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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.

    Reflections of a male researcher interviewing women in Hyderabad, India

    By Nikhilesh Sinha, on 19 June 2015

    Naseer beckoned to me from the other side of a doorway, through which I could see a large-ish courtyard, with several women, of various ages, heads uncovered, going about their mid-morning activities. I hesitated, and then drawing a deep breath, I stepped through…

    After several weeks of wandering around Jahangir Nagar, survey sheets in hand and hanging out at the corner Irani chai café, I found myself being acknowledged and greeted on the street by several of the male residents. I had struggled initially to explain myself and my research, but the fact that I was studying and living in London seemed to clear many a brow and had a significant effect on my curiosity value.

    My interaction with female residents however, was restricted to those I’d interviewed for the survey, usually along with a male member of the household. In cases where there was no male present, the interview would be conducted briefly on the doorstep, if at all. One obstacle was my own bashfulness. I was unsure how to approach and talk to women, especially in a neighbourhood where the niqab and/or burqa is customarily worn in public. I felt continually intrusive, awkward, ill-equipped, and a hairsbreadth away from committing an unforgivable faux pas. I did once get mistaken for a government official and yelled at by a woman because the garbage heap near her house hadn’t been cleared for weeks, but that was an unexpected bonus.

    Hyderabad 1

    All of this meant that if I was to get to do in-depth interviews with women residents, unmediated by males in the household, I needed to rethink my strategy. Assistance came from an unexpected quarter – an accounts executive at a digital printing studio where I got some printing done, put me in touch with his father who runs a school, located not far from Jahangir Nagar. A few days later I found myself being invited to the house of Naseer, – a student of Huda School, Sultan Shahi – and his family, who live with nine other households in a ground floor unit, with shared bathing and toilet facilities.

    The first thing I notice was a broken but evidently functional washing machine, swirling and gurgling to itself in the corner. It was washing day, and Naseer’s mother, was in the midst of pulling garments of various shapes and sizes from a multi-coloured pile. She would wring one out and pass it on to one of her daughters to hang on the line that stretched across the courtyard. Some of the other female residents were engaged in a similar activity. Naseer’s mother explained later that this was a fortnightly ritual.

    Hyderabad 2The courtyard space seemed to be shared by all the households who live there, but Naseer’s mother possessed some subtle authority. I was to learn later that Naseer’s family were the tenants who had lived there longest, all of eight years. Naseer’s father drives an auto rickshaw, leaving the house in the morning only to return at night, and he told me he leaves the running of the house and paying of the bills to his wife. It appears that she may have some say in the running of the other households in the tenement as well, certainly as far as the use of the shared space is concerned.

    I interviewed three other women living in the same tenement. The first was Naseer’s grandmother, who lives in the adjoining room. Her husband died last year and Naseer’s father decided she should move from the settlement where she and his father used to live. He felt it was not safe for a widowed woman to continue living there. She told me that she believed she would have been fine, but moved at her son’s insistence.

    The second was a middle-aged women living in a two-room apartment along with her five daughters. She told me that her husband had left her some years before, and that he hadn’t provided much financial support for her or their eleven children. She has managed to marry off five of her daughters, and is now left with five more to worry about.

    The last was the landlady, or as she described it, daughter of the owner of the building. She said she lives like a tenant along with the others, paying for utilities and managing the space for her mother in lieu of rent. Her husband works as a chauffer in Saudi Arabia, and visits once in two years. Unlike the other women I interviewed, she attended school and is literate in both Urdu and English.

    Hyderabad 3.1

    I entered the tenement as someone who was known to the Headmaster of Naseer’s school, and was treated as an honoured guest. None of the women I interviewed put on a hijab, though they would have done so if they were stepping out into the street. This may mean that men who enter the courtyard cease being strangers, or as is more likely it was due to my association with Naseer’s school.

    Towards the end of my conversation with the landlady, she enquired if I was married, and on learning I wasn’t, both she and Naseer’s mother, who was seated nearby, offered only half-jokingly to arrange for my wedding, and to hold it in their courtyard. An offer I was both deeply touched and petrified by. This exchange was the source of much amusement all round. When I left I was followed by three girls, aged approximately eight, ten and fourteen (the last wearing an oversize burqa) who accosted me and asked me when I was returning to get married. I smiled nervously, mumbled “soon” and walked as fast as my legs would carry me in the opposite direction.

