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    Yangon: Transformation in a Time of Transition – BUDD Fieldtrip 2017

    By Ricardo Marten Caceres, on 19 May 2017

    In the late hours of November 8th 2015 it was clear that Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy and Nobel Peace Prize winner, had scored an unquestionable electoral triumph. After decades of military rule, the NLD categorically won Myanmar’s latest elections, gaining control of parliament and thus starting a new chapter in the country’s turbulent political history. The ensuing months, however, have been far from perfect, with repeated tensions and confrontations that expose Myanmar’s deeply rooted problems with religious tolerance, ethnic integration, displacement and migration. In a momentous time of transition, the country’s transformation towards democracy, growth and aperture faces innumerable challenges –a reality that is particularly evident in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.

    Yangon | Ricardo Martén

    Yangon | Ricardo Martén

    Focusing on the urban implications of these processes, the recently concluded 2017 BUDD fieldtrip attempted to shed light on Yangon’s recent evolution, exploring a series of analytical frameworks anchored in both design research and critical thinking. Rather than settling on a removed diagnosis of the city, the BUDD students were able to explore and produce strategic urban planning visions that emerged from site visits, lectures, discussions, and permanent exchange with numerous local actors, international experts and community organisations. With the collaboration of local students from Yangon Technological University (YTU), interns working with Women for the World, and support from the Community Architects Network (CAN) and the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights (ACHR), the fieldtrip was the conclusion of a two-month academic process developed in our Urban Intervention Studio.

    Community-students dialogue in Yoelay Village | Ricardo Martén

    Community-students dialogue in Yoelay Village | Ricardo Martén

    With a population of over seven million, Yangon’s metro area is a blend of cultural influences, historical periods and varying densities, defined as much by the city’s geographical location, its environmental conditions and the inevitable tensions brought by inequality and spatial disparities. As emerging economies and fast-track urban developments collide with traditional everyday practices, the BUDD students looked at potential opportunities brought by the inevitable processes of urban transformation, suggesting alternative means of design and development where spatial variety is recognised and where strategies put forth by the urban poor are allowed to coexist together with the large-scale measures enforced by the planning authorities.

    Site visit, Hlaing Tar Yar | Ricardo Martén

    Site visit, Hlaing Tar Yar | Ricardo Martén

    The fieldtrip was designed around the collaboration between Women for the World and CAN-ACHR, who have engaged with numerous community savings groups across different townships, producing remarkable slum upgrading projects in villages with poor infrastructure, limited mobility and complex land ownership dynamics. The BUDD student teams worked on different sites in the Hlaing Tar Yar and Dagon Seikkan townships, engaging with communities at different stages of the upgrading process through interviews, mapping, visual exercises and other means to better understand the sites dwellers’ aspirations as well as their immediate needs.

    Community mapping exercise | Ricardo Martén

    Community mapping exercise | Ricardo Martén

    As part of the programme’s requirements, the student teams delivered two different presentations over the course of the fieldtrip, one before community members from the visited sites, and a concluding presentation before most of the partner institutions. The first presentation was a direct response to the fieldwork, with analysis placed at the community scale and focused on participatory means of knowledge sharing and co-production. The second presentation scaled-up the proposals at the township/city level, with strategies, principles and guidelines aiming at possible urban policy entry points for inclusive spatial integration. This last event also included a discussion panel including members from the BUDD staff, CAN-ACHR, and top representatives from the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), addressing further themes of contention and debate around Yangon’s city model for the future.

    Strategies presentation | Ricardo Martén

    Strategies presentation | Ricardo Martén

    The future of Yangon will reflect Myanmar’s ruling class capacity to integrate a country deeply divided along political and ethnic lines. Societal tensions are inevitably translated into the built environment, materialising through spatial configurations, taking shape through forms, networks and materiality –in roads, in house typologies, in infrastructures, in trade economies, in territorial ownership. The friction between the antagonistic pressures that dispute rapid large-scale transformation against the slow-paced growth of local communities exposes the need to address the disparities in relation to mobility, access and environmental risks –and in Yangon’s specific case, the right to the city to come. If local communities’ capacities for upgrading and city-making are acknowledged, anchored in multiple agencies rather than unilateral imposition, Yangon could build a vision of open, heterogeneous, and rich urban life.

