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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.

    Snapshots of the urban economy: Mekelle, Ethiopia

    By Matthew A Wood-Hill, on 11 May 2015

    For the past 10 days I’ve been with staff and students of the MSc Urban Economic Development in Mekelle, Ethiopia. They have been making sense of economic development by exploring four broad topics, and assessing their contribution to the local economy:

    1. Mekelle University as a supporter of small enterprises
    2. Urban and peri-urban agriculture
    3. Co-operative organisations
    4. The airport as a catalyst for economic development

    We have put together a series of images, which provide a snapshot of different parts of the urban economy in Mekelle.

    Tradition has it that Mekelle University was first formed beneath the Momona Tree on its campus – the shadow of which served as its first office. Nowadays it retains an important social function as both a meeting point and a place of intrigue for visitors. The DPU has been partnering with Mekelle University for the past 5 years– we have been immensely grateful for the contributions of University staff. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Tradition has it that Mekelle University was first formed beneath the Momona Tree on its campus – the shadow of which served as its first office. Nowadays it retains an important social function as both a meeting point and a place of intrigue for visitors. The DPU has been partnering with Mekelle University for the past 5 years– we have been immensely grateful for the contributions of University staff. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Coffee culture is rife in Mekelle with numerous coffee-houses lining a series of tree-lined streets close to the centre. We asked a new business owner why she had chosen this area in the face of such established competition. She had opened her coffee-house just one month ago, but her reply highlighted the social and economic role the businesses play in this area. They serve as meeting points for local business-people through which they engage with and build their professional networks. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Coffee culture is rife in Mekelle with numerous coffee-houses lining a series of tree-lined streets close to the centre. We asked a new business owner why she had chosen this area in the face of such established competition. She had opened her coffee-house just one month ago, but her reply highlighted the social and economic role the businesses play in this area. They serve as meeting points for local business-people through which they engage with and build their professional networks.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Messebo cement factory, the fifth largest in Ethiopia, dominates views towards the outskirts of the city. It is by far the largest business and employer in the region and a key contributor to the local construction sector. Slow-build developments are common in Mekelle – this is evidently not due to a lack of available resources, but more often than not a consequence of financial difficulties which delay progress. Image: Tsuyoshi

    Messebo cement factory, the fifth largest in Ethiopia, dominates views towards the outskirts of the city. It is by far the largest business and employer in the region and a key contributor to the local construction sector. Slow-build developments are common in Mekelle – this is evidently not due to a lack of available resources, but more often than not a consequence of financial difficulties which delay progress.
    Image: Tsuyoshi Aiki

    Young boys roam the popular streets of Mekelle offering their services as shoe cleaners. While they often appear to be working independently, these boys actively contribute a small amount each day to an informal savings scheme in order to increase their financial capital. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Young boys roam the popular streets of Mekelle offering their services as shoe cleaners. While they often appear to be working independently, these boys actively contribute a small amount each day to an informal savings scheme in order to increase their financial capital.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Farming within and on the outskirts of the city contributes to the security and affordability of food in Mekelle. The split between the two spaces is more than just spatial, however; it is also reflected in government attitudes. For example, peri-urban farmers are not able to obtain a license to sell their produce in the city centre – a restriction that others do not have to contend with. In spite of having more space to grow crops if greater quality in greater quantity, peri-urban farmer are therefore forced to sell to middle-men to reach consumers, which in turn has an impact on their income.  Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Farming within and on the outskirts of the city contributes to the security and affordability of food in Mekelle. The split between the two spaces is more than just spatial, however; it is also reflected in government attitudes. For example, peri-urban farmers are not able to obtain a license to sell their produce in the city centre – a restriction that others do not have to contend with. In spite of having more space to grow crops of greater quality and in greater quantity, peri-urban farmers are therefore forced to sell to middle-men to reach consumers, which in turn has an impact on their income.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Mekelle is a regional hub for business and part of the ‘Garaltar Triangle’, a popular tourist route. The local tourist board believes that 95% of visitors come through the airport for tourism, however initial research by MSc UED students, through a series of surveys at the airport, suggests that the majority of travellers arriving by air do so for business purposes.  Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Mekelle is a regional hub for business and part of the ‘Garaltar Clusters’, a popular tourist route. The local authorities believe that 98% of visitors come through the airport for tourism, however initial research by MSc UED students, through a series of surveys at the airport, suggests that the majority of travellers arriving by air do so for business purposes.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Towards the suburbs of the city an expanding manufacturing sector exists. One factory we visited produced honey for domestic consumption. The factory manager elaborated on the hope that they might be able to reach an international market. For the emerging manufacturing sector in Mekelle, and elsewhere, this challenge must be overcome if the sector is to become a key driver of national economic growth. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Towards the suburbs of the city an expanding manufacturing sector exists. One factory we visited produced honey for domestic consumption. The factory manager elaborated on the hope that they might be able to reach a wider international market. This challenge must be overcome if manufacturing is to make a greater contribution to national economic growth. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Urban Agriculture sites often exist where vital infrastructure services are not available, thus making it unattractive for commercial or residential development. Mekelle is not a densely populated city at present, so urbanisation tends to happen close to infrastructure and services. Urban farmers put these unoccupied spaces to productive use, but rely on motorised pumps to extract water from shallow wells to irrigate their crops. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Urban Agriculture sites often exist where vital infrastructure services are not available, thus making it unattractive for commercial or residential development. Urban farmers put these unoccupied spaces to productive use, but rely on motorised pumps to extract water from shallow wells to irrigate their crops.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill


    Matthew Wood-Hill is the Media & Communications Officer at the DPU. He has been in Mekelle, Ethiopia with the MSc UED programme for the past 11 days. The MSc Urban Economic Development has been working with Mekelle University for 5 years now, understanding urban economic development in practice.

    MSc DAP field trip and the tragedy in Kathmandu

    By Kamna Patel, on 4 May 2015

    "Nepal relief location map" by Uwe Dedering - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

    “Nepal relief location map” by Uwe Dedering – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

    If the world today were as it was a little over one week ago, 35 students on the Development Administration and Planning MSc programme would be boarding a plane to Kathmandu for our annual overseas field trip. That they are not warrants relief and great sadness; relief at not being caught up in the tragedy of a powerful earthquake, and great sadness at the scale of loss in Kathmandu.

    Since news of the earthquake came on Saturday 26 April, the figures of people who have died, are lost or have been forced to leave their homes, is steadily rising. Images of ancient places students were to visit as part of a city orientation, are images of rubble and dust. When tragic events happen in distant places it can be difficult to translate every statistic in a death toll to a real person and every crumbled building to a home.

    For our Nepali friends and field trip partners life has changed in an instant. As phone lines and internet connections slowly come back online a sense of relief returns; email messages confirm they are alive and unhurt.

    The messages also reveal people slowly coming to terms with the challenges before them. Some predict it will take at least a month after the shocks subside for a semblance of normalcy to return to the country. In the meantime, they and their families are sleeping outside and cautiously visiting homes and offices to check on damage, gather supplies and plan for what happens next.

    All of our field trip partners are engaged in the development sector either as scholars or practitioners. For them, a priority equal to securing their heath is returning to work to assist some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in Kathmandu, people who are disproportionately affected by the consequences of an earthquake.

    In the process of cancelling our trip and reinforcing our distance from tragedy, we are inspired and humbled by the commitment of our friends and partners in coping with the inescapable realities of this calamity.

    To support relief efforts in Nepal, donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) are very welcome: http://www.dec.org.uk/


    Dr Kamna Patel is a lecturer at the DPU, where she co-directs the MSc programme in Development Administration and Planning.

    Doing Participatory Photography: the politics of home-making in Valparaiso

    By Maria Ossul Vermehren, on 14 April 2015

    ‘No matter how familiar the object or situation may be, a photograph is a restatement of reality; it presents life around us in new, objective, and arresting dimensions, and can stimulate the information to discuss the world about him as if observing it for the first time’  – Collier, 1957: 859 [1]

    Ignacia PP1

    The use of visual methodologies has been introduced to help expand the efforts of data generation beyond more established avenues such as language-based interviews. Photo-elicitation, specifically participant-driven photography, can capture life experiences, spaces and emotions that may be difficult to grasp through other methodologies.

