Urban Studies Nairobi
Constance Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0053


Since its late-19th-century origins in the British East African Protectorate, when Nairobi began as a depot on the colonial railway from the East African coast to Lake Victoria, Nairobi has transformed to become the largest and most powerful urban center in the region. Even as the city has developed, its colonial origins continue to cast a long shadow: from the legacies of urban planning and racial segregation to histories of urban migration, British colonialism still inflects the way that lives are made in the city. Because the afterlives of this history remain very much present, articles examining the historical precedent of contemporary themes are included throughout this bibliography, with particular significance for the way governance, housing, infrastructure, and urban security have developed in the city. That is not to say, however, that Nairobi is defined solely by its colonial past—far from it. Nairobi is a leading center of the tech scene in Africa, its dynamic start-up culture leading to the perhaps inevitable moniker of Silicon Savannah. A dynamic entrepreneurialism has been seen to characterize the informal economy and high-end sectors alike, with the neighborhood of Eastleigh and its primarily Somali-origin businesspeople particularly renowned as a driving force of Nairobi’s economic growth. The politics of accumulation has a dark side too, with the illegitimate allocation of resources, personal gain, and political impunity often underlying some of the more entrenched issues facing the city. Since the 1990s, Nairobi has felt the harsh effects of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform. Even as new forms of media, consumption, and leisure have shaped urban aspirations, the global trend toward privatization and deregulation has severely increased economic disparity and struggles with precarity have become an everyday reality for many. Such themes are powerfully evoked in the city’s music, film, and fiction, creative outlets that have become important forums for critiquing and appraising the challenges of making a life in 21st-century Nairobi.

General Overviews

Nairobi is an unusual case in the urban studies literature, in that there have been very few attempts at a book-length comprehensive overview of the city. Indeed, many scholars have sought to emphasize the city’s fragmented, disjointed character, and the challenge of presenting a coherent evaluation. Charton-Bigot and Rodriguez-Torres 2010 reflects this, proposing that coherence is impossible and that fragmentation is central to understanding the city. Nevertheless Hake 1977 and Ogot and Ogot 2020 are both useful, empirically grounded, assessments of the development of the city as a whole, though in different chapters they focus on specific areas. Médard 2010 is very useful as an overview of the diverse challenges Nairobi faces, in terms of colonial legacies and postcolonial governance and planning, covering in brief many themes likely to be of interest to urban studies scholars.

  • Charton-Bigot, Hélène, and Deyssi Rodriguez-Torres, eds. Nairobi Today: The Paradox of a Fragmented City. Nairobi, Kenya: IFRA, 2010.

    Edited volume highlighting the many facets of Nairobi and the challenges of developing any coherent analytical picture of the city. It covers themes including informality, planning, identity, migration, and power.

  • Hake, Andrew. African Metropolis: Nairobi’s Self-Help City. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1977.

    An early but important monograph providing a general history of Nairobi’s urban development. Pioneering for its perspective on informal (or what the author terms “self-help”) settlements as constitutive of, rather than exceptional to, the development of Nairobi.

  • Médard, Claire. “City Planning in Nairobi: The Stakes, the People, the Sidetracking.” In Nairobi Today: The Paradox of a Fragmented City. Edited by Hélène Charton-Bigot and Deyssi Rodriguez-Torres, 25–60. Nairobi, Kenya: IFRA, 2010.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvk3gmfc.6

    Helpful overview of Nairobi and its constitutive areas through the lens of urban planning, particularly territorial policy, access to land, real estate dynamics, and informal housing.

  • Ogot, Bethwell A., and Madara Ogot. History of Nairobi 1899–2012: From a Railway Camp and Supply Depot to a World-Class African Metropolis. Kisumu, Kenya: Anyange Press, 2020.

    One of a very few monographs to attempt a comprehensive overview of Nairobi and its colonial and postcolonial history. Bethwell Ogot is one of the pre-eminent Kenyan historians and the authors detail Nairobi’s urban development, colonial management, and transformation into its contemporary status as a regional powerhouse.

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