Yangon at a Development Crossroads

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In the United States, resource inefficiencies and economic/racial inequities are already deeply entrenched in the built environment of many cities because major development and land use decisions were made before planners (or society at large) agreed on the need to minimize our ecological footprint or pursue equity as a desirable goal. On the other hand, cities that are in the early stages of development have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. According to Scott Campbell, “We cannot undo urban-industrial society. Rather, one must continue to innovate through to the other side of industrialization, to reach a more sustainable future.” Unfortunately, in countries where city governments lack transparency and accountability, planning focuses first on economic growth, with environmental sustainability and social equity as distant afterthoughts.

Yangon, the largest city and former capital of Myanmar, stands at a critical point in its development. Years of political and economic isolation protected Yangon from the wave of urbanization that swept through South Asia, but Myanmar’s recent liberalization is causing unprecedented urban and economic growth. The city’s population as of 2013 is 5.7 million, but this is expected to increase to at least 10 million by 2040. Already, only 42% of residents have running water in their homes, and less than 10% of the population is connected to sewage infrastructure. Although official estimates are much lower, UN Habitat estimates that 40% of Yangon’s population lives in informal settlements. Some towns on the periphery, where most of the informal settlements are located, are experiencing population growth rates of 15% per year. GDP per capita was only $1,465 in 2011, but is expected to reach $10,000 before 2040.

Historically, Yangon has engaged in little long range planning, but in order to accommodate projected growth, the city enlisted the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to develop the “Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon”, completed in 2013 and intended to guide the region’s development until 2040. JICA professes to focus on “human security” and the needs of socially vulnerable people, but the Strategic Plan seems to be much more concerned with situating Yangon as a “global city” to attract investment, similar to the Nairobi 2030 Plan we discussed in class. JICA specializes in providing technical assistance to feasibility studies and master plans and Yangon’s municipal urban planning authority is split amongst several departments with divergent goals and responsibilities.

Yangon New Town RenderingGlossy renderings of modern towers, luxury residential developments, and futuristic transportation infrastructure are now all over the Internet, but citizen participation in the planning process was nonexistent. The two “stakeholder meetings” during the year long planning process only involved representatives from various city departments. The plan recommends the building of affordable housing to accommodate slum dwellers and low-income residents displaced by rising rents, but the hot real estate market and lack of transparency suggest that this will not be prioritized.

Yangon New Town Rendering
One of the primary recommendations of the Strategic Plan is to build seven new satellite towns over the next 25 years. Although necessary to alleviate pressures on the CBD, reduce congestion, and manage anticipated population growth, the plan is also clearly an opportunity for wealthy investors to capitalize on their government connections. The building of the first New Town was suspended for months due to a corruption scandal over the awarding of development rights with no public process to a shady company with direct ties to city officials. Meanwhile, office rents in the CBD have risen to $100 per square foot, higher than Manhattan, resulting in rapid displacement of the poor from the main areas of the city. Because Myanmar does not have an adequate banking system, wealthy individuals and businesses store their capital by buying up land, further spiking property values. In anticipation of the development of satellite towns, property speculation is spreading out into the periphery, where informal settlers live on previously unwanted land. Now, city officials and private developers are engaging in large-scale forced evictions and land grabs.

Land Grab Protest
The sign to the right reads “Immediately give us back our ancestral land of 90 years that you confiscated from us unlawfully by force”

In the Strategic Plan, sustainability is defined as the financial and institutional feasibility of continuing to carry out the plan over the intended time period. This definition is similar to Peter Marcuse’s suggestion that operational sustainability should be a criterion for long-term policies, but he clearly did not intend for this type of sustainability to be completely divorced from concerns for equity or the environment. The Strategic Plan mentions the need to balance conservation and development, but also warns that too much emphasis on the environment may result in the “energy of the city being lost.” According to the plan, development is synonymous with “activating the economy and accruing income for Yangon residents.”

In this planning story, the conflicts described by Campbell that cause tension between the three E’s of the planner’s triangle are all too visible. Between economy and equity, the property conflict is exemplified by slum clearance and land grabs. Between environment and equity, the development conflict is exemplified by plans to build housing to accommodate growth in New Towns built on greenfields. The resource conflict, between economy and environment, is the only one that is explicitly acknowledged in the Strategic Plan, but it is obvious which objective has been prioritized. None of this is surprising, given the lack of transparency or public participation in the planning process, but it is frustrating to see Yangon’s officials choosing an unsustainable and unjust development path.