    Field trip team and partners | Xiaodan Li

    Field trip team and partners | Xiaodan Li

    As mentioned, the 2017 BUDD fieldtrip was possible thanks to the programme’s partnerships with Women for the World, Community Architects Network (CAN), the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights (ACHR), Yangon Technological University (YTU), the Association of Myanmar Architects (AMA) and the special contributions from Somsook Boonyabancha, Jayde Roberts and representatives from the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC).

    Axonometric design | Salma Nassar

    Axonometric design | Salma Nassar


    Ricardo Marten Caceres is an architect and urban designer, graduated from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (ITCR) and with an MSc degree from BUDD. He has worked as an architect in between studies, leading a studio practice in Costa Rica focused on residential projects, as well as being partner in a design practice based in Germany working with several NGOs in Haiti, the Philippines and Tanzania. His academic interests lie in the urban dynamics between informal settlements and territorial variables. Ricardo’s current PhD candidacy looks to examine these elements, particularly focusing on the urban legacy of official spaces of exception and the resulting informal counter-narratives.

    Collective practices vs. the Neoliberal City?

    By Harshavardhan R Jatkar, on 24 November 2016

    Has democracy failed to resist the neoliberal vision of the city and does architecture have anything to contribute to the debate? A presentation by Leonardo Cappetto, an architect and co-founder of Grupo TOMA, came as a fresh and potent ray of hope on Thursday evening – 17th November 2016. Thanks to Dr. Camilo Boano, Leonardo was invited to present at the Development Planning Unit. His presentation commenced by juxtaposing the rise of populist right-wing politicians almost all around the world and the seeming demise of an alternative to the neoliberal city. But the optimism rose as he presented the work done by the Chile based collective – Grupo TOMA towards attempting to find that alternative.

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    The promise of an alternative reflected within the very structure of Grupo TOMA, defying the norms that governed the 20th century professional world. Grupo TOMA is a collective of architects without any hierarchical internal relationships. It is a nomad organisation that resents the idea of growth for its sake and it works with temporal communities inherently being denied the chance for any permanent architectural statement.

     

    What motivates a group of architects to let go of the egotistic practice of the 20th century? What inspires their continuing reconciliation with temporal existence? Leonardo’s presentation was just a glimpse into some of the aspects that may answer these questions.

     

    TOMA’s first project involved bringing together neighbours to discuss and decide potential uses for an empty plot in a neighbourhood. Not having accomplished the desired outcomes after months of working with the local government, TOMA moved to set up its office in a factory that was commissioned for demolition and used the opportunity to invite 10 organisations to collectively model a city, comprising of design shops, kitchen, discussion areas, artist workshops, bicycle shops and media outlets among others. Though short lived, the experiment involved developing a territory and building a social organisation to organise that developed territory. According to Leonardo, such an experiment has immense potential in stimulating political questions over the city and thereby informing us of the alternatives.

     

    TOMA’s journey continued in a new factory, commissioned to be converted into a centre for innovation. Cautious of the potential of their actions towards gentrifying the neighbourhood, TOMA embarks on a new project of generating a social narrative of the history of the place. Using a fictitious character of an elderly resident, Mr. Hugo, the narrative attempted to capture the rise of social speculators, searching for their gains in the neoliberal city – “a speculopolis – a Chillicon Valley”, suggested Leonardo. Although criticised of being a “dystopian narrative”, Leonardo claimed that such an exercise helps prompt discussion and provocations against the “seduction and destruction” of neoliberalism. Grupo TOMA has carried out similar other projects in Santiago de Chile, as well as Chicago, where they moved their office for a few months.

     

    Leonardo concluded his talk by hinting at three main contributions architecture can make towards questioning the dominant neoliberal city. Firstly, he claims, the contribution lies in acknowledging the interrelation between the territory and its social organisation, something the profession has neglected so far. Secondly, in his opinion, architecture can help mobilise contemporary political discussion through use of unconventional languages and of experiments. Lastly, he concluded by asserting the potential of architecture in building spaces and scenarios for involving all socio-political conflicts.

     

    Undoubtedly, Leonardo’s passionate accounts of TOMA’s work and its ideological journey stimulated a lively debate. Questions came from the audience that ranged from the ethics of involving community during projects to TOMA’s future plans for a bigger and a more permanent movement. Leonardo’s fitting comments, modestly acknowledging the unknown and further provoking the ideas of permanency, growth and the neoliberal, closed the session by stating, “Although temporal, the projects are Real and even as they disappear – nothing remains the same.”

