People congregate in downtown Yangon's Maha Bandoola Park on November 23, before the park was indefinitely closed. Outdoor spaces like parks offer relatively low-risk respites from stay-at-home orders, and can be a key public health tool, according to UN Habitat. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
People congregate in downtown Yangon's Maha Bandoola Park on November 23, before the park was indefinitely closed. Outdoor spaces like parks offer relatively low-risk respites from stay-at-home orders, and can be a key public health tool, according to UN Habitat. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Give the people more parks

The private ownership of most of Yangon’s green space leaves residents with no choice but to crowd into the few public spaces left for them.

By AURORA KAZI BASSETT | FRONTIER

On December 7, two days before Myanmar’s National Day, the Kyauktada Township General Administration Department temporarily closed Maha Bandoola Park in downtown Yangon – justifiably fearing that holiday crowds might raise the risk of spreading COVID-19. But the government is now keeping the park closed indefinitely. This means downtown residents have lost their safest space for socially-distanced congregation, as well as a key asset for their wellbeing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for green and public spaces in cities around the world. These spaces, which offer a respite from home, are enjoyed by many but are most needed by the poorest city dwellers, who often live in crowded homes with no private outdoor space such as balconies or gardens. These residents are also excluded from privatised green space such as hotel gardens or golf courses.

This unequal access to space is not just a matter of having a pleasant day out; access to plentiful public spaces has become a key health tool, as noted in UN-Habitat’s Guidance on COVID-19 and Public Space report.

With the growth of our scientific understanding of how the coronavirus is transmitted, we now know that one of the greatest risks comes from aerosolised particles. Because of this, enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces are not just uncomfortable after weeks of stay-at-home orders; they can be truly dangerous.

This also means that parks are some of the safest places to be, with good air circulation and space to stay physically distant from those outside one’s household. But that space is only available when the ratio of public space to residents allows for enough room.

This is not the case in Yangon, particularly in the downtown townships. Yangon has dramatically less public space per head than other major cities in Southeast Asia: 0.37 square metres per person. This is only 6.2 percent of what each resident has access to in Jakarta and 4.7pc of what each resident has access to in Bangkok.

The estimated 300,000 residents of Yangon’s downtown townships are among the worst served in this respect, with just one public park: the now-closed Maha Bandoola Park. The addition of public space on a riverside promenade and a network of parks throughout the city – proposed by the Yangon Heritage Trust in their Yangon Heritage Strategy, released in 2016 – is a wonderful plan that unfortunately remains largely unrealised. The Secretariat complex, though nearing completion, is surrounded by fencing and restricted by entrance fees (barring the fast food restaurant zone). Even the spaces Doh Eain co-created across the city with local communities and the Yangon City Development Committee, which are now under full community management, have been shut since the pandemic began.

While the city looks green from above – especially in the leafy suburbs – most green spaces in Yangon are privately owned and inaccessible to the public. This greenery does much to improve air quality, working as the city’s “green lungs”, but these spaces are barred to city residents desperate for space. Large plots in Ahlone and Dagon townships sit walled off from the public, offering just glimpses of forested bounty, and the closed-off gardens of monasteries are out of reach for those who need it most. Having more open access to currently private spaces would make a huge difference to people’s wellbeing.

According to United Nations population data and research from the London School of Economics, Yangon is expected to grow by 13 people an hour between 2014 and 2030. Each one of these new urban residents should have access to public space. To make outside space safe, the priority for the government and private sector should be increasing the space available for city residents now, as they plan for the city’s growth.

At the moment, property speculation by the wealthy few is favoured over the wellbeing of the many. But other cities across Southeast Asia and the developing world show us there is another way.

We need bold and ambitious plans to make Yangon the world-class city it can be. At Doh Eain we want to complement long-term plans with interventions we can start now.

We propose a temporary order to open the unused plots in Yangon to the public: gates can be taken down and temporary amenities such as benches could be added, and markers for distancing (used in other public spaces, such as Kalaw’s markets) could direct visitors to use the space safely as they relax. To further ensure safety, these spaces could be closed at night, preventing nighttime gathering and drinking, which lowers inhibition and is a known risk for spreading COVID-19. Monasteries, despite being closed for worship, could perhaps open their gardens and green spaces to limited numbers of guests for quiet reflection.

The pandemic should be a time for us to celebrate our open public spaces. Never have they been more vital. Yangon needs to increase its number of parks, not decrease them. Making outdoor spaces public for the wellbeing of Yangon’s people would be a big step in the creation of a more livable city, and create a positive new normal out of a terrible year.

Aurora Kazi Bassett holds a BA (Hons) in Urban Studies from Stanford University and a Master of City Planning from MIT. She has been based in Yangon for three years and leads the Public Outreach teams at Doh Eain.

Doh Eain is a social enterprise working to make Yangon a more livable, inclusive and sustainable city for all of its residents. It uses architectural and urban design to restore heritage apartments, and design and deliver streetscapes that are inclusive for all people. Doh Eain works with communities and local government to jointly create much-needed public spaces such as Alley Gardens and parks, all while co-designing, engaging and conducting research to improve city life.

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