Urban Experts Urge Restrained Development of Rangoon

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 22 December 2014

RANGOON — A group of Burmese urban experts and their organizations have sent an open letter to Burma’s president, requesting “urgent action” to rein in unruly urbanization projects that have had negative consequences due to a lack of “systematic urban planning controls” for the city.

The letter also warns that “if the current situation is not controlled in time, [problems] will not be able to be solved in the next four or five decades, and Rangoon will face more difficult challenges.”

In the three-point appeal to President Thein Sein on Friday, the Association of Myanmar Architects, Myanmar Engineer Society and Yangon Heritage Trust called on the government to suspend construction projects planned or already underway at Rangoon’s heritage sites, such as the area surrounding Shwedagon Pagoda and the historic downtown core. The appeal said such projects could threaten both city dwellers and urban landscapes.

The letter also suggests the formation of a committee made up of experts on sustainable urban management, in order to urgently review and manage development projects in the city. Additionally, the signatories urge the government to enact the Myanmar National Building Code and Zoning Plan, both of which have existed in draft form for more than one year.

The letter was made available to media on Saturday at a Save Yangon Forum, where urban experts and other interested parties discussed Rangoon’s problems and potential solutions.

Sun Oo, the forum’s moderator and vice president of the Association of Myanmar Architects, said the experts were aware that a status quo approach to urbanization in Rangoon would be a threat to future generations.

“If we don’t speak out now based on what we know, we will feel guilty. That’s why we sent the letter to the president. But we are worried the letter will be ignored,” he said at the forum.

Kyaw Lat, an advisor to the Yangon City Development Committee’s Urban Development Affairs department, said laws and regulations to control building density were of paramount importance.

“The Zoning Plan still hasn’t been recognized by the government. We have that kind of problem,” he said.

The request to the president comes at a time when Rangoon is, as experts at the forum unanimously agreed, under threat due to a lack of urban planning and controls. The weak regulatory framework has led to a boom in construction projects and widely varying population densities across town, causing social, commercial and infrastructural problems for residents.

For all of its former grandeur—the old capital was once considered one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia—Rangoon today is a city of dysfunction and neglect. Monsoon rains regularly leave parts of the city inundated; commute times have dramatically increased as roads have become congested by growing numbers of taxis and private vehicles; sidewalks are disappearing to make way for parking spaces; and public spaces like parks are being converted into shopping malls, all in the name of urban development.

“Given the condition Rangoon is in today, it could easily win the Dirtiest and Messiest City in Southeast Asia Award, if there were such a competition,” said Maw Lin, a Rangoon-based architect, during his forum talk, titled “Suffocating Yangon.”

Hlaing Maw Oo, an urban planning expert from the Department of Housing and Resettlement, said at the forum that some overpopulated townships in Rangoon have more than 1,000 people living in one hectare. The number is far beyond that of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, Dhaka, where an average of 555 people live per hector, she added.

“That number [more than 1,000] signals there would be [attendant] negative social, commercial, urban infrastructure and health impacts. It should be not more than 200-250 people per hectare. It shows Yangon needs to control its urban development properly,” she said.

According to the 2014 national census, the former capital is home to more than 5.2 million people, about 35 percent of Burma’s urban population. Since the country’s opening to the outside world in 2012, the city has been undergoing rapid changes. New investment has brought urban development projects and high-rise construction, even as migrants from across the country are arriving to Rangoon in search of better opportunities.

Amid the changing urban tide, the city lacks proper construction guidelines and zoning ordinances. According to the letter to the president, rules and regulations used to govern the construction of high-rises and apartment buildings are out of date. As an example, one expert cited the fact that the regulations currently in place were written at a time when buildings were not constructed higher than three to four stories, an inadequate template for a modern Rangoon in which buildings of six to 20 stories are increasingly common.

As a result, present day Rangoon has seen the construction of many poorly regulated apartment buildings where residents’ safety and health are at risk.

“The main problem is we haven’t got proper town planning controls,” said Hla Su Myat, an architect for the government’s Urban Development Proposal Scrutinizing Committee.

“My suggestion is we should control the building density in the city before it’s too late.”

The open letter is not the first effort to raise public awareness about the pressures facing Rangoon. Last year, the World Monuments Fund put the city on its list of places “at risk from the forces of nature and the impact of social, political, and economic change.”