    Nikhilesh Sinha is in his third year of a PhD at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. His research relates to how poor people find places to live in Indian cities. He teaches a course on Global Citizenship at Hult International Business School, London, as well as a course on the challenges and opportunities of doing business in India. Before moving to London, he led research in affordable housing and urbanisation at the Centre for Emerging Markets Solutions at the Indian School of Business (ISB). He has also worked in television, co-founded a theatre company, and is usually in the middle of reading three books not remotely related to his research.

    BUDDCamp 2015: Urban Space 1 – Flero

    By Giulia Carabelli, on 24 February 2015

    MSc Building and Urban Design for Development students have just returned from the annual BUDDCamp. Over the next four days we will be presenting a series of blogs that discuss what the students have been doing while away, alongside individual and collective reflections about their experiences and observations.

    The BUDDCamp is a 3-day design workshop, part of the Urban Intervention Studio where students bring together theory and practice by working on the proposal of innovative design strategies for specific urban issues. For the fifth time, the BUDDCamp took place in Brescia (Italy) in collaboration with the Local Democracy Agency (LDA) Zavidovici, an organization working with refugees and asylum seekers in the city.

    LDA proposed four different urban spaces to explore. Students worked in groups and had to develop small, low cost, ‘doable’ design strategies, paying special attention to the narrative, the understanding, the needs, and the aspirations of the refugees working with LDA and of the citizens living in the area where they intervened.

    Flero 1


    Brescia is an extremely interesting urban laboratory. It is a small town with a population of less than 200,000 inhabitants where the effects of sudden economic transformations due to global and national crises have been accompanied by shifts in the makeup of the population.

    In fact, an increasing number of immigrants have settled in the city, often creating various clashes and tensions. BUDD students were presented with a representative selection of these challenges in order to provide strategies and projects aimed to foster equality and social justice.

    Surveys, interviews, focus groups, mapping and transect walks are few of the participatory activities that were undertaken to collectively understand and engage with the spatial and social experience of the sites.

    The main outputs of this intensive action-research workshop were a range of design strategies aiming to maximise the potential of these places as catalysts of new social dynamics and development towards urban justice. Students had the opportunity to present their urban strategies to our hosts and to local practitioners and civil society groups thus creating a vibrant platform for sharing their visions and ideas.

    Flero 2

    URBAN SPACE 1: Abandoned Carabinieri Station in Flero Municipality

    The group working on this case was confronted with the specificity of the periferia diffusa (sprawled periphery) and asked to work in the small municipality of Flero, just outside Brescia. Participants had to provide a vision for the decaying and unused “Carabinieri” station; an impressive concrete skeleton of a military station that remains unfinished and derelict.

    There were two main challenges: the large scale of the abandoned structure and the fact that the building is partially immersed in a swamp, which has a negative effect on the wellbeing of the inhabitants (such as the invasion of rats and mosquitos).

    Flero 3

    Is it possible to look at these problems as opportunities?

    Ana: “The shared impression among our group was that the municipality workers were very open and flexible for an input to create a vision for the structure that could provide for the well-being of the residents. However, the municipality didn’t seem to be very engaged in a dialogue with the residents themselves in discussing that vision.”

    “So” – adds Jiaqi – “we started this program by initiating a dialogue with the local community to actively engage people in the process and to produce a portfolio of ideas”.

    “As a result” – add Miro – “we came up with the concept of mixed-use. We developed the idea of creating a strategy that was demand-driven rather than supply-driven, which means that we encourage all kinds of private sectors, small businesses, and flexible activities to happen here in small units of the building”.

    Principles for Regeneration

    The group developed a set of principles for the regeneration of the area, the use of the building and its social activation. These include: a programmatic diversification of functions and investments; an incremental occupation/appropriation of the available space and the self-sustainment of the reclamation/remediation.

    Although simple, the combination of these three principles constitutes a viable and realistic proposal to mediate between the scale of the building and the lack of resources.

    Giulia Carabelli is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc BUDD programme. She joined the current MSc students on the BUDDcamp in February. Look out for reflections from the other 3 case studies on the blog later this week.