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5 takeaways from Yangon Heritage Trust’s new vision for the city

Imagine Yangon in 10 years. What do you see? A cleaner, greener city, with modern infrastructure and the same heritage charm that makes it unique today? Traditional communities remain in place, while high-rises have popped up on the outer edges, far from the historic core, which has become a thriving arts center. Neglected colonial-era buildings have been put to use. At night, the golden Shwedagon pagoda is still the shining center of the city.

That’s the dreamy vision outlined by heritage conservation nonprofit the Yangon Heritage Trust in a new 152-page strategy document released today.

This city is at a turning point, the organization says in the report,Yangon Heritage Strategy. It has an opportunity to be the “most liveable city in Asia”, but only if development goes the right way.

“Yangon already has assets that can’t be bought or planned into existence; it is a green and fundamentally well-planned city with rich cultural heritage and one of the best surviving historic cityscapes in Asia,” the report reads. “These features provide it with the economic edge needed to succeed in the future and must be protected.”

But if the city continues to rapidly develop in an unplanned fashion, it could experience the same social, economic and health problems that are crippling other urban centers in the region.

“In such cities, slums entrench the social gap between rich and poor, traffic becomes gridlocked for hours and access to new job and education opportunities is minimal,” the report says. “Poor infrastructure means high levels of noise and air pollution, rivers clogged with rubbish, piles of garbage in the streets, and lack of hygiene from congested sewers or water drains. All this leads, in turn, to a downward cycle of investment as investors choose to take their business elsewhere. Without good planning, Yangon could end up like this within a few years.”

The solutions outlined in the plan are ambitious and detailed: the authors have drawn up 24 specific action plans for buildings, urban areas and city systems.

“It’s not a master plan, that’s the work of the government,” Dr Thant Myint-U, the Trust’s Founder and Chairman, said in a statement. “It’s a collection of our ideas, based on the past four years of discussion with national and international experts, government, business, and ordinary people living and working in Yangon. We hope it will be useful to the government and will facilitate public consultation.”

The document, released in PDF form online, is exceedingly large at 188MB, considering snail-slow internet speeds in Yangon (it cost us K5,000 to download). So, in case you’d prefer a digested version, here are our five key takeaways:

1. Protection of heritage and green space

YHT supports turning the Secretariat building in downtown Yangon into a mixed-use space, with museums and gardens. Photo: Aung Naing Soe / Coconuts Yangon

Yangon boasts the densest collection of colonial-era buildings of any city in Southeast Asia. Hundreds have been torn down amid the construction boom in recent years, but the pace has slowed since YHT began campaigning in 2012. Many of the grandest buildings belong to the government, and were abandoned when the military moved the capital to Naypyitaw in 2005. YHT proposes an audit of government land and real estate in Yangon to find out who owns what.

“A plan is then required to strategically utilize this and real estate for public good,” they say. “This office could also include a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) department responsible for bringing government property to market and seeking, assessing and overseeing partnerships with the private sector in the form of leasing or development arrangements for the public good. Premium leases could be sought on high-profile historic buildings. With a mix of commercial and public use being allowed. At the end of the lease, they would be returned to the government as an improved asset.”

The report suggests an immediate ban on demolitions in areas set aside for conservation and key renovation projects – 11 examples are outlined. In the long-term, YHT wants to introduce a revised Yangon Heritage Conservation Law that accurately defines what “heritage” is and formalizes heritage lists and conservation areas, as well as enshrines guidelines for restoration.

The city also has more than 1,500 acres of parkland, though much of this is inaccessible to the public, the report notes. “Areas such as the Regional Parliament compound are not open to the public and existing parks such as the zoo, the People’s Park and Kandawgyi Lake have been eroded by semi-private developments and lack of coordinated management.” YHT is proposing a city-wide network of parks and gardens linking the Shwedagon with Kandawgyi and Inya lakes, down to the Yangon River.

Photo: Yangon Heritage Trust

“Each of these green areas can have a circular walking path within its perimeter…. This will provide over nine miles of walking and cycling routes, giving Yangon an invaluable liveability and public health asset. Once pedestrians or bicyclists enter the path system they won’t have to stop at traffic lights or cross roads.”

