#Jacaranda_Propaganda: A Measure of Identity Loss in Nairobi, Kenya

#Jacaranda_Propaganda: A Measure of Identity Loss in Nairobi, Kenya

Résumé en français

Les couloirs de transport bien planifiés offrent un immense potentiel de création de lieux et de verdure urbaine qui contribuent finalement à la communauté, au sens de l'identité et au genius loci. Ces couloirs insufflent de la vitalité à la ville grâce à l'activité humaine et à la verdure. Les éléments du paysage tels que lavégétation peuvent influencer le comportement des gens et leur perception d'un espace.

Le paysage dans la ville peut servir de symbole. Les arbres urbains indiquent des changements temporels et géographiques.  Outre l'ombrage qu'ils procurent aux rues et aux boulevards, l'augmentation de la biodiversité et la gestion des eaux de ruissellement et de la pollution, certains ont un attrait supplémentaire grâce à leur floraison. Ils marquent donc et créent un lieu,devenant des points de référence dans l'espace et dans le temps. En outre, elles évoquent un sens du lieu à travers des souvenirs et des expériences partagés.

Chaque année, entre septembre et novembre, les rues de Nairobi sont recouvertes d'une tapisserie lilas due à la floraison du jacaranda. Jacaranda mimosifolia: plante originaire d'Amériquedu Sud et largement répandue dans les anciennes colonies britanniques d'Afriquede l'Est et d'Afrique australe. Cette plante a été associée à l'identité deNairobi.

Le #jacarandapropaganda créé par l'écrivain/voyageur Nanjala Nyabola en 2015 a gagné en popularité parmi les Kényans sur les médias sociaux, car ils documentent cette espèce à chaque saison de floraison. Ce hashtag est heureusement devenu un étalon de mesure oude mise en évidence de la perte du jacaranda et d'autres arbres en raison du développement des infrastructures au fil du temps.

Il renvoie donc à un problème plus large, celui de la perte de la nature et de la biodiversité dans la ville. Outre les effets dévastateurs de la déforestation, cette perte affecte également notre identité et la façon dont nous percevons la ville de Nairobi. Le caractère et, en vérité, l'essence de Nairobi en tant que "ville vertesous le soleil" sont continuellement érodés. Ce tumulte social sur les médias sociaux doit être amplifié pour que cette terrible tendance cesse. La prochaine génération compte sur nous pour préserver notre identité et le geniusloci de la ville.

Well-planned transportation corridors offer immense potential for place making and urban greenery that eventually contributes to the community, sense of identity and genius loci. These corridors inject vibrancy into the city through human activity as well as greenery. Landscape elements such as vegetation can manipulate people's behaviour and perception of a space. Landscape in the city can serve as symbols. Urban trees point to both temporal and geographic changes. Aside from providing shade for streets and boulevards, increasing biodiversity, and managing runoff and pollution, some have an additional appeal through their bloom. They therefore, mark and make a place; becoming reference points in space and time. Additionally, they evoke a sense of place through shared memories and experiences. Every year, between September and November, the streets of Nairobi are covered in a lilac tapestry from the bloom of the Jacaranda tree. Jacaranda mimosifolia: a plant native to South America and is widely spread throughout former British colonies in East and Southern Africa. This plant has become entangled with Nairobi's identity. #jacarandapropaganda created by writer/traveller Nanjala Nyabola in 2015 had gained traction among Kenyans on social media as they document this species every flowering season. This hashtag fortunately has become a yardstick measuring or highlighting the loss of the Jacaranda and other trees to infrastructural developments over time. Therefore, it points to a larger issue of the loss of nature and biodiversity in the city. Along with the devastating effects of deforestation, this loss also affects our identity and how we perceive the city of Nairobi. The character and in truth, the essence of Nairobi as the 'green city under the sun' is continually eroded. This social uproar on social media needs amplification for this awful trend to cease. The next generation is counting on us to preserve our identity and the genius loci in the city.


Sense of place in the city refers to the emotional and social connections that people associate with certain locations, which intertwine with their own sense of identity. Jane Jacobs argues that a city is not only made up of physical spaces but social and economic systems as well, all of which interact with one another, resulting in unique qualities and a distinct character in each city (Jacobs, 1961).

Here we look at an example of such a physical space, that is, the street.

A strong sense of place is a product of several factors such as history, culture and the built environment.

In the city, this is created through human interaction with one another and with the city itself, through the use of public spaces.

