeremy Moses. 

How the plan for a bus park could transform a town on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway

Can a growing Kenyan town be transformed by great urban design? That’s the question that Jeremy Moses and Kwekwe Kivutha took on when they began work on designing a new bus terminal and city market in Emali – a town along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. Moses and Kivutha, a design team and married couple who live in Nairobi, have family roots in Emali and they saw the project as a great testing ground for their ideas about the importance of beautiful, communal spaces and the power of great design. Edith Honan sat down with Moses to learn more about the project.

Thanks for doing this Jeremy. Tell us a little bit about yourself: who are you, how did you come to Kenya? How did you end up in Emali? 

I was born in Canada; my parents are from Trinidad. My wife Kwekwe is Kenyan. We were living in Canada, and after we had our kid, we decided to move to Kenya. And pretty soon, we started to work on a project, a small hotel, for Kwekwe’s parents that was in Emali. We were there for close to a year, this was in YR?. So we knew everyone, we knew the town, we just fell in love with the place. And we’ve always been, like, pushing for it.

So how did you get the job?

So, everything was extremely informal. Earlier this year, maybe March, the county came to us and said we need a plan for rebuilding the Emali bus park and the main market, which is now basically just a big field with no infrastructure. And they said, can we have it in a week? It was crazy. We wanted to make the case that, rather than just give it to your country engineers and do some generic thing that’s going to look like shit, you could do something better. And we have a network of other like-minded people — friends, designers and architects — in the same kind of think space in terms of public importance of good public design on the influence of community. And so we just like talked to friends and we were like yeah there’s an opportunity so let’s get together and do something. Anyway, the county sent their technicians and their engineers down to Nairobi and we worked out of an office here and we banged out some designs in a week.

When you saw that space, what potential did you see there?

Well, we’ve all travelled to towns and cities in Kenya where there’s no place that really stands out as, “Man, this is a cool space. This is a place I just want to hang out over and over again.” You know, places to sit. Places where you can relax and hang out for a while. Right? And so, in Emali, it just struck me as this is like a massive piece of land in the heart of town, and there’s not a single place to sit. So, our thinking was, how can a town be transformed by better urban design? Good, urban design is so often an afterthought. After a town gets big, it’s like, “Oops we forgot about people, oops we forgot about pipes, oops we forgot about trees, we forgot that people need to have spaces to talk and meet.” Where the cars are going to park, it’s an afterthought. And there are countless case studies on the cause of the failures of Nairobi’s planning history. So for me it was like okay, we have this small town that’s growing very quick because of its proximity to both Nairobi and Mombasa, there’s an opportunity to build something cool for this community.

I know that you’re really attached to Emali, and it’s the kind of town that most people just drive by on the way to Mombasa, without really thinking much about it. What is it about the town that attracts you?

As I said, I came to know Emali through my wife, Kwekwe. We were new in Kenya, or I was, and like I didn’t really know what to expect, right? Nairobi can be a bit unwelcoming. Not in terms of the people, but it’s not the friendliest of environments, right? I mean, always loved town, the CBD, but we were rarely in town town. If you want to physically meet some friends, you really have to plan well because everyone is busy, everyone is hustling. And so, when we went to Emali and it was instantly refreshing. Like, you can walk at night and have a drink outside. And you actually would know people and people would know you. Of course Emali is much smaller than Nairobi. But there’s this inner street in Emali with, like, five or six restaurants in a row. So I walk this, I just like, this is like when I’m walking down like the streets of Paris or Bucharest or Sao Paolo where you still have all these cafes lined up because what happens is the restaurants are full, the seats are full. You have your guy in a bike who’s like whoa hey what’s going on so he stops his bike he talks to the guy who’s like having his coffee. And you just see all these social interactions happening and it’s just so condensed. And it’s very inviting. So for someone like me who I like, I crave that, right? And I miss it and it’s hard to find that in Nairobi. I walk there and I see it happening on a until, like 3, 4 in the morning on a weekend. This is like, this is impressive.

What does good public design mean in a place like Emali?

That’s a good question. I would say it’s design that caters to your community. So, in a space like Emali, where a massive majority of the population travels by foot, it’s design that thinks about pedestrians. And, because Emali is also a major stop for lorries, you need design that caters to the highway traffic – the trucking industry, and also guys in the Mukokotenis, the guys who pull the carts. And one thing you see in Emali town is that it doesn’t do that at all. And I think it’s just out of simple neglect. I’m pretty positive the town has never had any official public planning. There was never any money directed into, let’s put a sidewalk here, let’s put a park here, what about the kids? They just never were consciously thought of all that. You don’t even have to get picky, like it has to look pretty and it has to have a utopic feel. Not at all. Good public design can look like shit. But does it serve the people? From the guy who’s homeless to the guy who owns all of the shops, good public design serves everyone.

Okay, so what were the design elements? You want places where people can sit?

