The Swahili city-state of Lamu off the northern coast of present-day Kenya was probably founded in the 14th century by Arab traders; by the 15th century it was a flourishing mercantile centre frequented by Arab and Persian traders. Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean trade in the 16th century witnessed some decline in Lamu's importance, but a revival took place subsequently under Omani protection in the 17th century. Transfer of the seat of the Omani Sultanate to Zanzibar in 1840 assured a new flourishing, and during this time the encouragement of Indian merchants to settle introduced yet another element in the mixture of cultures. By the 19th century, German and British spheres of influence had been established and, in 1895, Lamu became part of the East Africa Protectorate administered by the British. Up until this time, the trade and transport of slaves, particularly, and of ivory made up the community's principal source of income, along with agriculture (mangroves), which also was entirely reliant on slave labour. The abolishment of slavery and the increasing importance of Nairobi, on the main land, and Mombassa, on the coast further threatened Lamu's existence. By the early part of this century, the town had become an obscure and almost forgotten port in full economic decline.
The Lamu Conservation Project comprises four aspects: A detailed study of the architectural as well as the social fabric an economic structure of the historic town of Lamu; The establishment of a comprehensive conservation plan which includes national and local legislation, planning policies, and design guidelines; and The active involvement of the local community, including training programmes for the restoration and maintenance of the building stock, demonstration projects focusing on the rehabilitation and improvement of public spaces and buildings.
Under the auspices of the National Museums of Kenya and the Ministry of Lands and Settlements, an initial inventory of historic buildings was undertaken in 1975 in an effort to foster conservation and to focus public attention on the need to protect the area. Following legislation enacted by the Kenyan Government in 1983 to provide the legal framework to safeguard monuments and places of historical interest, a comprehensive conservation plan was finalized in 1985 and made up of three distinct parts: detailed planning policies including local building and land use regulations, and special measures for the protection of the historical features of the town; a number of special projects and recommendations to upgrade services and public areas in the town; and building guidelines which give practical guidance to owners making repairs or alterations to old buildings or building new houses in the historical area.
Administrative procedures have been developed and will be enforced by a Local Planning Commission, whose members include health, architectural, and conservation experts and members of the local community, through the offices of the City Council. Throughout the programme, special effort has been made to learn and to address the needs and aspirations of the local community, and such aspects as economic viability and technical expertise.