Myanmar needs to balance modernisation and heritage as it urbanises, meet told

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - Myanmar should place the emphasis on people and strike a balance between modernisation and its own heritage in entering the era of urbanisation, experts have suggested.

At the recent "Myanmar Urban Development Conference 2013", held at the Traders Hotel in the former capital Yangon, experts from various fields related to urban development shared their views on how the country should plan for urban development and address the challenges and issues that it would face during the period of transformation into urbanisation.

Myanmar's population is around 56 million and, according to the statistics given at the conference, three out of every 10 people live in urban areas.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) projects that by 2050, some 62.9 per cent of the population will be urbanised.

Currently, major cities such as Yangon and Mandalay have about 5 million and 1 million dwellers, respectively. These two cities have been identified as major growth poles.

In developing its major cities, Myanmar is focusing on the people-centred approach, rural development and poverty alleviation.

"The urbanisation of cities aims at the establishment of an integrated, sustainable and resilient urban network system that will enhance balanced development and sustainable allocation of investment and financial resources," Daw Mie Mie Tin, director of the Planning Division of Myanmar's Construction Ministry, told The Nation.

Ismael Fernandez Mejia, former president of the International Society of City and Regional Planners, stressed that the sole concept of urban planning should be the person, not the car.

"The problem we have in many cities around the world is the change from human scale to the scale of cars. It is important that people can move around the city without the need of cars," he said.

There will be many challenges for Myanmar to overcome in transforming into a more urbanised society, such as maintaining its identity, infrastructure, public utilities, transportation and financial support systems.

"We want to preserve the uniqueness of Myanmar but develop our cities to compete in a globalised world. We want to preserve temples and old buildings. We don't want to be another international shopping destination," Daw Mie Mie Tin explained.

The country is drawing up development policies and guidelines for drafting and enforcing planning laws and regulations that cover socio-economic development and conserve heritage and the environment. Moreover, the ADB has raised concerns about water sanitation, wastewater treatment and community infrastructure.

"These issues should be priorities for Myanmar," said Florian Steinberg, senior urban development specialist at the bank.

Nicholas You, chairman of the steering committee of the World Urban Campaign coordinated by UN-Habitat, said it was unlikely Myanmar would be able to cater to 10 million urbanised people without a comprehensive mass-transit system.

"If the metro is inevitable, we need to plan it now, otherwise people's lives will be disrupted, and some will even become displaced," he said.

The transformation to urbanisation will require a large amount of money, but foreign direct investment will not be a sustainable source of income.

Kenneth Stevens, managing partner of Leopard Capital, told the conference that there were several options for the Myanmar government in seeking funding.

"The options are to use public money and taxes, raise money through new bank loans, loan guarantees, foreign development aid and assistance, selling assets, land, buildings and rights, or working with the private sector. However, each option also has its own limitations," he said.

You of the World Urban Campaign coordinated by UN-Habitat suggested urbanisation would bring both opportunity and challenges.

There will be opportunity in terms of economic growth, access to social services, education and business opportunities.

"If we don't get urbanisation right, we will face social problems such as energy, food, political and financial crises," he said.

As to challenges, there will be massive slum formation, urban deprivation, and people living without access to water sanitation or modern energy, he warned.

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