An Analogy of Indigenous and Contemporary Landscape Urbanism in Kenya: Samburu Settlements vs Swahili Villas

An Analogy of Indigenous and Contemporary Landscape Urbanism in Kenya: Samburu Settlements vs Swahili Villas

Résumé en français

Cet article dissocie l'urbanisme paysager au Kenya dans le contexte des paysages indigènes et contemporains des communautés Samburu et Swahili modernes, respectivement. Ces points de vue divergents expliquent comment les paysages sont manipulés pour soutenir les établissements humains qui aboutissent souvent à des espaces qui reflètent la culture des communautés et la façon dont elles interagissent avec la nature. Dans cet article, l'urbanisme paysager indigène est représenté par les parcelles de peuplement des Samburu situées le long des corridors fluviaux ; il est souligné par la disposition unique des propriétés de la communauté, appelées Manyattas. Cette étude de cas exposera les aménagements traditionnels des Samburu, l'application de l'architecture africaine, les principes et les concepts de conception, et montrera comment les aménagements sont conformes à la résilience et à l'adaptabilité climatiques. L'article affirme que la communauté fait désormais progresser l'urbanisme de la "savane", la nouvelle frontière du développement dans ces paysages arides et éloignés du nord du Kenya, en exploitant l'écotourisme qui mêle à la fois des éléments d'architecture traditionnels et modernes. D'autre part, l'article explore l'urbanisme paysager contemporain dans le contexte des villas swahilies modernes à Mombasa, au Kenya, en utilisant les villas de Kuruwitu comme un cas viable. Conçues en 2015 par Urko Sanchez Architects, les villas de Kuruwitu sont situées dans un paysage côtier hétérogène dont les résultats de la conception dépeignent des notions d'urbanisme paysager contemporain, dans la façon dont les villas ont été développées en connaissance des modèles et des processus de la nature de la région. Les villas ont adopté une orchestration de la nature dans la conception de leurs espaces intérieurs et extérieurs, où le paysage a été cultivé et récupéré d'une manière consciente de l'écologie de la région. La conception des villas était dynamique car elle équilibrait le tissu bâti et les fonctions écologiques du site.

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This article decouples landscape urbanism in Kenya in the context of indigenous and contemporary landscapes of the Samburu and modern Swahili communities; respectively. These divergent views expound on how landscapes are manipulated to support human settlements which often culminate in spaces that reflect on the culture of communities and how they interact with nature. Indigenous landscape urbanism in this article is portrayed by the Samburu settlement patches located along river corridors; outlined by the unique layouts of the community’s homesteads dubbed as Manyattas. This case study shall expound on the traditional Samburu settlement layouts, application of local architecture, design principles and concepts; as well as show how the settlements conform to climate resilience and adaptability. The paper posits that the community is now advancing the ‘Savannah’ urbanism; the new frontier of development in these remote arid landscapes of Northern Kenya by tapping into eco-tourism which blends both traditional and modern elements of architecture. On the other hand; the paper explores contemporary landscape urbanism in the context of modern Swahili villas in Mombasa, Kenya using Kuruwitu villas as a viable case. Designed in 2015 by Urko Sanchez Architects, Kuruwitu villas are located in a heterogeneous coastal landscape whose design outputs portray notions of contemporary landscape urbanism, in how the villas were developed in cognition of the patterns and processes of the area’s nature. The villas adopted orchestration of nature in the design of its interior and exterior spaces; where the landscape was cultivated and recovered in a manner that was conscious of the area’s ecology. The design of the villas was dynamic as it balanced the built fabric and ecological functions of the site.

Introduction to Landscape Urbanism

Landscape urbanism is a twenty-first-century approach guiding planning and design ethos, emphasising spaces' ecological performance. The 'landscape' becomes the medium through which cities and settlements are planned, designed, and organised rather than through buildings and infrastructure design. As a practice, landscape urbanism often refers to people, nature and place and is often regarded as a way of tackling complex urban challenges by examining the implications of the city in the landscape and vice versa (Gray, 2011). The paper posits that the landscape can be deemed a lens through which we can examine our settlements and as a basis for designing and planning for urban and rural initiatives.

