A hundred years ago, Yangon was one of the leading trade cities of Asia and home to people from across the globe. Today Buddhist pagodas and monasteries stand in its historic downtown alongside over a dozen mosques, churches of various denominations, a Hindu Parsi, a Sikh temple, a Jewish synagogue, and the country’s only Armenian church. This religious heritage is complemented by the largest collection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonial architecture in Southeast Asia. Yangon is a spacious, low-rise city enriched by huge trees, placid lakes, and significant parkland areas composed of wide streets and tree-lined boulevards.
Following Myanmar’s emergence from isolation under military dictatorship and its subsequent foreign investment opportunities, a rush of development now imperils Yangon’s unique landscape. Modernizing the city while protecting and promoting its tangible and intangible heritage represents a key challenge. Beautiful residential and commercial heritage buildings, deteriorated from long neglect, are being torn down at an alarming rate and replaced with poorly designed structures that fail to integrate within the historic context. Invaluable views are also being forfeited to new high-rise developments, and government-owned buildings have fallen into disrepair since the regime moved the administrative capital to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005.
An international conference builds momentum in the heritage field
The conditions in Yangon offer opportunities to link conservation with sustainability and make heritage a vital component in the economic, environmental, and social policies of the newly emerging modern city. Yangon was included on the 2014 World Monuments Watch, and studies on the economics of its preservation, the character and form of its neighborhoods, and the connection between its real estate markets and historic buildings were undertaken by various institutions over the following year.
In January 2015 we collaborated with the Yangon Heritage Trust to host a forum titled Building the Future: The Role of Heritage in the Sustainable Development of Yangon. The conference took place in Yangon and was generously supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, and several other individual donors. It resulted in policy recommendations for sustainable development that include acknowledging a downtown conservation area, creating a city zoning plan, encouraging the government to promote conservation and heritage investment, building infrastructure to improve quality of life, approving pilot projects, and creating a waterfront plan for public access and sensitive development. Almost immediately after the conference, the Cities Development Initiative for Asia (CDIA) announced funding for pilot preservation projects in three areas of Yangon. Around the same time the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community initiated their Special Development Plan, which was created in order to balance conservation and urban growth in the city. Finally, five major construction projects were temporarily suspended for investigation at the end of January due to their encroachment on historic areas and monuments. In February one of the proposed buildings had to be redesigned and relocated due to its proximity to the Signal Pagoda monument.
There were further positive developments related to Yangon’s built heritage throughout 2015, including the termination of major construction near the Shwedagon Pagoda, the completion of an urban planning training program in the city, and the initiation of several restoration projects. However, continued efforts are needed to protect the historic urban landscape and traditions that make Yangon unique.