The Urban Footbridge



The city of Nairobi is scattered with abandoned and underutilized footbridges. Millions of shillings have been inappropriately spent in the hope that human lives could be saved from the fatal impact of speeding cars. Yet the only obvious beneficiaries of such projects are the consultants and contractors who conceived and built them. Lives continue to be threatened at crossings, whilst the concrete and steel bridges stand tall reminding us what bad ideas really look like.

Any pedestrian junction creates an important urban public space. Such an intersection is a confluence of human and vehicular traffic that requires separation, or one having the right of way over the other. Most of the existing footbridges in Nairobi are essentially mono-function superstructures that are underutilized. In many instances the bridges have been erected at inappropriate points, effectively turning them into concrete white elephants. Even worse, in places where they are correctly located, pedestrians avoid using them citing a combination of real and imagined excuses, including insecurity and the lack of energy to climb up all the steps.

These footbridges are edifices; designed and constructed only with hope, hope that people will find them useful to safely cross busy driveways. Ideally, petrol-powered vehicles should be the ones to go over or under walking routes, leaving natural ground levels for sweat and blood earthlings. However, the footbridge makes better financial sense compared to a vehicular bridge. Hence a fundamental challenge, what will make people go up these concrete or steel hills?

First, there’s a need to justify the use of public funds to construct footbridges. Every statistic about lives saved and positive impacts to the street must be observed and measured. If pedestrians are not using the footbridges, then the investment is not worth it, no matter the volume of theoretical arguments. It is my belief that good use of the pedestrian bridge will come from a sustainable design that makes it a multi-functional adaptable urban structure.

alongside pedestrian pathways. A typical detail would be to create lanes for walking on either side of shaded structures where the vendors would sit. A wide deck further gives the illusion of lower elevation, making the footbridge seem less of a physical exertion to climb.

Author: George Arabbu,
An alumnus of Starehe Boys’ Centre and the University of Nairobi, he is currently a director at Sitescape Studio Limited, an architectural practice with offices in Nairobi and Mombasa. He serves as the Registrar of the Architects Chapter at Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) and a member of the Association's governing Council. He is part-time lecturer at the University of Nairobi and the Nairobi Institute of Technology, teaching architectural design and computer aided design. He is the founder member of Dream Cities Forum Kenya, tweets as @arabbu and blogs as +Ke ( because he believes politics headlines all news at the expense of positive developments out Kenya.