07/08/2013 11:22 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

The Ecology of Public Space: From Uhuru to Taksim

Co-authored by Wanjira Mathai, the daughter of Wangari Maathai, and Vice-Chair of the Green Belt Movement and Project Leader of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi.

The demonstrations that began in Istanbul to protest the leveling of Gezi Park to make way for the redevelopment of Taksim Square rang a familiar bell for us. So did the recent news that the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after first dismissing the protestors' concerns, put the project on hold until a court ruled on its legality. That court has: and it's rejected the redevelopment, too.

Almost a quarter century ago, Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist, Nobel peace laureate, and founder of the Green Belt Movement, campaigned to save a public park in Nairobi. Like the struggle in Turkey, Maathai's efforts morphed from an effort to preserve green space to a citizen-led demand for transparency and accountability from those who, in the name of the people, held the wealth of the commons (including public land) in trust.

Of course, there are important differences between Turkey now and Kenya then. Turkey is a democracy and the world's media -- perhaps with their awareness raised following the global "Occupy" movement of 2010-11 -- paid attention in a way that wasn't the case in Kenya, which 25 years ago was a one-party state.

Online social networks now enable protestors like those in Taksim Square to organize and to broadcast their demands to the world, and Turkey's judicial system, in ruling against the Taksim redevelopment, has shown its independence from the governing political party -- an unlikely scenario in Kenya in the 1980s and 1990s.

Nonetheless, certain commonalities apply.

In 1989, Maathai learned that the government, under the autocratic leadership of president Daniel arap Moi, intended to excise a portion of Uhuru ("Freedom") Park in downtown Nairobi to build a 62-story skyscraper complex to house the headquarters for KANU, the ruling political party, along with offices, a shopping mall, parking for 2,000 vehicles, and a large statue of Moi himself. The original size of the park had already been reduced by development: a hotel, a road, a members-only golf course, and a football stadium had all been built on parkland during previous years.

Maathai recognized -- as the Taksim Square protestors proclaimed -- that the park's importance to Nairobi was akin to that of Hyde Park to London or Central Park to New York City. So she resolved to try to stop the project.

Unlike in Turkey today, dissent wasn't tolerated then in Kenya; she risked imprisonment and worse if she called people out to protest. So she fought through letters -- to government officials, those backing the development (among them the late British tycoon Robert Maxwell), and international agencies and consulates. She also shared these with the media.

Although largely under the thumb of the regime, a handful of editors were seeking greater press freedom, and covered the story. They also printed numerous letters from Kenyans who supported Maathai's campaign. "A green belt in the city creates a meaningful contrast to the concrete jungle," one wrote; another, a child, wrote: "Uhuru Park is where my parents take me over the weekend."

For her efforts, Maathai was publicly denounced by the president, who called her a "wayward woman" and accused the complex's opponents of having "insects in their heads." Parliament interrupted its proceedings to pillory her, and the Green Belt Movement was summarily evicted from its offices in a government-owned building. (Maathai's staff of 80 had to move to her modest home.)

Emboldened by Maathai's stand, however, opposition continued to grow until in early 1992, under cover of night, the fence in Uhuru Park that demarcated the construction site was quietly removed, and the project abandoned. At a meeting the next morning of women leaders, Maathai declared victory, announcing the complex to be dead -- as dead as a dodo. The slaying of the "park monster" is acknowledged as a milestone in Kenya's journey toward multi-party democracy.

Maathai understood that for young and old, rich and poor, Uhuru Park offered a respite from the sprawling housing estates and commercial buildings that had chewed up former grassland and forest. It continues to be an invaluable haven in the heart of downtown Nairobi.

Maathai also recognized that green space reduces ambient heat in cities, mitigates the effects of pollution and absorbs greenhouse gases. Urban parks act as simple but socially vital safety valves for ordinary men and women to release some of the pressures of city life -- especially for those who've left rural areas for the promise of more and better paid work in the city and find themselves living in treeless informal settlements or featureless tower blocks.

This is also why in the late 1990s, Maathai and the Green Belt Movement rallied to prevent the government from selling off parts of Karura Forest in northern Nairobi to political cronies to build luxury housing. The threat wasn't only to the ecosystem, known as Nairobi's lungs, but also to the curtailing of Kenyans' liberties and rights. Although this fight was bloody, with violent attacks by security forces, it was won and Karura is now one of the world's largest protected urban forests and a popular recreation spot.

As public space has become increasingly privatized and commercialized, such green space reminds people that they're citizens and rights-bearers, and not merely consumers and logo-wearers.

This truth is also not lost on governments or corporations. They understand that where people are free to gather, soon enough they will gather to be free, to express their need for what Maathai called "democratic space."

Which is why Maathai's vision of the ecology of public space -- that green space is democratic space -- has never been more necessary, in Taksim Square or anywhere people are attempting to create healthier neighborhoods or seeking as a planetary community to foster sustainable societies, and to engage the support of their fellow citizens to do so.

Republished with permission from The Ecologist magazine.