Guest Column

High-Rise Limits in Old Rangoon: a Step in the Right Direction

By Maung Rapu 20 May 2014

Rangoon is at a major turning point in its urban planning history. The city’s first comprehensive plan to limit the height of new buildings has been drafted. In the coming weeks, members of the public will be able to officially comment on it during a public hearing by the Yangon City Development Committee’s zoning committee.

The plan is designed to ensure that high-rise development happens in the right parts of town and that the unique character of Rangoon is protected. It’s a vital first step and one which means the livability and uniqueness of Rangoon is conserved for the benefit of current and future generations.

Height controls are an accepted and fundamental part of urban planning regulations across the world. They put an upper limit on how high new buildings can be constructed in certain areas while also freeing up other areas where high-rise can be built.

The height controls being proposed for Rangoon’s downtown grid have been formulated with the city’s uniqueness in mind. The proposed plan of between four to six stories in the downtown grid is designed to protect what makes Rangoon unique while encouraging new economic dynamics which can improve the lives of local residents.

Rangoon’s wonderful urban heritage, diverse communities, green spaces, views of Shwedagon and Sule pagodas and the generous waterfront means we have a cityscape worth billions of dollars in the long term and which has the potential to be one of Asia’s most livable if managed well.

Achieving this means controlling where high-rise development takes place. The proposed height plan for Rangoon is not about stopping high-rise in the city. Everybody can share in that vision of a modern Rangoon with soaring skyscrapers of shimmering glass and steel. The issue is where that high-rise should go. Do we want to see towers like Sakura and Centre Point throughout the downtown? Blocking views of Shwedagon Pagoda, replacing low-rise heritage cityscapes and destroying the economic profitability of Rangoon’s uniqueness?

Effective height controls change the economic potential of an area from being about land value and high-rise speculation to being about character and its value. The heritage itself becomes profitable as a contributor to the makeup of “Brand Rangoon”.

This kind of differentiation in the South East Asian region will give Rangoon a competitive edge over its less well-planned neighbors. This will lay the foundation for a new economic dynamic which can bring billions of dollars to the local economy through startup businesses, creative industries, design firms, tourism and hospitality.

If you want to know what Rangoon would be like in 20 years without a good height plan, just look at Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. These cities failed to manage high-rise well and have huge problems associated with density. They include traffic congestion, parking issues, increases in noise and air pollution, lack of direct sunlight and fresh air, separation of communities from street life leading to safety issues and fragmentation of local communities. All problems Rangoon has had a taste of in recent years but nothing like what we could have with badly planned high-rise.

Many cities around the world have experienced the negative impacts of badly planned high-rise. In Vancouver there have been long running tensions between high-rise “gated communities” which replace low rise streetscapes. Similarly in Melbourne there have been significant tensions for decades around the lack of community cohesion in the Central Business District where high-rise dominates. Ever-expanding Chinese cities such as Chenggong outside Kunming have rows of high-rise which create separated and fragmented communities of people living side by side in isolation.

The narrow grid of Rangoon would not be able to manage the increased demand in utility supply required with high-rise towers. With regular rolling blackouts across Rangoon, electricity provision cannot keep up. The downtown’s antiquated drainage and sewerage systems are overwhelmed with much of the grey water and sewerage pooling at the base of buildings causing damage to foundations and creating health risks. The supply of drinking water is not separated from sewerage and this is having massive impacts on the health, happiness and productivity of Rangoon’s citizens.

Many other cities have adopted height controls to protect their unique urban heritage. Singapore’s historic areas allow no increase in height. Authorities in Hanoi adopted the “Paris Model” limiting high-rise in the center and encouraging it around the periphery by using a 40-feet control for the core. Washington, famed for its low-rise character, has a 90-130 feet control.

Melbourne’s historic central retail district has a 132-feet control which has effectively defended the area’s fine-grain heritage fabric and encouraged innovative industries, retail and hospitality through the old laneway network. In contrast, the areas of Melbourne’s Central Business District lacking height controls are dominated by soulless high-rise with little economic diversity.

We do not have to repeat the same mistakes as other cities. Rangoon is in a position to learn from its neighbors and leapfrog into a brighter and better-planned future. Together with further regulations and incentives, the proposed height plan will ensure Rangoon can be one of Asia’s most livable cities in the future.

So if you don’t want to live in a city choked by traffic, dominated by towers and stripped of its unique character then make your voice heard at the zoning committee public hearing to be announced by the Yangon City Development Committee’s zoning committee and lend your support to a step in the right direction for this great city and the lives of its residents.

Maung Rupa is an urban heritage conservation specialist living in Rangoon.