Designing Yangon for the future

Photo Photo: Supplied

​7 Sep 2018 - Myanmar TimesWith international funding, two big projects could dramatically affect how Yangon evolves in the future, potentially doubling its 5 million population to become another one of the world's megacities. The debate over the Dala Bridge and New Yangon – chronicled by The Myanmar Times in "Korean investments could kick start long-delayed construction of Dala Bridge" (August 23) and "Yangon's new city vastly ambitious but govt's role called into question" (April 2) – are indicative of some of the barriers to progress. Because Yangon does not have a separately elected mayor but relies on a ministerial process, these projects can get hung up in government bickering. One of its big landowners is the Myanmar Port Authority, whose piers would straddle the new bridge. In the course of the bridge design so far, the port and the city have differed over how far apart the bridge's supports should be to allow cargo ships to pass. What did not come out in The Times' coverage of the debate were the consequences of these different visions of the future, and the necessity of a clear vision of the path for Myanmar moving ahead into the next century.

The same basic issues arise in the New Yangon Development Corporation's plan to extend the city's reach to 20,000 acres across the river west of central Yangon. A separate government corporation with a board of senior ministers and construction executives has been formed, and an initial infrastructure phase of US$1.5 billion (K2.31 trillion) is planned. The stated vision is that new Yangon will be modelled after similar projects in Incheon, Korea; Shenzhen, China; and Iskandar, Malaysia. Much of the criticism of the proposed development has come from the corporate sector over the appropriateness of the government undertaking such a big project.

What is striking about the plans is the very vague design vision they entail. Instead of arguing about government pecking order, it would be more productive to garner public excitement about a Yangon that looks like a city for the next 200 years instead of like a city of the last 200 years. New Yangon needs to be designed for a sea level that will be 1-2 metres higher before the turn of the century and 3-5m higher not long after that. It needs to minimise its emissions of greenhouse gases. All the buildings should be required to use solar cells and have construction standards that minimise their need for cooling. Mass transit needs to be the primary way to move people around the city, and the industrial park needs to make use of rail and water shipping to move its supplies. Maximising the quality of life for residents through the use of green spaces, walkable streets, and accessible transportation needs to be central to the design.

The performance of the city role models in these characteristics is mixed. Each of them includes some interesting elements (Iskandar's use of green spaces, Incheon's Songdo Central Park, and Shenzhen's subway system), but they all have elements that need improvement. Iskandar doesn't come close to Singapore's mass transit model, Shenzhen is lacking in green spaces, and Incheon is particularly at risk from rising sea levels (Incheon's International Airport, like many others around the world, is built on reclaimed shallow mudflats). How can Yangon apply the lessons from these city role models and other cities that have undergone large expansion projects?

Given Yangon's goal of raising its profile in South Asia, the New Yangon Development Co should sponsor an international design competition for how to develop west Yangon to be a premier city in the next 200 years. San Francisco Bay recently went through this process with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation's Resilient-By-Design programme ( With extensive advertising, applications were received from over 50 international design teams to be one of the ten chosen to design how ten different locations around the Bay Area could respond to a projected sea-level rise. Each team was awarded $100,000 for the year-long process, but each team spent 10-20 times that amount to maintain their reputation as elite designers. The teams met with local stakeholder groups to develop key design principles, developed some early draft ideas, and after extensive public comments, developed new conceptual designs. Some of the stakeholder groups, including local and regional government agencies, will provide funding to move the best design ideas forward.

An important part of the process was the extensive use of press outreach, social media outreach, and public exhibits to involve local residents in the design ideas and outcomes. Yangon's success in constructing a new city will depend on that public support.

Michael Connor is a Fulbright specialist at the Myanmar Port Authority, where he teaches a class on port reform. This op-ed represents his own views and are not necessarily those of the US government or the Myanmar Port Authority.

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