Economics, Liveability and Urban Heritage Conservation in Yangon
Author: Rupert Mann
Yangon is a city unique in Southeast Asia. While other cities in the region lost their historic characters during the first waves of international modernism in the 60s, 70s and 80s, Yangon was spared. These decades of isolation for Myanmar inadvertently shielded Yangon’s urban heritage from destruction. As a result, the city has a surviving heritage landscape of great diversity, vibrancy and economic potential.
The Yangon heritage Trust (YHT) shares a vision for Yangon far beyond the preservation of 30 large-scale buildings. The city must be a safe, prosperous, clean, and healthy place to live while providing all of the assets, services, and features that a modern city enjoys.
The significance of Yangon’s urban heritage is not just about the large iconic buildings such as the Secretariat complex, the City Hall or the High Court. What makes the city so important is the concentration of thousands of small and medium-scale heritage properties across hundreds of streetscapes. It is this mixture of large and small, formal and informal, secular and religious, the coexistence of mosques beside pagodas and teashops inside grand marble lobbies. All of these elements are connected by a grid of wide tree-lined streets filled with a range of economies and walked by a diversity of cultures.
Yet what makes this city truly unique are the people who call it home, their lived practices and daily economies. For this reason, making sure that Yangon is a liveable city for its residents is a major aspect of conserving its uniqueness. Creating the necessary conditions for locals to continue to use and live in the city’s heritage must be priority for city planners and government departments.
Unlike many regional neighbours, for Yangon it is not too late to save its uniqueness. If the city’s managers carefully plan where high-rises should go within the city to complement existing transport and retail centres while not destroying its urban heritage, then Yangon will have something that has eluded its regional neighbours-a well-planned, liveable and profitable urban centre where irreplaceable heritage assets are respectfully conserved and integrated into a living city organism rather than as a token district.
Broadly speaking, the Trust hopes to see a Yangon where a conserved historic downtown and a number of key districts outside of that are protected from high-rise developments and where their heritage value can be enhanced through good urban planning guidelines. Beyond these areas, planning guidelines should allow well-thought-out high-rise connected with public transport and green open spaces.
Through ensuring that high-rise developments are positioned away from the small-scale, residential areas within the historic downtown, city authorities can enhance liveability for local residents. This approach ensures that the street-connected communities continue to thrive and remain safe, that local street vendors and markets continue to be used, that sunlight and fresh air can continue to penetrate, that the already stretched utilities services can keep up with demand, that the narrow downtown grid is not pushed beyond breaking point by traffic congestion, and that health issues associated with pollution are limited.
This model would benefit everybody: the tower residents will have a unique asset on their doorstep and the traders and residents in the conserved areas will enjoy an increased client base.
Tourism is an area of huge economic potential for Yangon but must not be the core aim of heritage conservation. A major new trend that focuses on ‘authentic’ experiences has emerged within the global tourism industry. Travellers increasingly want to visit places which allow local lifestyles, economies, and practices to exit and flourish rather than becoming sanitized heritage theme parks. In short, if Yangon can make itself a liveable city for local residents, then tourism and associated businesses will flourish too.
Conserving heritage buildings provides a home for start-up companies. New businesses almost always require old properties to house them. While established businesses have the capital to invest in building new property for themselves, this is not something that start-ups can afford. In this way, cities with a good stock of existing buildings, in Yangon’s case heritage buildings, can be an incubator for start-ups and attract an innovative and creative type of business.
For YHT, one of the key results of having good heritage conservation guidelines in place at a regional government level is that this creates the potential for a whole range of new jobs that currently do not exist in Myanmar. With heritage laws and investment comes a heritage industry with all its associated requirements. These include architects, engineers, project managers, heritage builders, specialist carpenters, ironworkers, tillers, plumbers, roofers, stone masons and brick layers, heritage lawyers, urban planners, tourism planners and guides. With the conservation of Yangon’s urban heritage, an entirely new growth industry will be established. At this stage, there is no capacity within Myanmar to provide these specialist skills. However, YHT is helping to establish the first generation of Myanmar’s heritage managers and builders. In the Future, the expanding need for these specialists will mean that Yangon can position itself as a regional training and educational centre in heritage practice.
There is a perfect storm brewing in Yangon: a unique heritage asset, an influx of investment, and a government moving in the right direction with guidelines and planning controls. If this mixture is seasoned with the right accent towards putting local residents and their liveability at its core, Yangon can be a vibrant, prosperous and sustainable asset for generations to come.