According to Girot (2016), human activities have led to the evolution of landscapes, and this is magnified in the ingenuity of transforming wilderness and wastelands into tamed and organised environments. This change manifests the powerful relationship between humans and the world surrounding them. A synergy of how we design spaces, the natural elements we incorporate, and the use of technology can lead to the creation of functional and aesthetic spaces with their own genius loci.

The paper attempts to show how the precept of landscape urbanism can be advanced locally by understanding how traditional communities developed their settlements in conjunction with their landscapes and reviewing how contemporary urban developments are embedding conscious landscape design.

The discourse will, therefore, provide an analogy of the Samburu Indigenous settlements and the modern Swahili villas in Mombasa, Kenya. The Samburu community demonstrates that the arid landscape is the lens through which they organised their traditional homesteads. The coastal landscape of Kenya, dominated by the Swahili community, is the proponent of the architectural styles advanced in the Kuruwitu villas as a viable archetype of contemporary urbanism. This paper postulates that in both scenarios, 'landscape' is the proponent of how traditional and modern settlements are organised because the landscape is the primary matrix where all development occurs.

The Samburu ecosystem is found within the Laikipia plateau on the northern part of the Great Rift Valley, with a distinct view of Mt Kenya to the south. It is a vast semi-arid desert landscape with scattered springs, moorlands, lichen forests, gorges, and hills. The Ewaso Nyiro River winds its way across this wilderness. It is the territorial lifeline in the cruel, arid territory by sustaining the Samburu tribe and the wildlife found in the Samburu conservancy (SteppesTravel, 2019).

There is high regard for this landscape by the community, as it has supported their livelihoods as pastoralists for centuries, and recently, the area has become a tourist asset in the country.

The community's homesteads appear as patches stretching across the vast desert landscape (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Samburu settlements patterns along river corridors. They appear as agglomeration of concentric patches marked on the arid territory. (Source: Bing Maps, 2023)

Settlement Patches along River Corridors

The Ewaso Nyiro River and other seasonal rivers define the morphology of human settlements in these dry plains. Settlements are aligned along the river corridors, which aid the pastoral livelihoods of the community. According to Schwartz (2005), the river corridors are a territorial lifeline in this region where rainfall is low and erratic and drought periods are long and extensive, especially in the current era of climate change. To sustain their lives and their livestock, the community settles in temporary settlements close to the few and scattered water sources. The unpredictable rains and droughts diminish pasture lands, altering the pastoralists' eco-dynamics. As a matter of principle, these seasonal rivers are the engines of survival and economic benefits for this nomadic community (Dramstad, Olson, & Forman, 1996; Boles, 2017). The network of dry gullies and the patches of Manyatta homesteads inscribe the territory into a unique landscape mosaic from aerial views.

Design of the Samburu Manyattas

a) Reinforced structures

The Samburu manyatta homestead is an arrangement of huts made from materials found locally, such as sticks, mud, ash, and cow dung. The huts appear as mounds, and their exterior is plastered using cow dung. The inner enclaves, often dubbed as 'kraals' are where the livestock is kept (Figure 2). The homestead is laid out in a radial shape to provide vistas towards the rolling savannahs and the distant mountains as backdrops. Waste plastic bottles are sometimes used to reinforce the structure and offer additional rain protection. This paper views such an initiative of re-purposing waste products as a means of achieving circularity, which is embedded in Kenya's new Sustainable Waste Management Act of 2022.

Figure 2: The cattle kraals are centrally positioned in the homestead. (Source: Rukwaro & Mukono, 2001)

b) Manyattas as fortified dwellings

The pastoralists' livelihood involves keeping herds of livestock that require safeguarding from cattle rustlers from the bordering Pokot and Rendille communities and wild animals. Therefore, the kraals at the central spaces of the homesteads are considered the safest spaces of the manyattas where the livestock are kept (Figures 3 and 4). The circular edges of the homesteads fortify the dwellings as they comprise thorny shrubs and hedges. The domestic huts are located strategically in the outer courtyards, providing the inhabitants protection and radial views to the plains beyond to counter banditry easily (Boles, 2017). Riparian vegetation and thickets provide firewood and materials for the huts' construction. Fortification of residential homes is common even in modern times, as security is one of the primary considerations in the design of living spaces.

