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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.

    The Holy City of Makkah: Growth, Informal Areas and Urban Identity

    By Theresa M J Abrassart, on 16 January 2017

    Spatial transformations caused by a coterie of social and economic factors have profoundly altered the urban landscape in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. In a lecture held at the Bartlett’s Department Planning Unit (DPU), urban specialist Dr. Muhammad Khadim discussed informal settlements in Makkah and measures to address the challenges posed by their growth.

    In Makkah, a city of 2.2 million, there have been several factors which have caused this urban transformation. Informal settlement growth has been driven by an ever-increasing number of pilgrims (Hajj, Umrah), the city’s constant desire to invest in upgrading the surrounding built environment, and the profit motive spurring the intervention of public and private interests.

    Construction behind the Kaaba © Creative Commons

    Construction behind the Kaaba
    © Creative Commons

    While Makkah’s inhabitants represent over 80 nationalities, there exists a bifurcation amongst the rights and privileges of the Saudi citizenry and foreigners over the urban landscape. According to Dr. Khadim, informal settlements are primarily inhabited by non Saudi nationals, which are also illegal residents of the Kingdom. There are approximately 65 settlements spread across 16 primary locations, consisting of approximately 40% of Makkah’s total population. Researchers contend that roughly 1.5 million people will be living in informal settlements by 2040.

     

    Makkah is a religious city, with approximately 10 million annual visitors. Pilgrims are projected to top 30 million by 2040. Large numbers of pilgrims have remained in the city over the past several decades and constitute a significant proportion of the migrant labour force. These informal laborers, lacking the means to access the formal real estate market are reliant on renting from Saudi nationals providing a financial opportunity for some legal residents.

     

    To accommodate the surge in visitors, mega developments have sprung up across the city specifically around the Kaaba and other religious sites. These projects are exclusive and cater to a socioeconomic segment that is not accessible to informal residents. Lacking adequate planning and thorough municipal oversight these developments rarely adhere to historic spatial configurations.

     

    There has been a distinct lack of initiatives to address the rapid transformation of the urban landscape of informal settlements in Makkah. While a by-law was promulgated by Makkah’s municipality in May 2008, the legal framework falls short of being a well defined and binding legal document.

     

    According to Dr. Khadim, the sole initiative that has sought to deal with informal settlement redevelopment, Jabal Al Sharashef has a number of limitations. Chiefly, the redevelopment plan remains costly and largely inaccessible for existing informal inhabitants. These modern and glitzy constructions are highly occupied and do not assign sufficient space for low-income residents.

     

    To address these issues Dr. Khadim outlined several key points. He contended that the Saudi government should draft a national policy for guiding the upgrading of informal sites and construct a national legal framework for regulating informal settlements. A standardized spatial database for all informal areas should be established, and an improvement in the current redevelopment bylaw should be instituted to make it more binding.

     

    To conclude, Dr. Khadim argued that the redevelopment of informal areas in Makkah should form part of a larger urban regeneration effort. This overall spatial development plan should refer to best practice cases in other parts of the world and align with the recently released Sustainable Development Goals.

    You can hear the lecture in the audio podcast here:

    Meeting the Change Maker Painters: Street Messages in Accra, Ghana

    By Claire Tunnacliffe, on 20 April 2016

    The first experience of a city is a disorientating introduction of smells, sound, temperature and touch. It is primarily sensorial. Before you can get your bearings, your body reacts, attunes, listens, smells, and looks.

    I’ve been fascinated about the use of the wall as a tool for communication and transformation, and while I’ve known from previous visits to Accra that there were messages inscribed on the walls, I had never paid close enough attention to them, the walls passing by in a whir of taxi windows, going from place A to B. This time it would be about following the surfaces, not about the destination but the in between.

    Accra’s visual landscape is dominated by signage; Ghanaians express and shape their culture through this, as common as the informal flows that dominate the city. Signs stating ‘Do Not Urinate Here’, ‘Post No Bills’ sit alongside adverts for Indomie, Glo and Juvita. School walls are decorated with children playing and learning. Billboards advertise religious services, skin care and weight loss. In and amongst this, businesses paint the front of their shop with illustrations of their services and products.

    Figure 1: Signage, Hospital Road

    Figure 1: Signage, Hospital Road

     

    Hash-Tags

    On Accra’s main roads in and around the city, messages become slightly more political, more patriotic. On November 7th 2016, Ghana will have another election, and the surfaces along the streets are covered in posters for party leaders and tags. Ghana is a multi-party system but either the National Democratic Congress or the New Patriotic Party largely dominates it, with any other party finding it difficult to achieve electoral success. However, along these main roads is the repetitive scrawl: #GHANAGOESGREEN #TOTALSUPPORT #NEWREGISTERSTOVOTE or SAVE GHANA. A retort to the current election process and another party, the Convention People’s Party, a socialist political party based on the ideas of the first President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah. After a bit of digging online, I learn that #ghanagoesgreen isn’t based on green party politics, but rather for Ivor Greenstreet, a candidate standing for Presidential Election in 2016.

