‘Rangoon Will Become a Megacity’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 21 September 2013

RANGOON — Rangoon is Burma’s biggest city—it’s commercial and financial capital—but until just two years ago, it did not have an urban planning department. Toe Aung, a former army major, decided to set one up in 2011, the year reformist President Thein Sein came to power, and is now working to create a roadmap for future infrastructure projects in the city of 5 million people.

He says Rangoon, which was the country’s administrative capital until 2005, is set to become a megacity in the future, with its population expected to reach 10 million by 2040. Before that, however, it will need to contend with problems such as frequent power cuts, gridlocked traffic and a shortage of housing and office space, while also considering the importance of conservation—especially of heritage buildings and century-old colonial architecture.

Toe Aung leads the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC)’s Department of City Planning and Land Administration, which is collaborating with other organizations—including the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)—to plan for the city’s development. In this interview, he explains what he is doing to preserve green places, waterfronts and historic buildings.

Question: What is YCDC’s vision for Rangoon?

Answer: According to the “Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon” Plan, we have four visions for Rangoon. First, our city has to become an international hub. The second is to be a comfortable city for residents. Third, we need a city with good infrastructure. The last one is a city of good governance. These are our plans through 2040, as the city population will likely grow to 10 million people and Rangoon will become a megacity with that population. That’s why we have targeted 2040 as a deadline to solve required housing projects and infrastructure development, which will be needed at that time.

Q: YCDC has been working on zoning regulations. Can you tell me more about that?

A: Zoning regulations are necessary for sustainable development in the city, including integrated and uniform zoning policies to preserve green places, waterfronts as well as historic buildings. These days we have many investment proposals from home and abroad. Even though the government is willing to approve them, we can’t say ‘yes’ to all proposals without a zoning plan. If we do, there will be projects that fail to meet land-use requirements. If we allow high-rises recklessly, as we did in the past, there will be problems with electricity, water and sewage. Not all areas in downtown can have high-rises. Look at the tower close to Sule Pagoda—it dominates the pagoda and looks very inappropriate. To ensure something like this does not happen again, we need a zoning plan.

Another problem in the downtown area is heritage buildings. They are scattered and sandwiched between residential areas. If we allow high-rises beside them, they will be dominated and their distinctiveness will be lost. On the other hand, we can’t firmly say ‘no’ when a high-rise proposal comes up, because so far we have no zoning regulations to limit the height of a building. If we say developers shouldn’t build that high, they will ask, ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ And we have no exact answer.

We hear a lot of complaints these days from developers that do not get approval for high-rise buildings. We tell them we are taking time to consider their proposals because we don’t want to make mistakes that we made in the past.

Q: Do you mean YCDC is no longer permitting high-rise buildings now?

A: No, I don’t. We are negotiating very hard with developers. For example, if they want a 32-story building, we say, ‘No, please make it 20 stories or something.’ If we have regulations, we can say, ‘Take it or leave it.’ So far we have needed to negotiate and work on a case-by-case basis.

Q: When will the zoning regulation come into effect?

A: The draft zoning plan may be finished at the end of this month. It covers more than half of the whole Rangoon—we prioritized the areas where developers are most interested. We are also focusing now on zoning guideline in those areas. We will get approval from experts for a draft of zoning guidelines by the end of this month, and we will submit it to the Rangoon divisional government for approval. If we have the guidelines, we can use them. We will make them pubic.

Q: Apart from YCDC, which other organizations are involved in drafting zoning regulations?

A: We founded the Yangon City Comprehensive Land Use, Zoning and Urban Design Review Working Committee together with experts from the YCDC, the Ministry of Construction’s Department of Human Settlements and Housing Development, the Yangon Heritage Trust, Mandalay Technological University, the Association of Myanmar Architects and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The working committee is just two months old, but we have discussed and planned the draft for one year.

Q: How can the zoning plan help protect heritage buildings, especially in the downtown area?

A: We have designated seven heritage zones downtown. We will control the height of buildings there if possible. Generally speaking, we surely won’t allow any new buildings that would dominate heritage buildings. We have to put urban design into consideration, too. A high-rise right next to a heritage building would be unacceptable because it would dominate the old building and ruin the urban landscape. In the downtown area, there might be a limit on height. It might be different from area to area, and that’s still under discussion. We also need to calculate the feasible height [for buildings] in heritage zones. For example, the [acceptable] height might be different for a building close to City Hall than it would be for a farther building. It’s very complicated and takes a lot of time.

Q: There are some ongoing high-rise projects in the downtown area. Under what criteria did you approve them?

A: The projects were mostly passed when we were discussing having a zoning plan. It was our weakness, because we did not have zoning regulations in time. The president, U Thein Sein, encouraged us to develop solid zoning regulations. He supports YHT, too. But he is torn between conservation of heritage buildings and welcoming investors. If we don’t allow modern development, our Rangoon will become a museum of old buildings. So we need to allow them, but only in the right places.