A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF LAMU OLD TOWN AND SHELLA TOWN

The protected world heritage sites that have remained intact for years face growing
pressure with increased urbanisation. In the case of ancient cities that have sustained
inhabitants over time, a rapidly growing population strains the old buildings and the
existing infrastructure.
The population of Lamu Island where this study is based was estimated to have been
7,4061 in 1975 whereas in the 2009 census it was estimated to be 18,8412. Over time,
standards of living and the pressure of increased population have led residents to alter the
buildings radically. For example, some of the houses that were exclusively residential
were modified to respond to the need for inexpensive accommodation for lodgers by
converting part of their spaces into rental rooms. This was achieved by subdivision and
expansion. Partitions were constructed to divide the long galleries (misana) into several
rooms and if need be, additional stories and a penthouse are added with the latter making
use of rooftops. Over and above this, imported building methods and materials are being
used to build new buildings which are ill-suited to the local conditions. There is little
doubt that if allowed to continue unchecked, these pressures and changes will undermine
and eventually destroy the historical structure and character of these sites 3.
Gazetted as a national monument in 1983, Lamu Old Town was eventually enlisted in the
UNESCO World Heritage Site List in 2001. Ironically, its obscurity and the absence of
vehicles and roads on the island have preserved it from indelible changes associated with
modernisation. Lamu has therefore been spared the fate of other historical towns globally
which have been transformed by errant development. This makes it the oldest and best
preserved example of Swahili settlement along the East African coast. What is more, Old
Lamu as an urban settlement is adapted to its warm-humid climate and the traditional
Swahili’s limited resources and technology. Characterized by its compact town plan of
inward facing houses, it provides a successful model of an urban community which is
radically different from the sprawling and shade-less cities built in this part of the world
today4.
 

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