We shall look closely at the most prominent landscape element in any street, the street tree and vegetation. We shall see the role this element plays in creating a sense of place within the city, and how its continuous destruction in Nairobi, has been openly documented through the use of social media. We shall also examine the effect of this destruction to the city’s identity. Finally, borrowing from examples of how change has been instigated through public outcry in online platforms, we argue how this can be achieved in the context of Nairobi, Kenya.

The street as a place

Urban streets inject the city with vibrancy mostly through bustling human activity and therefore, contribute to the very soul of the city.They influence the everyday user experience and contribute to the genius loci through their design and use.

Lively and walkable streets create a sense of community and foster social and economic activity (Jacobs, 1961). Such streets can grow to be considered the heart of the city, for instance, Ndia Kuu in Old Town, Mombasa is almost synonymous with the city itself. Roughly translated to “Main Street”, this iconic street leads from Fort Jesus into Old Town and has a very distinctive blend of Architecture, that points to the local history. Some of the houses now serve as souvenir shops Swahili restaurants, frequented by local and international tourists.

Figure 1: A street view image of Ndia Kuu in Mombasa, Kenya. (Source, Google Earth)

The collective ownership and use of a space also create a sense of place, giving it its identity. A parking lot bordering the Aga Khan walk, in Nairobi CBD provides an example of this concept.This sunken parking lot is frequented by kids and grownups alike during the weekends for roller skating events and training. While not designed as a skate park, the car park lends itself as a performative space, complete with spectator gallery. The transformation is so profound to the point that the space is actually dubbed the Nairobi Skate Park by the locals.

The street also makes a significant social-cultural contribution to our collective past, present and future experiences.

Often, streets in Africa, especially in capital cities, whether through commemorative toponymy, monuments, or collective memory, point to the struggle for independence and other significant historical events. The phrase,‘took to the streets,’ is often used by the media when covering collective activism efforts, some of which end up shaping our present and future,including socio-political identities.

For instance, the 28th of February Road in Accra, Ghana, plays host to The Black Star Gate and The Memorial of the Unknown Soldier which allude to the country’s struggle for independence as well as the concept of Pan-Africanism.

Figure 2: The Black Star Gate, Accra Ghana. This monument was commissioned by the country’s first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah to celebrate their independence. With Ghana, being the first African country to gain independence, the black star depicts the country as the Black Star of Africa; hope for freedom for the rest of the African continent (Source, Authors)
Figure 3: The Memorial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Accra Ghana. The monument pays tribute to the three soldiers whose deaths sparked a revolution in Ghana, along with other historical figures (Source, Authors)

A new form of public space emerges when we realise the full potential of the street.

A truly complete street offers more than transit. It is a place as well.

Landscape architecture and urban design have the power to leverage infrastructure to create place (Weesner & Marks, 2023).Urban streets are the most fundamental public spaces owing to the temporal,user and functional dynamics at play. In his 1971 speech titled “The Room, the Street, and Human Agreement,” Architect Louis Kahn argued that a measure of the city lies in the nature of its institutions and the street is the most fundamental of all, as it is the very first institution (Kahn, 1971).

Role of vegetation along urban streets

Street vegetation in the city provide an opportunity for a continuous stretch of open space in the form of a linear park snaking its way through the city. This park space can be garnered from road reserves, spaces beneath elevated systems, underground pedestrian passes or overhead walk bridges and even defunct railway yards (Green, 2021).

Such a park system can also help reduce cases of lifestyle diseases, mental health problems and depression among city-dwellers (Aubrey, 2017). The interaction with nature has positive impacts on physiological health, psychological and spiritual well-being and improves cognitive function in human beings (Pearlmutter, et al., 2017). The expression of nature in the ‘structured’ world can provide the much-needed mood boost to and from work and help one to declutter their mind. The sights and sounds provide a break from the monotony of the urban concrete jungle (Pearlmutter, et al., 2017).

Strips of roadside or median vegetation also provide buffer zones separating various multi-modal users. Overhead canopies create shade for pedestrians, keeping them comfortable as they go about the city.

Figure 4: A section of the Aga Khan Walk, Nairobi, with shade trees providing an overhead canopy for pedestrians (Source, Authors)

On a city scale, the vegetation along streets collectively adds to the urban greenery, and hence contributes toward mitigating the urban heat island effect, managing greenhouse gases and climate action efforts. It conserves and increases biodiversity, manages storm-water runoff, soil erosion and pollution and also offers habitats and corridors for urban wildlife as well, linking ecological communities.