2. Rail, subway, bus, water ferries

The Yangon River, seen here at dusk in 2015. Photo: Aung Naing Soe / Coconuts Yangon

Yangon is in the grips of a transport crisis. At peak hours, traffic grinds to a halt in many parts of the city. After car import tax was relaxed under the former military-backed government, following decades of restrictions, cars flooded the city.

YHT wants to build a subway system within the bounds of the existing circular line train – currently undergoing a massive JICA-funded upgrade – by 2025. It also wants to make use of the location of the city at the confluence of six rivers, by expanding the use of water ferries and taxis.

“Trishaws and bicycles are also an important mode of environmentally sustainable transport in the city providing a livelihood for low-income families,” the report adds. “There should be a dedicated system of bike lanes in the city to cater for this culturally and economically important mode of public transport.”

3. ‘Memory hubs’      

One of the most interesting cultural ideas in the report is the introduction of ‘memory hubs’ – archives, museums, community spaces and other forums throughout the city. “Successive governments since colonial times have attempted to suppress aspects of Myanmar’s history for political reasons,” the report reads. “Certain themes, ideas, people and movements have become distorted or politicised. There now needs to be a balanced, non-political recovery of memory in Yangon… These Memory Hubs can be placed in key locations within the city, wherever a local community sees their value. They can range in size from a major Yangon City Museum to small locally run spaces in the city’s townships.”

4. Total rehaul of downtown streets

Photo: Yangon Heritage Trust

Downtown life is both a joy and a curse. As the strategy notes, “Yangon’s downtown is blessed with a logical and well-planned hierarchical grid of streets.” Once, there was ample room on the pavements for strolling and relaxing. No more. As YHT puts it: “Today, Yangon’s pavements function poorly. Generators, badly placed trees and power poles, along with sprawling vendor stalls and uncontrolled advertising block pedestrian flow.” Barring parks, there are no benches, or places to relax. Pavements are broken and rarely maintained. Parking, and double parking, impedes traffic on major thoroughfares. There are no pedestrian crossings.

The drainage system barely functions, with poured concrete surfaces failing to absorb rainfall and exacerbating flooding. Backlanes are used as rubbish dumps. “The city’s greywater system has mingled with the sewerage system and water pipes have been run along existing greywater drains,” the report says. “Because of this, drinking and showering water is often contaminated with sewage.” Basic sanitation threatens to become a major health threat.

YHT wants a complete rehaul, treating streets differently depending on their size and use. The smaller, mostly residential streets would have space for parking and restrictions on vendors while others would add trees, street furniture and community spaces. Footpaths would be widened, for use as night markets and other community spaces. They even suggest a resident parking permit system for some areas.

As for the drainage, the action plan recommends rebuilding the systems to act as ‘sponges’ with concrete pavers rather than poured slabs, meaning water is – um, apparently – better absorbed into the ground.

“City authorities can work closely with local communities to undertake an intital clean up of the streets and back lanes in tandem with a public awareness campaign on the health, economic and civic pride benefits of maintaining a clean urban environment,” YHT suggests.

“A monitoring system by residents could be instituted and, in addition to YCDC’s extensive daily rubbish collection activities, a Deep Clean Unit could be established that involves removing accumulated rubbish and dirt, and reporting unstable, damaged or badly functioning footpaths, roads, drains and trees for repair by the city’s maintenance department.”

5. A fund for heritage conservation and liveability

The ground floor of a newly restored building on Merchant Street. Photo: Aung Naing Soe / Coconuts Yangon

This is all well and good, right, but how do we pay for it?

“Several financing mechanisms could be put in place to assist with funding the conservation of Yangon’s built and cultural heritage,” says YHT. “These range from taxes to cross subsidization and variations of the Built Operate Transfer model.”

The key, however, would be to set up a Yangon Heritage Conservation and Livability Fund. The regional government would administer this body, and be overseen by a committee of members representing various sectors. Developers would contribute to the fund depending on the floor area of their buildings and the money would go towards street upgrades or restoration of nearby heritage buildings. London introduced something similar, asking developers to pay for the upgrading of public facilities through the Community Infrastructure Levy – a fee levied on developments depending on their floor area.

There is much, much more in the report. Go here to download it.