    Although not considered a miracle cure, it is thought to have particular qualities such as:

    1. Producing different type of information – many times more precise and vivid than other techniques
    2. As a primary ‘language’ – it can be used with people of different ages and with different levels of oral or written language
    3. Addressing concerns of power relations between researcher and subject, as well as knowledge production.

    Participatory Photography Research Workshop

    As part of my PhD fieldwork I have been using participatory photography to explore the meaning of home for residents in informal settlements in Viña del Mar, Chile. Particularly in discussing home-making practices, home aspirations and housing policy. In practice, the workshop develops across 6 sessions, in which participants learn basic photography skills and take cameras home to capture images for the next session.

    The workshop starts with an introduction to photography, discussing the different uses, participants’ personal relationship with pictures and basic skills such as how to operate the camera, framing, colour and the use of light.

    In an introductory activity Luis chooses a picture of a colonial building in a magazine, he says: 'I chose this picture because I like architecture, looking at old buildings, pictures help maintain them even if there are not there any more'

    In an introductory activity Luis chooses a picture of a colonial building in a magazine, he says: ‘I chose this picture because I like architecture, looking at old buildings, pictures help maintain them even if there are not there any more’

    Participants practicing how to frame a picture, taking into consideration what to include and what to leave out of the photo

    Participants practicing how to frame a picture, taking into consideration what to include and what to leave out of the photo

    The first assignment refers to images that represent their home. It was important for the data collection that participants felt free to take any picture they wanted – without been concerned of getting the ‘right answer’.

    Some of the pictures taken by participants (Francisco Ahumada, Katerine Montecinos and Mariela Aravena); (top-left) privacy of a single room, (top-right) community centre which was constructed recently by the residents, (bottom-left) house and the dogs as part of the family and (bottom-right) nature, not only their own plants but the surrounding environment

    Some of the pictures taken by participants (Francisco Ahumada, Katerine Montecinos and Mariela Aravena); (top-left) privacy of a single room, (top-right) community centre which was constructed recently by the residents, (bottom-left) house and the dogs as part of the family and (bottom-right) nature, not only their own plants but the surrounding environment

    Participant looks at her printed pictures for the first time.  Participants were impressed with the results, stating that is was not the same as seeing them on the screen.

    A girl looks at her printed pictures for the first time. Participants were impressed with the results, stating that is was not the same as seeing them on the screen.

    After revising the pictures individually, the group puts together all the pictures and divides them into categories of what represents home

    After revising the pictures individually, the group puts together all the pictures and divides them into categories of what represents home

    The second and last assignment was to take pictures of elements that they like and do not like about a house. Participants were encouraged to look for these elements not only in their house, but also in the neighbourhood and city.

    Participants exercise the type of pictures they would like to take for the assignment

    Participants practise taking the types of pictures they would like to use for the assignment

    The pictures from the second assignment were rich in content and included much more elements from the city than the first assignment. Many of them took pictures while they were going to work and in the streets.

    Ignacia PP8

    Elucidating Everyday Aspirations

    Some of the results of the second task are shown in this image (above). These were taken by Nayaret Gajardo, a woman living in the settlement. She took five pictures of elements she would like for her house such as a better kitchen, a big backyard, water tap for the settlement in case of fire, and connection to services. The three elements she does not like refer to the way she is currently connected to services, which she evaluates as dangerous and a poor quality of life.

    In brief, the participatory photography workshops facilitated discussion on some elements which could be easily disregarded using other techniques. It has shed light on everyday life, the personal, the collective and the political. The concept of home portrayed is wide and diverse, it does not only refers to the home space but also to multiple places, people and feelings. The challenge now is to do a rigorous analysis moving from images to findings, so that pictures serve not just a nice visual complement for the research but as solid data for the study.

     Notes:

    [1] Collier J. Jr. (1957), Photography in anthropology: a report on two experiments. American Anthropologist, New Series, 59 (5), 843-859.


    Ignacia Ossul Vermehren is a PhD candidate at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. She previous studied the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU. She worked for 4 years at Techo, a youth-led organisation that works in informal settlements where she was Director of the office in the region of Valparaiso. Ignacia is currently undertaking her PhD fieldwork in Chile.