Figure 3: Fabio Barilari Architetti, Traditional layout of a Samburu homestead (Source: 2018)
Figure 4: Livestock exiting a manyatta into the pasture lands,  (Source: 2014)

Samburu Traditional Architecture – Design Concepts and Principles

This paper suggests that design concepts and principles of radial symmetry, datum and rhythm were incorporated into how the traditional Samburu community designed their manyattas.

The kraals are the focal points in the homestead as they secure the livestock. The kraals are then surrounded by the manyatta huts placed strategically from the centre, enhancing the radial symmetry concept. The kraals form the datum upon which all the other elements are laid out in each homestead. For security, each manyatta comprises a common entrance and exit. The external circular courtyard hosts the huts where people sleep. Having multiple huts in the outer courtyard helps create a rhythm that makes the space interesting from the aerial view (Figure 5). Due to the nomadic lifestyle of the community, the huts are set up as temporary structures, which are easier to demount when mobility is required. The cow dung plastering of the outer walls gives the huts a rustic look and helps to condition the interior temperatures in the harsh desert climate.

Climate Resilience and Adaptability

Figure 5: Design concepts of symmetry, datum, hierarchy, and rhythm are demonstrated in the traditional layout of Samburu Manyatta homesteads. (Source: Author, 2023)
Pastoralists have been forced to adapt to the severe arid climate by crafting ways of remaining resilient through all seasons (Aberra & Mahmmud, 2015).

The region's climate crisis is manifested by dwindling pasture lands and low water tables, which threaten the community's survival. Wells are often dug within riverbeds to supply water for the animals and domestic use (Galvin, 2009). Conflicts over the scarce water resources in this region are rampant, sometimes leading to infringement of the adjacent Samburu National Reserve.

'Savannah Urbanism' a Catalist for Eco-tourism in Samburu

The savannah in Samburu is a remarkable landscape offering striking views and hosts myriads of wildlife, attracting investments in luxury eco-lodges. Eco-tourism is a leading revenue generator in the area as local Samburu morans (an unmarried Samburu warrior) are employed as tour guides, and the women make beaded jewellery for sale to tourists. Safari lodges found within this arid wilderness are designed to blend in with nature. Notable lodges include the Sasaab Lodge (Figures 6 and 7) and Solio Lodge. The design of the eco-lodges blends Samburu, Moroccan and Swahili architecture to withstand the extreme heat and fuse in the local elements. Large windows and arched doorways facilitate cool breezes to condition the lodges' interior and offer vistas out to the vast savannah and distant hills. The roof is designed using makuti thatches common in the Swahili coast, and water from the plunge pools on the deck assists in cooling the temperatures, ensuring comfort for the users. 'Savannah' urbanism is the new development frontier in these remote parts of Northern Kenya.

Figure 6: A pool located at the Sasaab lodge. The water helps the guests to cool off the savannah heat, (Source: The Safari Collection, 2019)
Figure 7: a) Ewaso Nyiro river b) A pool at a patio c) Fusion of Moroccan and Swahili architecture d) The sundowner rock at Saasab lodge provides views to the valley below, (Source: The Safari Collection, 2019)

Case 2: Contemporary Landscape Urbanism Focusing on Kuruwitu Villas in Mombasa, Kenya

The heterogeneity of a coastal landscape

Located within the Kuruwitu Marine Conservancy, the Kuruwita villas are private commercial properties on the Kenyan coast (Figure 8). The landscape is an intricate pattern comprising white sandy beaches, coral reefs, adjacent sisal plantations, mangrove forests on the shoreline, caves, and the gradual terrain with inviting views of the Indian Ocean. Kuruwitu villas are situated within a forest clearing and adjacent to the ocean (Figure 9). In 2015, Urko Sanchez Architects and Studio 1080 developed their designs, and this paper postulates that the final outputs portray elements of contemporary landscape urbanism where their development was in harmony with the natural processes of the area. The designers considered the area's landscape ecology when developing their concepts; an ideology advocated by Turner, Gardner, & O'Neil (2001).