    Figure 2: #GHANAGOESGREEN, Ring Road Central

    Figure 2: #GHANAGOESGREEN, Ring Road Central

     

    These hash-tags straddle two existences between public space and cyber space, a tactic used by political parties, musicians and other businesses. While many people do have phones, what part of the demographic accesses the Internet? Do these tags predominantly exist online or offline?

     

    Murals

    I met Larry, who co-founded Nima: Muhinmanchi Art (NMA), a grassroots organisation that provides art workshops to youth, beautifying communities through public art and promoting urban renewal through culture. Larry tells me how he sees mural paintings as an opportunity to transform everyday spaces, empowering local communities and how it’s a powerful tool to changing the perception of Nima. Nima, is a dense, vibrant and ethnically diverse residential area in Accra, made popular by a large market. It is a stigmatized area, external perceptions have created prejudice and cultural barriers to the rest of the city, and as a result, it has become a city within a city – with its own authorities, rules and policing, undergoing its own development, driven and enforced by its inhabitants.

     

    Larry is passionate about the power of art as transformative, calling the artists in NMA the Change Maker Painters. I ask him about the mural making process and he explains that it begins with a visibility study, to identify a surface that has the most footfall followed by a conversation with the community; including chiefs, the wall owner and households in the immediate vicinity. He presents what he has noticed about the area or what other people have raised with him – the murals act as a vehicle to talk about issues; child labour, waste, and politics. The murals, are subjects of conversation before, during and after their production, with people stopping to talk and ask questions, and share their own experiences. He tells me about a mural that the NMA did after Accra was devastated by a flood and explosion in 2015 that saw the loss of 150 lives. They decided to paint a mural along Kanda Highway to stress the importance of waste management, one of the main causes found for the flood that had blocked drainage systems. As a result, people clean their drains outside their homes and in their community more frequently than when they are just blocked, creating more preventative methods of avoiding another flood.

     

    I meet with Rufai Zakari, an artist, in his studio in Nima, and I ask him why he has made the transition to murals, “Art contributes to positive change. But also introduces something African into the street art scene. My community, which I promised to help with my profession, needs this. I am a child of that community and I use art to change the perception of it, but also to fight for my country and continent”. In March 2015, he set up with other street artists GrafArt GH, a group of young artists from Ghana with the aim of using art to address issues facing the African continent & also to promote Ghanaian art & culture to the rest of the world. Rufai explains that to him, art is a multidimensional tool, to change peoples view of the area, to beautify, but also as a platform for change and awareness raising.

     

    Art movements in these contexts are therefore less about the individual, about the money, than they are about the collective, the community, so that everyone grows and learns together. These Change Maker Painters, see themselves occupying two roles, one within their own communities, painting the inner bellies of the walls and communal courtyards to address very localised problems, but also more widely in the streets of Accra, drawing attention to who they are, to changing the perception of their community, to showing Ghanaians and the world their art.

     

    Figure 3: Flood & Fire, Kanda Highway

    Figure 3: Flood & Fire, Kanda Highway

    Accra is a creative and dynamic city, its visual landscape a thick tapestry of politics, social, environmental and economic messages. From the religious billboards that dominate much of the main roads, to the upcoming elections, the hash-tags that flicker past moving vehicles, to the Ghanaian flag which is bold and colourful, to the murals in communities and the art festivals in the streets of Accra more widely. There are therefore many ways in which street messages are communicated to the city and its inhabitants, orchestrated by individuals, communities, businesses, artists and politicians. While their intent and agency may vary, the wall is a space for appropriation, discussion and transformation, and as one artist pointed out to me as, “if there are no walls, we will build the wall, to share our message”.

    Figure 4: Bird, Jamestown

    Figure 4: Bird, Jamestown

    Many thanks to NMA for opening up their studios and selves to my questions – and personally to Larry, Musah, Rufai and Kamal. I extend also a big thank you to Samoa, for taking me on a tour of Jamestown, exploring the route of Chale Wote. Thank you to Victoria Okoye from African Urbanism, for the contacts, resources & tilapia.


    Claire is a DPU MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Alumni. Since graduating in 2012, she continues to research the role of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences. She is a PhD student at the Bartlett School of Architecture exploring street messages in West African urbanism. However, her interests are interdisciplinary; community engagement, urban street art, public interest design, sustainable development, town planning, creative cities, art psychotherapy, mental health, the psychodynamics of public spaces, and their impact on place making in the city. All images taken by Claire Tunnacliffe.