I want places that are inclusive. First, you have to convince people to come. To want to be there. So, if you talk to a family (because there are a lot of families who live in Emali), and they tell you there’s nothing to do with their kids there, and so they go to neighboring towns. And so, an inclusive place for families just means, have a playground or even just a field where kids can play ball. Something that invites kids. Once your kids feel comfortable, generally speaking, the parents are going to feel comfortable. What does inclusive mean for single guys? It probably just means some place where they can grab a soda and have a place to sit, so they can catch up on whatever is going on in their lives. Because it’s a bus park, you need a place where the bus can stop and the driver can get off the highway. It means buses have a place where they can park and not get into an accident, where passengers can comfortably get out in a nice and safe environment to pee or have a drink or whatever. You’re not going to be able to serve all groups. You aren’t going to get a home run. But let’s see if we can do better.

So did they, they had a bus park previously or they realized that they needed one?

The space is used as a bus park, but it’s an open field with an entry point off the road and then an exit point off the other end to a different road. They had a swing gate to let cars in and out. Otherwise, there is no infrastructure. And the coach buses don’t come into the bus stage, they stay on the highway.

Let’s talk about the design itself. What did you come up with?

So the entire site is very big. Though this first phase was only designing about a third of the space. Their immediate needs was to design a bus park and a market area, so that’s what we’re doing first. And it was also important that this served people passing through, but that this was also, like, for the community, for Emali town. And that’s why we kind of made sure everything goes adjacent to the town side and not to the highway side.

Ok, so what is your space going to look like?

So, in the bus park, all of the vehicles will have their own space – the coaches, the Nissan matatus, the taxis and pikipikis, all motor cars. These are parking base for cars, matatus need servicing or long term parking for whatever reason. We have public toilets here, and storage coverage area. And there’s also a tipping station this is for the county security all the functional needs that they have. And then within the bus park area there’s also kiosks that face the bus park. Vendors who now cater to business, cater to on-the-go travelers. So, guys selling sodas, waters, refreshments that kind of thing. And when I say a bus terminal, I mean it’s not big. It’s a small town right? So it’s not a big structure. But it’s organized, and it has what it needs.

And then there’s a market, right?

Right, you can walk through the bus terminal and get to the market area. So the market area, I guess the feature, the main feature is now this pedestrian walkway. There’s a very wide promenade – 8 metres – lined on both sides with shops. We made it very wide because we wanted to like intentionally say this space is for people and not cars. And in the middle, thoughout, there are trees. So there’s lots of like space to move around and sit within the promenade. It’s not just a place to walk; it’s a place to hang out. “Let’s go meet in the promenade!” There’s places to meet and sit and just gather.

So the promenade has trees and seating in the middle and shops along the side?

Exactly. Two rows of that. So it’s actually going to be like two pedestrian roads, promenades and two rows of double lined kiosks. Of course, it was a very tight budget we were working with, and we wanted a minimum of 80 kiosks. So the best way to accommodate all that was to go with 40-foot shipping containers for the kiosks. And each container will be having about five vendors. So, there’s basically a crazy long row of shipping containers.

And I think you said there will also be a covered area with tables for people to eat?

Right, there is a main building, brick and mortar. So, you order your food and then there’s tables and chairs in the promenade and everywhere where you sit and eat your food.

The design of the building is really interesting. Was it modeled on something?

We wanted to give a little bit of a signature look to it. There are all all these low lying hills surrounding the town, and on clear mornings in Emali you see Kilimanjaro in the distance. So it’s modeled on Kilimanjaro.

How do you think this market will compare to other markets in Kenya?

That’s a good question. So, in terms of physicality, I think people are really catching up to the idea of using containers because of their convenience. They are cheap, they are sturdy, they are versatile. You can do a lot with them for very little. And so to be able to get over a hundred kiosks with brick and mortar, like you would just blow their budget. Totally. Like there’s no way they can do this. This whole thing will be built in what the contractor is saying is three months. There is no way you can do that with brick and mortar with the labour force that we’re seeing.

Let’s talk about Emali itself. It’s kind of equidistant between Nairobi and Mombasa, right?

There’s a lot of commerce. Lots of commerce happens. And traditionally Emali town that’s been its central thing. It’s been a meeting place for commerce. Especially traditionally between the Maasai and the Kamba. A lot of vegetables from there head to Nairobi. Specifically, tomatoes, onions come from Oloitokitok and all goes through Emali, so people buy in massive bulk in Emali town and then they sell to wherever. They sell beyond Nairobi, anywhere. There’s a lot of trucks that go into Tanzania from Emali.

My last question, what attracts you to this kind of work, and what drew you to this project?  

I get excited in thinking about, how does this change a town? How does this affect the psyche, the mentality and the development of the town? If people actually have a place to sit, to relax, to enjoy themselves or not always be on the go, how does it affect them? I think it’s really positive. For me, I like to think of public spaces as a collective living room. Like, it’s a place where you just come to unwind as a community. If you have something to discuss, the latest news or whatever, you have a space where you can meet others of your own social class or different social classes, just to, you just share. You be a part of the community and you share whatever that is. And for me those are the things that are, I think they help make a neighborhood or a community stronger, and more accepting of different ideas, different people, different everything.

edith twitterEdith Honan is a freelance journalist who came to Nairobi with Reuters. She is the Editor in Chief of Side Hustle. @edithhonan

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