     

    Follow the works of Grupo TOMA here.

     

    Elections and the homeless: who is heard?

    By Lauren Asfour, on 30 April 2015

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    Image: Courtesy of the Electoral Commission/Flickr via Homeless Link

    With the UK elections creeping up on us, on the 7th May, I’d like to grapple with the volatile question of elections for who? Given the general apathy towards voting and politics, and the Guardian asking us, “are you engaged and energised by the election campaign – or can’t wait for it to end?”, I find myself considering: who is being represented in the political sphere, and are those marginalised by society being heard? On the MSc Social Development Practice, we have been exploring the importance of hearing from those who are regarded to be on the margins of society, and how their voice can be articulated to generate new knowledge and approaches to urban development.

    IMG_0668The government encounters complex challenges in identifying those experiencing homelessness, particularly with the presence of the ‘Hidden Homeless’, who typically reside in bed and breakfast hotels or sleep on friends’ sofas. As such, there is no distinct voting classification for the homeless as a ‘sector’, but rather these individuals are grouped with those living in social housing.

    My personal concern is that government fails to recognise the diversity between those experiencing homelessness and those in social housing – and thus an ignorance of the difference between those who benefit from the state, and those who appear to fall outside the system. Although those experiencing homelessness have a right to vote and exercise their voice in society, figures indicate that while 74% of homeowners turned out to vote at the last UK election, only 55% of those living in social housing (and those experiencing homelessness) voted. Such statistics would indicate that many of these individuals are not articulating their voice.

    Democracy for who?

    While the government maintains that it is working to ensure homeless people have and can access their rights, organisations such as Homeless Link ask: “are residents of social housing and homelessness services really part of democracy?” The government might argue that rough-sleepers’ right to vote indicates that they can access the ballot along with the rest of society – but are they doing so? Those experiencing homelessness need a declaration form from local authorities to vouch for them – but will such bureaucratic hurdles actually encourage individuals to engage in the system?

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    Encouraging homeless voters

    The ‘Your Vote Counts’ scheme is an initiative funded by government, aiming to engage rough-sleepers and those in social housing to participate more actively in democratic practices through voting. This is a great encouragement, and I look forward to seeing how such initiatives will materialise in the upcoming election.

    With growing inequality in the UK, the voices of the marginalised are vital if we are to develop our society into one which safeguards all members of our community. Organisations such as Homeless Link are working diligently to encourage such engagement, with a recent article endeavouring to break down the barriers for those experiencing homelessness and provide clarity on themes such as:

    1. Have a say on important issues
    2. Make sure decision makers don’t ignore your views
    3. Improve your credit rating
    4. No fixed address? No problem
    5. Keep your information private
    6. Register online in minutes
    7. You don’t have to go to a polling station
    DSC_0065

    Photo taken at Webber Street Day Centre (or All Souls Clubhouse) courtesy of ASLAN, the ministry for homeless and vulnerably housed people of All Souls, Langham Place. Volunteer for ASLAN: http://volunteer.aslan.org.uk

    Individualism or Dependence?

    My question to all (and to myself), is how can we engage those experiencing homelessness – and others who have become marginalised by social structures – to contribute in the political sphere? How can we encourage such individuals into invited spaces for participation, to learn from their experiences and create substantive change for our society? [1]

    DSC_0061

    http://volunteer.aslan.org.uk

    No matter who comes into government, whether you believe in the power of the welfare state or not – it is important that we don’t forget our individual duty to care, outside of the model propelled by the state. At the third annual conference on Homelessness, Social Exclusion and Health Inequalities, Dr Lynne Friedli, author of Mental Health, Resilience and Inequalities, highlighted that dependency is not failure, but rather a feature of being human.

    As a sense of community is eroding, particularly amidst a growing individualism in London, how are we recognising our natural dependency on one another? And thus, if the vulnerable aren’t being heard, what is our role in advocating for their needs? Whilst inequality continues and homelessness remains prevalent in our society, how do we avoid silencing the most vulnerable – the very people who will depend most on the social system that all of our votes shape?

    [1] See Gaventa, J. (2006), Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis. IDS bulletin. 37 (6).


    Lauren Asfour is currently studying the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU. She has been part of research in London on Regeneration Aspirations for Euston: Local Perspectives on the High Speed Two Rail Link and is a volunteer at ASLAN.