This story by Rivera Sun is part of a 5-story series on climate solutions commissioned by Metta Center for Nonviolence. Find out more, watch an animated film, and find a lesson plan for students ages 11-18 here.

A worthless patch of wasteland. That’s what the developers called it. They promised to transform the empty lot near Nuru’s apartment into the “Jewel of Nairobi”. Nuru’s blood boiled at the thought of the twenty-story skyrise, full of expensive apartments and shops and offices. In Nuru’s view, the empty lot was already a jewel, a diamond in the rough set in the heart of their neighborhood. True, it was a little scraggly around the edges. The ‘pond’ was a hole in the ground that sometimes filled with rainwater.  But, everyone loved their Little Park. The big city parks were too far away. It took a half hour on two different matatus –minibuses packed tight with twenty other people – to get there when traffic was light. And it never was.

Nuru was angry. Those developers had never played tag all day in the Little Park like she had. They had never hidden in the bushes to weep over a broken heart. They hadn’t sat on the turned-over boxes by the flowering aloe, laughing until they got hiccups. The skyrise would make a lot of money for some people. It would steal a lot of joy from others.

If you do not live in this neighborhood, Nuru thought, you would not know how precious this empty space is.

It was not worthless! It was not a wasteland! It was special, like the rest of the city. Nairobi, Kenya was a beautiful place. Zebras and giraffes grazed right at the edge of the city limits. A huge, green park sprawled in the center of the shining downtown buildings. There was even a rippling lake. It was the home of Wangari Maathai, who saved the forests of Kenya, stopped the bulldozers from tearing up the city park, and launched the Green Belt Movement to protect the trees and stop the desert from spreading. All throughout Nairobi, teens like Nuru were part of environmental clubs founded by Maathai’s daughter. Last week, Nuru and her friends had put placards on the trees along the Nairobi Expressway, begging the workers not to cut down the trees as they expanded the highway.

The empty lot near Nuru’s family’s apartment was not a wildlife preserve, like the famous Nairobi National Park right next to the city. Zebras did not graze in the empty lot. Tourists would never pay big money to see the mice that burrowed in the dirt or the common bubul bird that ate the crumbs from Mr. Otieno’s sandwiches on his lunchbreak. It was not like the big city park where thousands of people came to relax or picnic or hold birthday parties.

But hundreds of people loved this empty lot. Everyone in the neighborhood used it. Nuru’s window overlooked the area. From here, the comings and goings had a rhythm like a dance in slow motion. One afternoon, tired of working on math homework, Nuru took out her phone and snapped a picture.

This is our Little Park, Nuru typed, uploading the photo onto social media. You may not think it is much, but to us it is a treasure we cannot live without.

Nuru tagged the environmental clubs. A steady stream of likes and comments came in. Encouraged, Nuru took another photo at sunset when Mrs. Mwangi and her children ate rice and banana in the cool shade of the palm tree. They lived in a stifling apartment over a corner store.

A little green space goes a long way, Nuru typed. It is a spare dining room with a fresh breeze.

In the morning, Nuru posted about Mrs. Kamau who took a stroll each morning. It helped her poor circulation. Mrs. Odhiambo often joined her; the doctor had ordered her to get exercise to help her diabetes.

A patch of green is like a hospital, Nuru wrote in the next post. The Little Park keeps us healthy and saves us money on the doctor’s bills.

Someone posted a comment about the litter in one part of the park. Nuru’s fingers flew, ready to make a defensive reply. She paused. The person had a point. The next day, she asked some friends to help clean the park.

“Why bother?” they asked. “They’re just going to bulldoze it and pour concrete over it all.”

But Nuru’s best friend Gasira helped her. They posted pictures as they worked. Mr. Njeri from across the street sent his sons over to help.

“He saw your post,” the older one said. “He follows your #LittlePark pictures.”

Nuru smiled and waved. Mr. Njeri waved back.

On Saturday, Nuru borrowed a bucket and hauled water to Mrs. Wanjiku’s tomato plants. She grew them against the south-facing wall of Nuru’s building, where the sun warmed them in the mornings.

How will Mrs. Wanjiku’s tomatoes grow if they build a skyrise here? Nuru typed.

How would her bedroom get any light, for that matter? Nuru took a series of photos out the window. The sun rose over the rooftops and shot straight into the room. If they built a skyrise, all Nuru would see was a wall.

On Monday, Nuru received a surprising call. An official from the Office of Urban Parks had seen her posts. If Nuru could document all the ways the empty lot was used by the neighborhood, there was a program that could designate it an urban green space and protect it. But, there was only one week before the authorities voted on the permit for the skyrise. Nuru needed to act fast. She needed help.

#SaveUrbanGreenSpaces, Nuru typed, calling upon the environmental clubs.

The next day, a dozen youth showed up, phones in hand, ready to help.  They went door-to-door, asking the neighbors how they used the empty lot. Some people refused to talk to them. A few thought the new building would bring more money into their shops. One said the old lot was an eyesore and a nuisance. But most people had a story to tell about how much they loved – and used – the Little Park. The environmental club members took photos and wrote down the stories they heard.

Because we have an urban green space, Nuru wrote in the letter going to the commission, we have so much. We have better health. We have quiet space to think and dream. We have a place to laugh and cry. We work there and rest there. We eat our lunches and hold celebrations in the park. Students do their homework in the shade of the tree. Elders tell stories on the turned-over crates that serve as benches. Babies have taken their first steps in the grass. Friendships are born there. True loves are found. The Little Park is not worthless.

If they calculated all the ways the space gave to the local neighborhood, it was priceless. It saved people money on medicine and office space, bus fares and work rooms. It served as playground and community center, market and living room.

On the day of the vote, Nuru could hardly eat a bite. Though it was a school day, the teacher made an exception and took the whole class to the meeting. They sat nervously on metal folding chairs, waiting.

The vote came in. Nuru’s Little Park won! The urban green space was here to stay.


Behind the Story

In 2004, Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Prize for her efforts to protect Kenya’s forests, establishing the Green Belt Movement. Her lifework inspired countless others. Now, Maathai’s daughter and a new generation of organizers are protecting and expanding urban green spaces in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities. Nairobi is a remarkable place. It contains immense urban parks, including City Park, which Wangari Maathai protected from urban development, and Nairobi National Park where lions, zebras, and giraffes live.

The urban green spaces movement works to protect those parks and expand the smaller parks, greenery, and wildlife within the city. The youth have been putting placards on the trees threatened by the expansion of the Nairobi Expressway. They have also been raising awareness of how urban green spaces provide benefits for public health, social spaces, and increased mental wellbeing for residents. In addition, urban green spaces provide shelter and food for numerous wild creatures that have learned to cohabitate urban spaces with humans.

This story emphasizes the importance of the Internet and social media in Kenyan social and political life. Debate and dialog on social justice issues frequently occurs on social media platforms. For over a decade, the Internet has been used as a tool for social change, political discourse, community conversations, and more. In Nuru’s story, digital tools help her show how important the park is to her neighbors and brings their concerns to the attention of public officials. Urban green spaces are important around the world. Nuru’s story can help us organize to preserve these spaces near us. Learn more here.

This story by Rivera Sun is part of a 5-story series on climate solutions commissioned by Metta Center for Nonviolence. Find out more, watch an animated film, and find a lesson plan for students ages 11-18 here.

Other Stories:
Rosalinda and the Cloud Catchers (Peru)
The Boy Who Hated Fishing (Italy)
Dev and the Elephant War (India)
Faridah and the Tangled Knot (Yemen)