After 50 years of stagnation Myanmar has emerged as a historic singularity. It has kept progress and urbanization at bay through isolation. No new construction has meant that up until recently there has also been limited destruction. But with the opening up of the country, Myanmar’s cities are now at risk of sacrificing their cultural heritage in order to keep pace with economic growth and rapid development.
Standing in the centre of downtown Yangon, one is surrounded by a sprawl of fading colonial buildings and unfinished modern constructions. Everywhere you look there is a remnant of a distant past; the Sule Pagoda, the abandoned colonial High Court, the City Hall and the former expensive quarters, now flooded with mud and dirt.
It is not hard to imagine how Yangon’s colonial downtown must have looked at the peak of its influential position as the main hub of the British East Indian Empire – rich, cultured, on a par with London and New York.
As I walked around downtown, I was amazed at the singularity that I witnessed. Fortunetellers read your palms, monks pass by with fading smiles, food is sold from carts in streets almost void of any advertising signs. No familiar names, no international brands, no fast food chains. I was standing at ground zero of a city that could write a very different future for its people.
But, over the last few years, developers have torn down more than 50% of old Yangon and this figure is only set to rise, with the doubling of the population from 5 to 10 million over the next decade. So, how can Myanmar preserve its beautiful colonial heritage and at the same time keep pace with the rapidly changing environment?
Prior to the World Economic Forum on East Asia, a group of Young Global Leaders interacted with the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), a local organization which is trying to tackle this issue.
Thant Myint U, founder of YHT, explained that Yangon is currently at an inflection point. It can either go the way of other Asian cities and be plagued with heavy pollution, terrible traffic congestion, tall concrete towers and little or nothing to distinguish it. Or the country could plan properly and protect what it has.
A Japanese Aid Agency (JICA) is currently drafting the development plan for Yangon and we were privileged to hear from them about their promising ideas.
But as I listened, I wondered if they had thought about the voice of the people they’re aiming to help. Are they taking into account the particular factors that make Yangon unique? If not, they’re running the risk of feeding Yangon a prepackaged solution and slowly turning it into another Asian sprawl.
For Yangon to successfully develop, urban planners must not rely on the “one-size-fits-all” approach and must instead look to proposing innovative solutions and find a way to crowd source solutions that feed directly from the citizens of Yangon, so that their best practices and models incorporate their unique voice.
As I leave Yangon, I leave full of ideas not only for Yangon, but for my own city of Lima. Maybe in my case the impact of this Journey will not happen linearly and immediately. Maybe it will require a later return to Yangon, or maybe Yangon will be an inspiration for change in other emerging cities, that face very similar problems and hold bright promises.
Author: Martin Aspillaga Is Managing Director of Salkantay Partners and is a 2013 Young Global Leader.
Image: Construction workers at a construction site in Myanmar REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun