Zoë Blackler

The social life of Yangon takes place in sidewalk cafes. But they're in danger of disappearing as the city embarks on a road-widening effort.

YANGON, Myanmar—The Premier coffee shop on Bogyoke Aung San Road, a wide boulevard marking the northern limit of this city's downtown, used to spread out plastic tables and chairs beneath a row of trees along the edge of the broad sidewalk adjacent to its storefront. Much Yangon social life takes place in sidewalk cafes. They're where friends meet, politics is discussed and business conducted.

In February, workmen hired by the municipal government arrived, unannounced, and began digging up the sidewalk. They reduced its width by nearly two-thirds, felled the smaller trees, and marked out car parking spaces where the cafe's chairs and tables once were. "It's so sad," said Premier's owner, who asked not to be named (reluctance to publicly criticize the government endures in this former pariah state). "People used to love sitting out under those trees."

A typical wide sidewalk in downtown Yangon. (Zoë Blackler)

Myanmar's principle city has changed little since the 1960s. Downtown, where development was stifled by decades of military rule, the colonial core, though decaying, is largely intact. Rows of four-to-eight story, mixed-use buildings line the streets, where betel nut stands, newspaper stalls, palm readers and cane sugar vendors all share sidewalk space with pedestrians and idlers. Yangon has the sort of vibrant street life most modern cities have long lost.

But last year, as part of its program of political and economic reforms, the government of Myanmar eased restrictions on the import of foreign vehicles. Yangon, flooded with cars, is experiencing gridlock for the first time. Drivers complain of escalating journey times and fierce competition for parking space.

In a bid to ease congestion, the Yangon City Development Committee, the city's planning authority, has been widening roads.

A sidewalk being replaced with car parking in downtown Yangon. (Zoë Blackler)

Downtown, work has focused on principle thoroughfares Bogyoke Aung San Road, Merchant Street, and Bo Aung Kyaw Street, where workers are narrowing once spacious sidewalks by a lane-width, displacing the cafes and street vendors to create rows of parking spaces. And this is just the beginning. In an interview with the Myanmar Times, U Tin Tun Oo, executive engineer of YCDC's roads and bridges department, said the road widening program would be expanded, budget allowing, to more streets and townships.

Prioritizing cars over people could have a detrimental effect on the character of the city, says Lucy Musgrave, director of Publica, a London-based urban design consultancy. Far from reducing congestion by the 30 to 40 percent the YCDC expects, decades of research has shown "that if you make more roads you will have more cars." And if you rub out street life in the process, as so many first-world cities have discovered, "it is very difficult to ever manufacture it again."

Narrowed sidewalk with new parking spaces in downtown Yangon. (Zo

 ë Blackler)

While it's too soon to tell whether Yangon will learn from others' mistakes or replicate them, there are good reasons to be concerned.

As researchers from Harvard's Ash Center warned last year [PDF], the city is ill-prepared to cope with mounting pressure for development as foreign investors stream into Yangon. There is currently no proper democratic planning process, cronyism and corruption are widespread, resources scant and infrastructure inadequate. In recent months, insensitive developments have reportedly been approved in private back room deals, and a number of heritage buildings are under immediate threat.

There is also no city-wide master plan, and while the YCDC is currently preparing one with the support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, it won't be complete until the end of the year, during which time irreversible mistakes could be made. Even once the plan is in place — however exemplary — the great hunger for rapid economic development as Myanmar opens up could eclipse all other considerations.

Moe Moe Lwin, director of recently formed heritage body The Yangon Heritage Trust, is nonetheless confident the political will exists to make Yangon the most liveable city in Asia. She believes it will be possible to protect Yangon's unique character — its many parks, lakes and green spaces, and the British-built residential blocks and civic buildings downtown — and to incorporate much-needed development without forcing out existing residents or sanitizing the streets.

Both city and national governments have welcomed the trust's input, she says. And while she acknowledges the road widening program is a mistake, she puts this down to unilateral action on the part of Yangon's roads and bridges department.

"Everyone is working so hard in their own way. The one who is responsible for the policy on importing cars is working on his own, and the one who is managing public transport is working on their own. But I'm sure everybody has good intentions. Everyone is so enthusiastic about the changes in the country and where they have a chance to work for the county."

Even so, the vulnerable are already losing out.

A Yangon newspaper vendor improvises during sidewalk construction work. (Zo

 ë Blackler)

Daw Su Su Maw sells newspapers on Merchant Street. Today, she sits amid building rubble, her former sidewalk patch now a gash in the road where soon there will be finished concrete and rows of flashy SUVs. Vendors weren't forewarned about the plans, she says, let alone given the chance to object. Like other street vendors, she believes the authorities want to clear them off the streets. A recent law banning vendors on major thoroughfares outside the hours of 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. is being enforced now as never before, even on roads where the sidewalks remain untouched.

For Daw Su Su Maw, moving her stall won't be too damaging, she says. But for other vendors she knows, being forced into quiet side-streets will put them out of business. "For the rich people who are buying cars, [the creation of car parking space] is good. For the poor people already struggling to buy food to eat, it is not so good."

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