Accepted Paper:

Collapse: grey development and failed tower blocks in Nairobi  


Constance Smith (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

In Nairobi, a recent spate of collapsed tenement housing has drawn attention to 'grey development', ad hoc property speculation neither fully legal nor illegal. This paper explores collapse and its socio-political afterlives, highlighting how urban assemblages are made and remade.

Paper long abstract:

Nairobi, capital city of Kenya, is expanding at an extraordinary rate. The speed of this urban growth has produced a parallel threat of architectural collapse. This is particularly acute in low income neighbourhoods, where 'grey development' - ad hoc property speculation that is neither fully legal nor illegal - produces poor-quality tower blocks seemingly overnight. These are fragile architectures at risk of failure: Nairobi has recently experienced a spate of devastating tenement block collapses in which many have tragically died.

Though mostly overlooked by urban scholars, grey development is now the dominant silhouette of Nairobi's skyline. It forms the core of the construction industry, and houses the majority of the urban poor. This is in stark contrast to the city authorities' claims to be turning Nairobi into a 'world class' city of spectacular infrastructure and gleaming highrises. When grey development collapses, the disparity between these global city dreams and the everyday lives of ordinary Nairobians is materialised, animating new forms of debate and foregrounding the city's housing crisis.

This paper will explore the dynamics of architectural collapse in Nairobi, as well as its socio-political afterlives. Collapse makes visible the assemblages of human and non-human actors which constitute grey development. It does not indicate the end of a site so much as its drastic refiguration. Lives are remade alongside or even within the rubble; new economies of salvage emerge. Sites of collapse roll forward, making visible the politics and problems - but also the possibilities - of urban transformation.

Panel Env03
Tower block failures: high-rise anthropology