A good highway enables people to travel comfortably, conveniently and safely from one place to another. A great one does more.
Indeed the soon to be completed Thika superhighway has so far performed exceptionally well on some fronts. The journey to Thika town from Nairobi that typically stretched for over an hour has now been reduced to just about thirty minutes. For the motorists and commuters who use the highway, it has been a relief, a blessing and an answered prayer.
For the landscape however, the superhighway has not been as fair. The scar it has left on the land will never be fully restored. The pedestrians’ and the cyclists’ life just got a lot harder as their safety has been seriously compromised. Businesses that have depended on the bus stops and snarl-ups around the major nodes on the highway have been adversely affected. Open views into the surrounding landscapes and landmarks that have traditionally provided interest and points of references are no more.
Clearly, the convenience has come with a huge long-term price tag that the public and the environment will forever bear. The question is: could these adverse effects have been avoided? Is it possible to undertake colossal projects like this one and still maintain the integrity of the landscape character and environment?
My answer to both questions is a resounding yes. In fact, with better planning, these new arterial ways may be made-not the unsightly and obstructive gashes that we have seen so far-but rather elongated parks bringing about a welcome addition of beauty, grace, and green open spaces to the city and its environs.
It all starts with a proper understanding and appreciation of the existing landscape. The key characteristics of distinct landscape types should be defined and should influence the design of the highway. Landscape character and designations should guide the choice of route, design standards and solutions.
Ecologically sensitive areas and areas of exceptional scenic beauty must be given special consideration. Besides wetlands, waterways, historic landmarks and parks that are protected by legislation, locally significant elements – pathways, architectural details, monuments, groves of trees and cultural features should be preserved and protected.
When impacts to the landscape are unavoidable, design should, to the extent feasible, seek to restore or repair landscapes damaged by construction. There is nothing attractive about six meter high retaining walls flanking half a kilometre of road. In fact, the intent of such restoration should not merely be to replace lost elements, but to replace specific lost functions as well.
The highway design should also be sensitive to local residents and users in the surrounding areas. The priority should be to preserve major functions and not to alter them. The interests of non-motorised users and pedestrians should be an integral part of the scheme too. Proper crossing points and designated bicycle lanes should be provided especially near towns where these modes of transport are most common.
It is also important to retain as many views and vistas along the highway corridor as possible. Views of distinctive landmarks that have hitherto created a sense of orientation and place are irreplaceable.