Imagined Urban Futures of Yangon

Diana Huynh explores the possibilities for Yangon’s future development.

As a newcomer to the city earlier this year, I noticed that urban development and planning in Yangon was a topic that often came up in many discussions, be it with colleagues or during other informal encounters. The general sentiments among locals and foreigners were alike: the nearly undisputed consensus was that the old downtown should be preserved, that the traffic congestion and general infrastructure issues should be addressed, that public space ought to be expanded— a consensus expressed with a sense of optimism that now is a key moment for the unprecedented development of Yangon after decades of military governance that lacked a vision for the city.

Indeed, following Myanmar’s incremental transition since 2011, urban politics have received considerable attention due to the liberalisation of the economy, leading to a rapid influx of the international community in forms of governments, the private sector and NGOs, and an increase in the urban population, which in turn urged the need for a new era of development.

Despite the widespread awareness that Yangon needs planning, the top-down urbanisation process as it currently plays out suggests that it is one associated with a developmentalist vision of urbanism that has been well observed elsewhere in Asia over the last three decades or so. While it appears that the new regional authorities realise Yangon’s great potential, and are giving priority to planning, the urban development proposals for the city so far show limited understanding of actual demographic needs and the morphology of the city as a whole. While the development visions address issues in Yangon that are in great need of intervention, neither come without its set of urban problematiques.

This is particularly evident in the vision that is presented in the Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon, also called the Yangon 2040 Plan, developed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) together with the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). In their strategy published at the end of 2013, JICA presented ideas for large-scale infrastructure expansion and the construction of new satellite towns. The Yangon 2040 Plan projects broadly translate as the development of a downtown district geared towards commerce and finance, while strategically proposing the expansion of satellite towns in the greater metropolitan area (which in fact, the YCDC has already embarked on with their plans for new settlements known as ‘New City’). JICA and the YCDC’s large-scale development is driven by projected population growth figures, an approach that is highly speculative in nature. This type of planning was an intrinsic part of several Southeast Asian cities’ early stages of rapid economic growth, but the long-term consequences have proven unsustainable and nowadays require re-management of governance and new ways of interpreting the urban fabric.

According to a recent article in The Myanmar Times, the Yangon 2040 Plan has been undergoing revision since the middle of 2016 by the new YCDC under NLD leadership. In the revision the YCDC will also take into consideration the recommendations of other organisations before it will finalise the plan; it will certainly be interesting to observe the amendments. If the Yangon 2040 Plan takes precedence in the city’s development, it seems like heavy implementation of transit systems will be required. At this stage the scale of this implementation is nevertheless in radical incongruity with the social-political and fiscal realities of the city. It is also worth noting that the existing “new townships” built in the late 1950s during the years of independence, and in the late 1980s onwards under the military junta, suffer poor transport links and long commutes into the city. Some scholars writing on the urban history of Yangon has argued that the latter was an act of displacement and demobilisation to prevent civic protest. While the proposed satellite towns are supposed to accommodate the growing population in Yangon it can reinforce these previous patterns of sprawl.

Addressing the daunting scope of urban preservation in the city, the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), a non-governmental heritage preservation organisation, has proposed the Yangon Heritage Strategy. The document is according to the Trust not meant to be a comprehensive ‘master plan’, but puts forward a strategy for heritage conservation and development in the old downtown with general recommendations for the wider Central Business District area. The downtown contains an architectural landscape which seldom fails to impress many visitors in Yangon, and thanks to the YHT, much attention in local and international media in recent years has been given to the importance of preserving its colonial buildings. While the work and mission of the Trust has yielded significant contributions to issues of preservation, the heritage strategy document is more contestable. There is no doubt that protecting the historical buildings is vital for socio-cultural reasons, but the current approach presented in the Yangon Heritage Strategy ultimately centres heritage conservation and planning as a principal force to boost the urban economy. In addition, the YHT strives in the document to project narratives of national, regional and global prominence, without giving enough discourse to Yangon’s complexities of identity and history. Interestingly, the new NLD government and regional authorities have, to date, not officially expressed or formulated any vision for what heritage will mean for Yangon or Myanmar, but it is an important part of the new national-identity-forging-process of which outcomes are yet unknown.

At best the strategy presented by the YHT can contribute to the conservation of the city’s unique architectural heritage, which seems to be the main focus. Yet it also aims to promote other aspects, such as waterfront revitalisation, improving streetscapes and increasing public space. However, the urban planning implications that can be drawn from such an approach ought to be addressed in a different context. At worse the heritage conservation strategy will subscribe to what David Harvey has outlined as the logics of the ‘neoliberal urban economy’. In this case, there is little pretense that the spatial ‘trickle down effects’ will cater to business interests and the financial elite, likely to preclude, over time, the vitality of old downtown markets, street vendors and the diversity of ethnic communities and their cultural practices.

While different in scale, the Yangon 2040 Plan and the Yangon Heritage Strategy reflect approaches dominated by projected visions of various stakeholders that have an interest to transform Yangon according to political and economic rationales. This is of course not an uncommon scenario in tales of urban development across the globe. While the intention here is not to provide a polemical view, it is necessary to stress that the city’s planning practice remains troubled by the limited capacities of governmental bodies to promptly enact necessary laws and policies.

If these development plans and strategies are implemented there will be drastic changes, but there is currently a shortage of analytical tools to deeply understand the current transformations. For instance, a lot of work remains to be done when it comes to analysing and identifying the various needs of different townships. Broadly speaking, aspects that have the potential to truly improve the quality of life in this city are yet to be addressed. This can in part be explained by the country’s ongoing restructuring, which undoubtedly will take time, but a point of departure for Yangon’s urbanisation must be the adopting more critical and inclusive planning methods.

This being said, Yangon’s future is not wholly subjected to the visions by the JICA and YHT documents per se. While more scholarship is required, there are also several actors that have been involved in offering their expertise on other aspects related to the urban development process. Several embassies, UN-Habitat, the European Commission, and the World Monuments Fund to mention a few have supported the YCDC on issues of planning and heritage, but it is critical that architectural and spatial, as well as environmental and social-cultural contexts are deeply embedded in the process.

 

As such, historical understandings of Yangon’s urban transformation are also of great importance. Some attempts have been made to unravel urban Yangon during the latter part of the twentieth century, but the socio-political focus of they city’s changes falls short in describing the morphological implications. While historical interpretations and analysis cannot offer direct solutions to urban development, they can enhance or identify patterns that will inform present planning; Myanmar’s cultural and economic centre is not a case where the future should be envisioned independent of the past, and there is a lot unexamined in the case of Yangon.

 

Photo by Diana Huynh