The impact of street trees on the character and identity of the city

Trees in the landscape, indigenous or otherwise, contribute to the identity of a space through function, history,culture, legal status, land use and politics. The rich and striking properties of trees become embedded in the creation of a sense of place. Their physical form and lively materiality also play a part in the bonds that exist between people and nature in many different forms, resulting in a complex relationship.

Wilson’s (1984) notion of biophilia notably states that humans have an innate affinity to respond to and value nature. Trees in the city are the most obvious and pervasive form of nature that we might attach ourselves to. Trees in the landscape make the continuity of time and place visible, immediate and tangible (Harrison, 1991).

According to Balechard (1988), humans and trees are related through the vertical axis due to our sensitivity to vertical dynamism as a result of our balance and our eye orientation. When carefully arranged in the landscape, trees are likely to catch our eyes and hearts.

This material connection with the landscape builds a sense of place and our sense of self.

A carefully curated plant selection can manipulate people’s behaviour and perception of a space. An appropriate planting design ensures that people can accurately place themselves in space and time, thereby enhancing the city’s legibility.

Identity is influenced by relational and temporal processes, the longer exotic trees are in an area and the wider they spread, they also become entangled in the ecological, cultural, political and economic processes in the formation of identity.

The palm-lined boulevards in Los Angeles, California, introduced by the Spanish are an integral part of the city’s identity. A similar case can be stated of the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC and the Jacarandas in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria. In Washington, these trees have become ingrained into the city’s identity to the point of having the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival to celebrate the blooms.

According to Amos Kareithi’s article in the Daily Nation newspaper, the first Jacaranda tree was planted in Kenya in 1918 by a British settler named E.W. Hobley, and the trees were introduced by the British colonial government for their ornamental value and ability to stabilise the soil (Kareithi, 2019).

The nature of the Jacaranda trees; large canopies, form, fast growth, and flamboyant flowers make them an ideal tree to plant along transport streets. The predictable flowering season creates a changing temporal/ephemeral but impactful identity, and in very practical terms allows planning for maintenance. Every September to November the streets of Nairobi are covered in a lilac tapestry created from the flowers of the iconic Jacaranda trees.

The arching habit of their branches also makes them attractive street trees, as their branches will often grow over and shade the street in an attractive canopy over a street or boulevard. Jacaranda trees are great shade trees. Their fern-like foliage and graceful, wide canopy provides filtered shade during the warmest seasons of the year.

Figure 5: The Jacaranda as a street tree along Valley Road, Nairobi in April 2022 (Source, Google Earth)
Figure 6: The same tree in bloom is captured by Joelle Mumley in November 2019 (Source, Instagram)
The Jacaranda trees became indispensable monuments, landmarks, milestones and other points of reference by which each person can take his or her bearings in time and place.

The very material qualities of the Jacaranda contributed to its favour and success over native trees with the colonising powers in East and South Africa. In recent times the streets of Nairobi have continually been robbed of the tree cover that once lined them. Social media provides an indication of changes in the urban environment in Nairobi.

Figure 7: A street view image of James Gichuru Road, Nairobi as of April 2022 (Source, Google Earth)
Figure 8: A photo posted on Instagram by Vanya Mesopir, from the same local in October 2016. The lush vegetation cover has since been significantly eroded (Source, Instagram)

The role of social media in documenting images and stories about street trees and their destruction

Wangari Maathai is a household name allover Kenya. She was an environmentalist, Nobel Peace Laureate, and founder of the Green Belt Movement. Her efforts to preserve the sanctity of green spaces in Nairobi earned her worldwide recognition (MacDonald & Mathai, 2013). While environmental activism is still very relevant, now more than ever, a lot has changed since the late Professor Maathai’s time. The advent of social media has enabled activism efforts to be carried out at scales never seen before.

For instance, after a video surfaced on social media showcasing the felling of several Baobabs at the Kenyan coast,intended for illegal export, there was a significant outcry from various individuals and organisations, including conservation groups and the local community. As a result, the government agencies in charge of environmental conservation and wildlife management in Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS)and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), launched investigations into the matter.

Social media platforms such as Twitter,Facebook and Instagram offer both local and international reach that can be used to raise awareness on pertinent issues such as about the continued destruction of street trees in Nairobi. One such example is the use of the #JacarandaPropaganda across the three platforms.


