By Mary Howard, PISA Program Assistant
What can cities teach us about climate change? In November 2015, Myanmar’s top environmental NGO, ALARM, invited PISA to learn first-hand about climate change impacts on Yangon and the city’s action. As a first-time visitor to Myanmar, Yangon was a completely new experience for me and I left the country with more nuanced knowledge about climate-wise development and inspiration for future progress.
Thanks to arrangements by our partner ALARM, PISA’s 3-member team toured the entire city and viewed Yangon’s urban development first-hand. Yangon, formerly named Rangoon during British colonial rule, is Myanmar’s largest city. My first impression of Yangon was overwhelmingly positive: the tree-lined roads provided lovely greenery, colonial architecture mixed with traditional homes added to the city’s cultural charm, and landmarks such as Inye Lake and the Shwedagon pagoda were scenic and awe-inspiring. However, upon closer inspection, the city’s problems, aggravated by climate change and rapid urban expansion, became evident.
Some of the major urban development issues Yangon faces are: a lack of organized and enforced building codes, few public green spaces, water supply issues with subsidence risks, flooding in the low plains (where low-income housing exists), a deficient waste management system, and air pollution. Compounding the development issues is a major affordable housing shortage. Access to the housing market presents obstacles for residents, especially due to the lack of financing institutions. To buy a home, a purchaser must pay the whole sum in cash, which is not an option for most people. Another complaint of civil society leaders in Yangon was that city development decisions are made for short-term economic gain, without consideration of long-term environmental impacts.
Civil society organizations identified the many issues and are taking action, from organizing academic workshops to raising public awareness. PISA’s director Linda Yarr, and John Carruthers, director of the George Washington University’s Sustainable Urban Planning Program, each presented at the first-ever “Conference Towards Green Construction: Low-Carbon Buildings, Smart Design, New Materials, and Eco-Townships,” at City Hall, attended by high-level officials, the media, and general public. The conference, co-sponsored by ALARM, French NGO Green Lotus and Yangon City Development Committee, showcased green technologies for urban development. Multiple architectural firms (Archtyp Group, French Railways, AREP Group, Vihara Studio) were represented, and shared information about major sustainable building projects completed throughout Asia. As the business delegates pitched their companies’ green accomplishments, a major question arose in my mind: how relevant were these examples for Myanmar?
A striking feature of Myanmar people, evident during my short stay, is an attitude of cultural pride and identity. While participants at the conference were eager to learn, Yangon’s planners wanted to learn from other nations’ experiences and adapt best practices suitable to Myanmar rather than simply import foreign designs and projects. Damon Zumbroegel, CEO of Vihara Studio, pithily argued that Myanmar’s traditional architecture is already green. Traditional homes, which incorporate locally-available materials and simple designs for cooling, are sustainable. The country should not lose its own character in adopting “Western” ways of green construction. Rather, they should learn and adapt techniques in a “Myanmar way.”
Excitement and hope for future changes were palpable among all those we met. As Yangon progresses, and the country undergoes political reform, I am honored to continue my work through PISA programming in Myanmar and help build human capacity to deal with challenges induced by global warming impacts. After this trip, I believe that for any outsider to understand a country’s development needs, they should at minimum, visit an urban center and witness the culture and ideas first-hand. The world can also learn from Myanmar and its experience for future sustainable urban planning against climate change.