From the end of 2008 until the end of 2012, the first ‘Superhighway’ in East Africa was constructed between Kenya’s capital Nairobi and the industrial satellite town of Thika in the Northern part of the Nairobi Metropolitan Region. I have already written about the Thika Highway Improvement Project (THIP) with regard to its relation to the country’s development initiative “Kenya Vision 2030” (here) as well as with respect to my field work experience of ‘studying highways’ (here). Today, I would like to focus on the THIP’s design process, which caused some path dependencies that resulted in particular outcomes of the project.*
It is important to look into the processes of designing large infrastructure projects, because they lay the foundation for what is actually constructed. And this ‘construction’ includes ideas about what the actual infrastructure piece is going to look like, what the project is intended to achieve, and who the ‘beneficiaries’ of the investment are meant to be. As I already argued in a previous blog article, attention to such projects’ ‘losers’ is often limited as decision makers tend to get distracted by wonderful promises of what a infrastructure project will deliver and how positive it will impact not only on the construction area but also on larger policy fields (and the public opinion about decision makers’ performance).
While these design processes are deeply entrenched in political settings, I would like to focus here on the actual activities of planning, assessing, calculating, and designing the project. It comes down to the question of who is working on these seemingly technical tasks. In the case of the THIP, the project team did not bring together experts of various fields, which resulted in a group of people who had rather similar ideas about what a highway is. Therefore, the necessary questions about the THIP’s possible positive as well as negative outcomes were not asked as one transport planning expert explained in an interview I conducted for this research project**:
“I think the majority of people who were involved in this [project] are people who are just highway engineers, who have never done transportation in the context of looking at traffic engineering and management, what are they calling it, ah, transportation planning per se. I think they were involved very little.” (interview university researcher C)
The problem with this lack of inter- and/or multi-disciplinarity in project teams is that there is a direct relation to perspectives and the corresponding anticipation of project impacts. The formulation of objectives for the THIP included many facets regarding transportation improvements, economic growth, and social development. Nevertheless, there was a narrow take on how to assess project elements vis-à-vis these objectives. Due to a lack of context-sensitivity in the designs, the THIP’s plans reflected only a sub-set of the relevant variables for proper infrastructure projects:
“(…) when I asked engineers: ‘Why did you not consider linking the uses along the highway (…)?’ And they say: ‘Oh, we were required to minimizing costs.’ (…) Yeah, to them it is costs, you know. Not to serve those neighboring markets [and] centers. So it was not planned as a comprehensive development of a corridor. It was planned as a kind of thoroughfare to deliver traffic to and from the city (…).” (interview university researcher B)
One has to admit that the THIP since its opening in November 2012 has improved the traffic situation. Furthermore, it resulted in a positive economic dynamic in this transport corridor area. If one would go through the list of objectives in the project appraisal report, one could check many elements. But large infrastructure projects such as the THIP result in more outcomes than just the ones who are initially anticipated. Lower-income people in the Northern Nairobi Metropolitan Region have experienced a displacement due to rising rent rates, skyrocketing land and housing prices, and increased upper market investment activity, which runs the risk of spatially segregating this area. Also, to give another example, the new situation along that highway has brought advantages for some businesses, which are located at emerging growth nodes, while other businesses have been cut-off from customers due to the highway’s restricted access design.
The benefits of the THIP could have been shared more broadly if experts and ordinary people of different backgrounds had provided input into the design process. As one expert remarked in a discussion forum on the THIP (held 20 November 2012 at the University of Nairobi), this aspect concerns
“(…) decisions even made prior to when roads get built. Not just in design, but how are roads built, where are they built, why are they built – those are some of the questions I think need to be opened up, because frankly, a lot of times, people think these are just questions for engineers, and I don’t think they are. I think engineers and economists have dominated this discussion. (…) This is a global discussion about opening up infrastructure decision making to a broader group of people who can look at all the different angles. (…) We don’t know what all the different kinds of impacts are. We simply don’t. We don’t have good data, we don’t have good analysis, and maybe some of it is actually too complex to be figured out.” (Jacqueline Klopp)
This said, it is not my intention to belittle highway engineers’ important input into the planning and design of infrastructure projects. It is rather about an understanding for the complexity of such projects that requires transparent processes with meaningful engagement of stakeholders. This is directly linked to the question of who decides which people are considered as ‘stakeholders’ and how their participation is rendered possible and meaningful, as was recently discussed on this blog (here).
* More information and additional material about the THIP and this research project can be found here.
** For this research project, a mix of methodological approaches was applied, including field visits, in-depth literature research, and qualitative interviews with 18 experts in Kenya.