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View from Rangoon, Burma

Formerly isolated under the countryʼs military dictatorship, Rangoon now has an unparalleled opportunity to become a modern and sustainable Asian metropolis

After decades of isolation under military dictatorship, Rangoon (Yangon) is finally opening up to the world, but economic liberalisation is also putting the city’s urban character at risk. Most Western sanctions on Burma have been lifted and Rangoon is now exposed to rapid changes caused by foreign investment. A shortage of hotel rooms, offices and flats has led to excessive property prices and breakneck development. Faced with a massive increase in road traffic, construction and high-rise developments, can Rangoon preserve its green character and save its unique historic centre?

Famous for its leafy avenues, lakes and golden pagodas, Rangoon is known as the ‘Garden City of Southeast Asia’. Even though many large trees fell when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, the city still has a lush green silhouette crowned by the ancient Buddhist pagodas of Shwedagon and Sule. Yet prime locations around the central lakes and green open spaces are developed with little regard to height or plot ratios, and new buildings are already intruding on views to the golden stupas.

Laid out in 1852 by British military engineers Fraser and Montgomerie, downtown Rangoon has one of the largest collections of colonial architecture in Southeast Asia. However most of it fell into poor condition in the years of military rule, and the relocation of the capital to Nay Pyi Taw in 2006 left many former government buildings abandoned. Without clear plans for future use, the civilising potential of the areaʼs broad promenades, restaurants, street life and hotels is rapidly being squandered. Today, visitors are confronted with traffic jams, crowded pavements, rubbish and decaying buildings in danger of collapse.

The Rangoon Heritage Trust, founded by historian Thant Myint-U, is working to attract investors to renovate historic structures and create heritage areas to protect buildings from demolition. But the lack of legal and economic incentives for preservation favours new, taller structures, such as a recently proposed 38-storey tower sited next to the 100-year-old Indian Embassy in Kyauktada Township. Predictably, the proposal has generated protests about its impact on the old city.

The population of greater Rangoon is expected to double by 2040, but much of the city has no basic municipal services such as reliable electricity and regular rubbish collection. Soaring rents and the high cost of living have seen hundreds of families leave their homes. The Association of Burmese Architects is organising a competition for green housing, but more action is needed. Public space is also under pressure, with the rise in the number of cars throttling the city’s vibrant streetlife. Trees, vendor shops and tea stalls are being displaced and pavements narrowed to create new driving lanes and parking. Bike lanes and safe pedestrian crossings are non-existent, and parks and open green space are in equally poor condition.

Rangoon was originally developed as a mercantile city by marine transport, but now most of the riverfront is occupied by port facilities. However the proposed deep-sea port at Thilawa in a Special Economic Zone to the south offers the hope that some public open space can be recovered.

In an attempt to present a holistic view of future growth, Rangoon City Development Committee has initiated a strategic plan for urban development. In conjunction with UN-Habitat, an Urban Research and Development Institute opened in September to increase capacity among planners and architects. As well as housing and key infrastructure, the need to mitigate natural disasters such as flooding is also critical.

A promising sign of the new times is that these matters are publicly being debated in an increasingly free media, and a new generation of Burmese architects is finally emerging to take on the important work of renewing and saving their city.

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