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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.

    Exploring possibilities for community-led urban land development in Dar es Salaam

    By Rafaella Simas Lima, on 19 May 2015

    For the past two-weeks students of the MSc Urban Development Planning have been working in three sites across Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, as part of their field trip project supporting community-based initiatives for informal settlement upgrading.

    Working with the Center for Community Initiatives (CCI), a local NGO, and members of the Tanzanian Federation of the Urban Poor, students have been trying to understand the realities of urban life in these three areas while developing ideas to guide more socio-environmentally just trajectories of urban development at the city-wide scale.

    Incomplete houses on the Chamazi site Image: Rafaella Lima

    Incomplete houses on the Chamazi site
    Image: Rafaella Lima

    The three sites in which the groups are based—Karakata, Chamazi, and Mabwepande—have much in common: they are all growing peri-urban areas, they are all mostly “informal” or “unplanned”, most residents are low-income, and they face similar interlinking challenges such as infrastructure, access to basic services, sanitation, and solid waste disposal. But they also represent different patterns of land acquisition and development within the Tanzanian context.

    Learning about the Gulper machine, a mechanism that the Federation has been using for the emptying of pit latrines in Karakata.

    Learning about the Gulper machine, a mechanism that the Federation has been using for the emptying of pit latrines in Karakata.

    Karakata is the longest-established settlement of the three, and developed as residents from elsewhere in the city moved further out in search of more affordable land and rent prices. Considering Karakata’s close proximity to Julius Nyerere International Airport, as well as its diverse array of livelihood activities, the value of the land is currently rising at a rapid rate.

    Residents face big issues such as sanitation and access to medical services, and the rapid erosion of the river in the area presents a grave environmental threat. Students assigned to this site have been working on ideas such as community-led environmental risk assessments and a more sustainable model for the Federation’s waste-disposal system.

    Mapping the route between Chamazi housing site and the town centre.

    Mapping the route between Chamazi housing site and the town centre.

    In Chamazi, Federation members formed a housing cooperative to collectively purchase a plot of land to build homes for those who were evicted by the government from Kurasini Ward in 2008, due to the expansion of the port area.

    However, since the project began in 2009, many houses have not been completed and a high percentage of families have yet to move to the site. One hypothesis for this has been that Chamazi’s distance from the city center (sometimes 3-4 hours with traffic) means much fewer livelihood and employment opportunities.

    But the Chamazi site is not as isolated as it once was; in only the past few years the area around Chamazi town has grown rapidly, bringing new businesses, markets and services. UDP students have been exploring the seeming disconnect between the housing site and the town, along with the financing of the housing project to understand how it can remain affordable and viable.

    A student-led focus group trying to understand the dominant challenges in Mabwepande.

    A student-led focus group trying to understand the dominant challenges in Mabwepande.

    Mabwepande is another peri-urban site for relocated people, however in this case the government allocated land for victims of flooding in the more central Suna zone.

    At the moment the area feels rural and many residents use the non built-up space for agricultural purposes, but we have yet to see how increased development of the area and new pressures on land will affect them.

    As the Federation has only just begun working in this site, Mabwepande had yet to be mapped in a way that was accessible to its residents. Along with conducting interviews and focus groups to begin to build a larger picture of the Mabwepande community, students created maps with the help of community members to be shared on the site.

    Students present some of their findings and ideas to community members in Karakata.

    Students present some of their findings and ideas to community members in Karakata.

    These three sites are illuminating important citywide processes, such as the uncertain institutional relationships that govern the urban poor’s access to land (for example, there is no clear resettlement policy that might guide the relocation of people like in Chamazi and Mabwepande).

    Students are understanding the notion of “scale” in practice, as they come to grips with the scale of informality and poverty across Dar es Salaam. This has been underpinned by the rainy season, in which intense flooding across the city has brought the hardships faced by Dar’s poorer residents into clear focus.

    Observing a Federation and CCI-led focus group used in settlement profiling in Vingunguti settlement.

    Observing a Federation and CCI-led focus group used in settlement profiling in Vingunguti settlement.

    Finally, there is the challenge of gathering reliable data in a city that is growing so rapidly, in a context where certain forms of knowledge are not recognized. The field trip focuses on the way knowledge is built at the local level as students learn from the Federation model of settlement profiling, enumeration, and mapping.

    In return, students offer input and experiences from their diverse home countries to try and support community-led processes of co-production of housing, land development, and knowledge.

    Sanitation and the Politics of Recognition in Kibera

    By Tamlyn Monson, on 6 May 2015

    To kick off their field trip to Kenya, students on the MSc Social Development Practice spent much of the day with representatives of Practical Action and Umande Trust, hearing about the ways in which these organisations have worked with local residents to promote productive and liveable settlements in Kenya’s slums.

    Part of the day’s programme was a trip to Gatwekera in Kibera, Nairobi, where we visited two of the settlement’s 16 biocentres. The biocentres provide accessible toilets, where – in an awesome reframing – excreta becomes a ‘human investment’ that is collected in a biodigester to produce gas for cooking and slurry that can be put to agricultural use.

    Street view from Gatwekera Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access (TOSHA) network biocentre. Image credit:  Tamlyn Monson

    Street view from Gatwekera Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access (TOSHA) network biocentre. Image credit: Tamlyn Monson

    Our objective was to understand whether and how these infrastructure projects could help us identify avenues through which such projects can be scaled up to more explicitly political claim making around citizenship. However, the reality of the interventions exposed some of our received assumptions about how such claim making should proceed.

    For instance, we found that in advocating for the rights of informal settlement residents, NGOs may also face certain informal political dynamics at higher scales within the state, and therefore opt to advocate for change outside of the ‘direct’, formal channels.

    According to Peter Murigi of Practical Action, completed infrastructural investments have the potential to legitimise the claims of informal residents to improved living conditions, this is because in permitting these interventions the state has indirectly recognized the need for change. Rather than explicitly lobbying through formal channels for change, advocates can use these achievements as precedents justifying claims for further practical improvements when opportunities to indirectly influence power holders arise.

    Multi-level biocentre in a Kenyan informal settlement. Image credit: Umande Trust

    Multi-level biocentre in a Kenyan informal settlement. Image credit: Umande Trust

    Witnessing the significant achievements of the Gatwekera Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access (TOSHA) Network, both staff and students were struck by the limited role of the state in these achievements: the government’s contribution, according to the TOSHA chairperson Moses Ambasa, is merely to “allow us” to go ahead – with projects realized through donor funding and community labour only.

    Ambasa was satisfied with this situation, in which slum dwellers are, so to speak, permitted to solve ‘their own’ problems. Participants felt a tension between the need to give due weight to this community voice, and the need to challenge the idea that residents of slums should shoulder such a disproportionate burden of cost and responsibility in securing basic living conditions.

    In an afternoon debrief, students acknowledged various shifts of perception inspired by the visit to Kibera, which exposed many to the complexity and ambiguity of an informal settlement for the first time. This was an exciting and stimulating start to a field trip in which students will soon be entering an unfamiliar field in the secondary city of Kisumu. The reflexive trajectories opened up today will be a valuable asset as students soon begin a practical engagement with the Kisumu Informal Settlements Network (KISN). They will be entering the field well prepared to begin unpacking the various entanglements we always find there.


    Tamlyn Monson is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU and a PhD candidate at the LSE. Staff and students on the MSc SDP programme engage in overseas research with Practical Action in Kenya each year – read about the collaboration on the DPU website.