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Back to the future: How heritage is key to Rangoon's prosperity

Rangoon – City of the Future. Anyone who has been to the place might choke on those words, as Burma's main port and biggest city is - let's face it - a bit of a mess.

After suffering many years of slow decay in the long decades of Burma's economic isolation, a flurry of building in recent decades has done nothing fundamental to change the bustling city's down-at-heel appearance, where crumbling buildings sprout black mould and green bushes.

But like Havana, Prague, Hanoi and Calcutta, much of Rangoon's old-world charm has acquired a kind of battered dignity, and rarity value merely by surviving far beyond its era of civic glory. Decades of economic stagnation have unwittingly preserved colonial Rangoon, turning the legacy of its colonial past into an opportunity for the future.

For those who have to live and work here, the romantic evocation of the faded grandeur and pretention of the British Raj hardly compensates for the fact that the city is barely functional. The infrastructure is creaking at the seams, the traffic can be horrendous, and many of the evocative grand old colonial-era structured are abandoned eyesores, threatened with demolition or just gently decaying in Burma's unforgiving tropical climate.

All of which highlights the importance – and the excitement – of the work done by the Yangon Heritage Trust, whose 150-page Yangon Heritage Strategy (2016) is arguably one the most important and far-sighted documents produced in Burma in recent years. City "strategies" are of course ten a penny, and many governments spend more time writing them and "consulting" on them than ever actually implementing them. But this one seems different, not just because it is beautifully written and largely jargon-free, but because it maps out a potential future for Rangoon to take advantage of its many lost decades of growth and development and use its fabulous 19th and 20th Century built heritage to make itself one of the most distinctive, dynamic and liveable cities in Asia.

Given that this great waterfront trading city, on a par with Liverpool or Shanghai, is the face that Burma shows to the world, there is much more at stake here than the city itself. If enlightened policy-making, international collaboration and efficient delivery can transform Rangoon as this document advocates, then the benign effect is likely to spread at least some of the way throughout this vast, beautiful but still-troubled country of 53.2m people.

Yangon

Pictures courtesy of the Simpson & Brown Architects

The Yangon Heritage Trust is led by Thant Myint-U, a Harvard and Cambridge-educated Burmese historian with excellent international connections through the UN (once headed by his grandfather U Thant), along with the architect and planner Daw Moe Moe Lwin. Their central proposition is a compelling one:

"Yangon doesn't have to be a museum frozen in time nor a soulless jungle of concrete and steel; there is a middle path that can transform it into a prosperous, regionally competitive and creative metropolis. Yangon's residents can enjoy all the advantages of modern infrastructure while retaining the social and economic benefits of their unique and irreplaceable heritage".
"Having a set of well-conserved heritage assets will mean Yangon is a green, diverse, unique and beautiful city. With good urban planning, residents can also enjoy the benefits of modern infrastructure. All this has the potential to transform Yangon into a liveable regional hub able to attract talent, investment and business."

While no-one could argue with these aims, putting them into practice is immensely challenging. The bricks and mortar of Rangoon are in multiple hands, and many of the owners have no great incentive to invest in their preservation.

Even stand-out buildings like the vast Secretariat (aka the Minister's Building), formerly the administrative seat of British rule in Burma, and subsequently of the independent Burmese government. Completed in 1902, the building acquired extra cause for conservation as the place where independence leader Aung San and colleagues were murdered in 1947, but it too is struggling to find the useful place in the modern world that would guarantee its preservation. That's despite enthusiastic owners and a detailed preservation plan produced by Dr James Simpson of Edinburgh, one of the world's leading conservation architects.

Despite its passionately committed owners, the Secretariat is just one more example of the problems that face all of Rangoon's fading bricks and mortar, lack of economic viability and lack too of a critical mass of the artisanal skills badly needed to help save the fabric of the city. Because even if politicians and officials buy into the economic benefits of restoring Rangoon's built heritage, it is still necessary to find people with the skills and know-how to save the decorative glory of the architecture from the ravages of a monsoon climate.

In the race against time to train up enough people to preserve the structural and decorative components that make up Old Rangoon, there is at least an important ally in Turquoise Mountain Myanmar, a charity supported by HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, which, as well as working to preserve Burmese crafts, is also supporting Yangon Heritage Trust to promote the skills necessary to save Rangoon's historic downtown area from crumbling away.

The Heritage Trust meanwhile has a vision to make Rangoon "one of Asia's most liveable and regionally competitive cities by 2030", attractive to investors, residents and businesses. They also see it as a potential test bed for the best in 21st century urban planning, given that nature has provided the frame for something quite distinctive, even spectacular. In the globalised and highly competitive world, cities should look the part, and there is much potential here for "iconic" urban design. On the confluence of six major waterways, Rangoon has a total river frontage of 71 miles, of which 15 miles is within the historic city. It also has 39 miles of lake frontage, a blank canvass for bright ideas.

Yangon

Pictures courtesy of the Simpson & Brown Architects

Much of the Heritage Trust's work contains an implicit threat: Get a grip now, and produce a workable holistic plan, or face death by a thousand ugly and boring developments.

"If Yangon does not protect its current assets, the city's leaders and residents will regret it" reads the strategy document: "Many other Asian cities have gone through a similar period of unplanned growth to become bigger, more modern and prosperous cities. Such progression leads to a bigger economy but with many negative consequences, from extreme traffic congestion and noise and air pollution to the loss of established communities and social cohesion.  Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta are prime examples and even Singapore, so well- planned, regrets the destruction of its built heritage. Yangon must learn from the mistakes of its neighbours and prioritise the conservation of its unique heritage."

As many of our guests are aware, Pandaw's roots are deeply intertwined, via the Irawaddy Flotilla Company with Rangoon's colonial heritage, a colonial legacy which we seek to explore and understand, warts and all.

Whatever one ultimately feels about the impact of British imperialism on Burma and elsewhere, we see no reason why anyone would wish to see the physical legacy of the past crumbling away through inertia and inaction. We heartily endorse the aims of the Yangon Heritage Trust and hope that Pandaw passengers who come to know and love Rangoon via our expeditions will spread the word about its vision, and help attract the kind of international attention that will make that vision of a city ready to compete in the 21st Century more likely to become reality.

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