Kenyans take to social media annually to celebrate the beauty of the majestic tree using the (hashtag) #JacarandaPropaganda. #JacarandaPropaganda was created by writer/traveller Nanjala Nyabola in 2015. It has gained traction among Kenyans across different social media platforms with people documenting the majestic and enchanting beauty of the Jacaranda trees every flowering season.

In recent times, this hashtag is experiencing a shift in tone, from mere admiration to environmental concern for the disappearance of the trees.

The hashtag quite openly points out the disappearance of trees in the city, especially along the streets of Nairobi. Waiyaki Way, Ngong’ Road and Kenyatta Avenue were once lined with Jacaranda trees before road expansion projects that saw hundreds of trees cut down across the city. Many more trees were cut down to erect billboards and apartments, the identity of Nairobi as the “green city in the sun” may soon be in the past as the city turns into a concrete jungle.

Figure 9: A photo posted by Wamwiri Kimachia on Instagram, in November 2016 from Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi. He comments on how lively the street is with the Jacarandas in bloom (Source, Instagram)
Figure 10: Kenyatta Avenue, in October 2020, posted on Instagram by Hassan Santur, showing the rows of Jacaranda trees lining Kenyatta Avenue before they were all cleared for the road expansion (Source: Instagram)
Figure 11: The current situation of the walkway along Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi (Source: Authors)

Leveraging the power of social media to initiate lasting change

Social media can be used to mobilise public opinion and influence decision-making. Professionals need to take charge of these conversions, back them up with scientifically proven facts. The tag feature on these platforms accord to us an extensive audience capacity which should have an even greater reach than what our predecessors, such as the late Prof. Maathai had.

Additionally, the legislators need to be brought into this conversation as well. This can initiate the discussion on the protection of the city’s identity through the preservation of the street vegetation on a national level. The preservation of the city’s identity needs to be backed by the law, and effectively enforced. At this point, the society then acts as oversight to ensure the preservation of its culture and sense of place.


The urban street is considered as the most fundamental public place. Lively and walkable streets contribute to the character of a city through the design and use.

Human interactions with each other and with the city help in forming collective memories which form the society’s identity. The street trees contribute heavily to the creation of this sense of place, among many other functions.

Various social media posts under the #JacarandaPropaganda evidently showcase the destruction of street vegetation over time. Common statements filled with nostalgia  can be used to advocate for the preservation of this vegetation during road or building construction.

Social media can be used to advocate for developments that preserve the city’s street trees and hence the shared experiences of its residents. However, professionals need to steer these conversations, backed by their expertise and scientifically proven facts. The urgency and the scale needed for effective change cannot be stressed enough.


Aubrey, A. (2017) Forest Bathing: A Retreat To Nature Can Boost Immunity And Mood. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/07/17/536676954/forest-bathing-a-retreat-to-nature-can-boost-immunity-and-mood
(Accessed 25 02 2023).

Bachelard, G. (1988) Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications.

Green, J. (2021) Miami’s Underline Re-imagines Space Below a Metrorail Line. Available at: https://dirt.asla.org/2021/03/04/miamis-underline-re-imagines-leftover-spaces-below-a-metrorail-line/ (Accessed 25 02 2023).

Harrison, F. (1991) The Living Landscape. London: Mandarin Paperbacks.

Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.

Kahn, L. I. (1971) 'The Room, the Street, and Human Agreement' , AIA Journal, 26(September), pp. 33-34.

Kareithi, A. (2019) 'The allure of Jacaranda: Iconic trees that give Nairobi a purple hue' , Nairobi: Daily Nation.

MacDonald, M. & Mathai, W. (2013) The Ecology of Public Space: from Uhuru to Taksim. Available at: https://www.greenbeltmovement.org/node/456
(Accessed 18 April 2023).

Pearlmutter, D., et al. (2017) The Urban Forest: Cultivating Green Infrastructure for People and the Environment. s.l.: Springer International Publishing AG.

Weesner, J. P. & Marks, J. (2023) Finding the Genius Loci of Transportation: How Landscape Architecture Leverages Infrastructure to Create Place. Available at: https://www.kittelson.com/ideas/finding-the-genius-loci-of-transportation-how-landscape-architecture-leverages-infrastructure-to-create-place/
(Accessed 25 02 2023).

Wilson, E. O. (1984) Biophilia, the Human Bond With Other Species. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.