Yangon’s future prompts expert call to action

There is no question development is arriving in Myanmar’s largest metropolis. The swift pace of change has already begun reshaping Yangon, and the city is teeming with more people and buildings than ever before.

Urban areas are bursting at the seams from this influx, which shows few signs of slowing down. Questions swirl as to whether the city will be able to cope as it continues to grow.

Yangon has about 5.2 million people – meaning about 10 percent of people in Myanmar live in the city. Around one-third of all Myanmar residents of urban areas come from Yangon, said Daw Hlaing Maw Oo, an urban planner from the Department of Housing Development and Human Settlement.

Yangon’s initial infrastructure was based around the six downtown townships. It has since expanded to 33 townships, in every direction from the original city.

Population density is already high in the city, and it shows no signs of slowing down, she said at the ‘Save Yangon Forum’ held at the end of December.

In 1989, downtown Yangon had a population density of about 450 people per hectare (1 hectare is about 2.47 acres). By comparison, Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with 555 people per hectare.

Even the more remote Yangon townships boast these kind of population densities, while some of the densest communities now have over 1000 people a hectare.

“We have been conducting conservation work on Thiri Street in Sanchaung township,” said Daw Hlaing Maw Oo.

“The population density is horrible – in one particular hectare there are 1452 people. This is much worse than Dhaka. Among the townships in Yangon, Sanchaung is likely the worst.”

Growing population density not only can make living uncomfortable, but causes stress on the infrastructure supporting the city, such as roads, sewers and electricity.

One particular danger is the density of buildings. Yangon is increasingly crowded, but new buildings are not being added in a systematic way, said Daw Hla Su Myat, executive from the Association of Myanmar Architects.

Government rules call for inclusion of empty space around buildings, particularly high-rises. However, often these provisions are avoided, meaning buildings end up too close together.

“That can cause more danger from fire and traffic jams,” she said.

Yangon’s initial infrastructure was based around the six downtown townships. It has since expanded to 33 townships, in every direction from the original city.

There is also a problem of rapidly disappearing public space. Land is often being set aside for high-rise buildings and retail shops, leaving little room for citizens to exercise outdoors.

EcoDev Myanmar director U Win Myo Thu said shrinking public space negatively affects public health.

“Children under five are showing rising incidents of breathing trouble. It’s a sign we need to correct urban living before it gets worse,” he said.

Water supply also continues to be a challenge. Salt water often seeps into those relying on wells, given Yangon’s proximity to the ocean, said Daw Than Than Soe, a retired urban planner. She pointed to Hlaing Tharyar township as an area particularly afflicted by the problem.

Yangon may be rapidly expanding, but experts agree there are a host of problems afflicting the city. Solutions won’t come easy, and will require close work between citizens and the government.

Still, experts say they have a common message –“Please save Yangon”.


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