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Political Economy of Air Pollution in Kenya


Air pollution is a major environmental health risk factor in Nairobi, Kenya. Most research conducted on air pollution in Nairobi has focused on measuring pollution concentrations. Although this research is very important, it is also crucial to understand barriers in the regulatory process that prevents this data from translating into effective action. This article attempts to fill in this gap. It starts by detailing the history of urban planning in Nairobi and its legacy in shaping contemporary urbanization and spatial patterns of air pollution. It then relies on interviews, participant observations, and a close reading of key laws and policies to evaluate current political, institutional, and data-infrastructure gaps in the Kenyan air pollution governance framework that serve as barriers for equitable air pollution mitigation. Finally, it draws on interviews and media analyses to examine the promises and perils of citizen science to improve air quality levels in Kenya. It ends by making policy recommendations to make Nairobi more liveable and breathable in the long term.

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  1. This plan was termed the “Plan of survey at foot of hill and edge of plans” signed by Arthur F Clark, Assistant Surveyor.

  2. This plan was termed as the “Uganda Railway Plan of Staff Quarters, Nyrobi” signed by G. Whitehouse, Chief Engineer.

  3. It must be noted that studies done in the USA have shown that the despite the high costs of the Clean Air Act, the benefits have exceeded costs by a factor of 30:1 (, last accessed April 9, 2021). In addition, these costs are only a fraction of the cost (0.5 billion USD) of the contentious Nairobi expressway project mentioned in the “Conflicts of Interest Preventing Accountability” section which has dubious benefits.


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The author is grateful for comments from Jacqueline Klopp, Kim Fortun, Lawrence Susskind, Dorothy Tang, Andrew Binet, and Shin Bin Tan

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Correspondence to Priyanka deSouza.

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-This paper conducts historically informed analysis of the political economy of air pollution decision-making in Nairobi.

-Political barriers to regulatory action on air pollution are identified.

-Data infrastructure gaps that prevent air pollution data from translating to policy action and increased government accountability are explored.

-The promise and perils of citizen science in Nairobi to improve air quality are discussed

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deSouza, P. Political Economy of Air Pollution in Kenya. Urban Forum 33, 393–414 (2022).

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