Figure 8: Kuruwitu modern villas location adjacent to the Indian ocean at the coast of Kenya (Source: Bing Maps, 2023)
Figure 9:  the villas were located strategically within a forest clearing right at the edge of Indian Ocean, (Source: ©Urko Sanchez Architects, 2015)

Designing of the villas with nature

 The architects analysed and interpreted the area's ecological attributes and prescribed design solutions that blended the villas with surrounding nature, an idea consistent with McHarg's (1969) dogma of 'design with nature'.

The development outcome ensured that the spaces' visual and sensual qualities were achieved. Climate-sensitive actions such as using solar panels on the villas' roofs ensured clean energy was harnessed and helped lower the development's carbon footprint. Grading the terrain to create building pads was minimal, and views from the villa towards the sea were maximised (Figure 10).

Figure 10: Gentle terrain ensured that minimal grading was done (Source: ©Urko Sanchez Architects, 2015)

Orchestration of nature in design

Planting design was done meticulously where ornamental bedding plants, hedges, tropical floral shrubs, groundcovers, potted plants, coconuts, lush lawns in the courtyards and palm trees created fresh, aesthetic, and consumptive spaces which equally offered ecological functions. This helped to remediate the area's hot and humid climate for the guests' comfort. The villas were also oriented to allow cool ocean breezes to flow through the passageways to regulate indoor temperatures. Embedding nature into any development design ensures that biodiversity lost during site clearance is restored (De Meulder & Shannon, 2010).

The shoreline as an 'Edge' influences the 'image of the coastal city'

The Indian Ocean shoreline stood out as a prominent feature that influenced the outlook of the villas' design. It is the imposing edge between the Swahili community and the ocean they rely on for marine resources and tourism. The architects harnessed this transitional boundary between water and land to suit the villas' design by orienting all doors and windows to capture the ocean views and to allow breezes to cool the indoors of the villa (Figure 11). According to Lynch (1960) in his book 'Image of the City', the edges call for a certain continuity of form throughout their lengths.

Figure 11: The Indian Ocean shoreline is an important ‘edge’ that was used to guide the design of the villas, (Source: ©Urko Sanchez Architects, 2015)

Fusion of modernist and Swahili architectural styles

Modernist architectural styles adopted in the design included applying rectilinear forms and principles of bilateral symmetry, hierarchy in size and repetition of elements. Modern Swahili elements are evident on the facades of villas' by using flat roofs, Islamic parapet walls, and arched windows and doors (Figure 12). By incorporating the Swahili architectural style in the design of the villas, the architects were able to pay homage to the Swahili culture dominant in the region and fitted the villas within the spatial context of the neighbourhood.

Figure 12: Sections of the villa revealing the different facades. Arched windows and parapet walls indicate elements of Swahili architecture (Source: ©Urko Sanchez Architects, 2015)

Conscious way of Cultivating the Landscape

The natural resources in an area before development provide a crucial role in spreading urbanity. Due to the increasing need to urbanise, most landscapes suffer biodiversity loss. There was a conscious ecological move applied by the designers of the villa by preserving mature trees (Figure 13) during construction as well as minimal grading of the land. Lost biodiversity through cultivation of the landscape can be recovered through innovative landscape design where elements of nature such as plants and water may be re-introduced back into the developed spaces.

Figure 13: A mature tree was preserved during construction of the villas. This is an ecologically conscious move that was promoted by Landscape Architect, James Corner (1999) for recovering landscapes.


Landscape urbanism provides a dynamic equilibrium between nature and the development of community design, whether urban or rural. It is a precept that balances green and grey infrastructure when developing projects.

Any landscape development should not suppress its' natural qualities. Still, instead, it should make it more productive to meet the socio-economic and aesthetic needs of the users and remain ecologically functional.

In the two divergent case studies, the Samburu community's traditional styles of designing their homes and the modern designs of the safari lodges provide good archetypes of how nature can inspire community designs, thus advancing 'savannah urbanism' in a sustainable manner. Kuruwitu villas' design, on the other hand, should also inspire modern architects & landscape architects to create designs of spaces that complement nature within and around the spaces they are developing.


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