Steering Yangon clear of urban disaster

Smart urban planning will determine Yangon’s future and – if the government gets it right – could be worth tens of billions of US dollars.

U Thant Myint-U, founder of non-profit Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), said yesterday that urban policy planning will determine whether or not Yangon will have a multi-billion-dollar-a-year tourism industry.

“It will also determine whether global companies invest in Yangon or instead choose a city in Vietnam or Indonesia,” he told The Myanmar Times.

“It will determine whether Yangon can develop its own creative and knowledge-based industries. And it will determine whether people from around the country have a multicultural city they can call home.”

The alternative is an “urban disaster zone”, with endless traffic, violent crime and health-destroying smog, “where no investors or tourists want to visit and the Myanmar themselves flee the first chance they get”, he said.

He made the comments after YHT published a series of maps outlining an ambitious vision for Myanmar’s largest city.

Unlike infrastructure plans drawn up by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which are linked to Japanese aid, these maps focus on Yangon’s unique features, such as Shwedagon Pagoda, the old city, the waterfront and lakes.

They demarcate a downtown “conservation area” extending from Yangon River in the south to the railway line north of the downtown grid system. To the west and particularly to the east of the city, YHT imagines growth areas with opportunities for developing commercial, residential and industrial buildings at a safe distance from heritage sites.

To the north, an area including Kandawgyi and Inya lakes, People’s Park, Shwedagon Pagoda and Yangon University should be preserved with a focus on green space, according to the maps, which are published on the organisation’s website.

The four zones should be linked, with transport routes from east to west, and a network of parks throughout the city, particularly along riverfronts and creeks.

U Thant Myint-U said this is not a blueprint. “These maps are only part of a far wider set of ideas we hope to develop between now and the end of March and that we hope to be able to present to the next administration, whoever is in office,” he said.

YHT has discussed the maps with “a few dozen” government officials, businesspeople, NGOs and political parties. Reactions have been positive so far, according to U Thant Myint-U, and many more consultations will take place over the next few months.

He believes the project’s success will hinge on government support. “It’s all about political will. Yangon has all the ingredients to become a great city. If there’s a will, there will be a way.”

In a statement released yesterday, YHT called for political parties to support its efforts to ensure that the city’s development is properly managed and warned of the risks of development without proper urban planning.

The challenge is to secure the right mix of government policies, to allow private sector investment to subsidise renovation of the city’s crumbling heritage and, at the same time, ensure local communities benefit from the “tremendous tourism boom that’s likely”, said U Thant Myint-U.

Above all, the mindset needs to change, he said. “When I first started working on Yangon conservation and urban planning four years ago, very few saw it as a priority.

“I don’t think there is enough understanding that the future in Myanmar … is going to be about cities. Getting the biggest city right is one of most important challenges facing the country today.”

Source: Myanmar Times

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