Yangon: Towards a Sustainable Development as Port City

Arkar Phyo

In the free online course (Re)Imagining Port Cities: Understanding Space, Society and Culture, which ran between May 26 and July 7, 2021, learners made a portfolio addressing the spaces, stakeholders, transitions, values, and challenges of a port city territory they chose. We challenged the learners to reflect on their learning in a portfolio and invited them to present their findings in a blog. In this blog, learner Arkar Phyo writes how mutual development of the port and city is needed for the sustainable future of his native Yangon Port City in Myanmar. 

The port city of Yangon is the largest city and the most important commercial center of Myanmar. The city plan originates from the period of British colonization in the 18th century, which placed the city center close to the riverfront of the Yangon River. Over time, the city and the port gradually grew and expanded their territory. Due to the clash of the growth of the port and the city,  many different problems arose in terms of land use, transportation and logistics. This blog sets out the causes of these challenges to be able to eventually restore the relationship between the port and city, for a sustainable future of the port city of Yangon. 

Figure 1: View of Yangon Port and City from river side (Photo taken from a ferry boat by
the Author)

Yangon (during British rule known as Rangoon) was a small fishing village before it developed into a port city during British colonization in the late 18th century. In 1852, lower Myanmar fell under British colonization. The British rule subsequently transformed Yangon into a main entry port city and administrative capital. It served to export rice and timber. The responsibility for implementing the city plan of Yangon was given to Lieutenant Alexander Fraser, who located the central business district of the city close to the riverfront. This way, he integrated the city with its port function in order to act as a commercial and logistic hub of the country. Changes and developments in the port encouraged the expansion of the port along the riverfront area, while the population of the city was also increasing and urban areas continued to extend towards the river. In Myanmar, the emphasis was on the development of the ports due to their driving power on the country's economy. 

Starting from 1900, the port faced issues with water depth due to morphological changes in the river, which affected the efficiency of port operations. As a countermeasure, the port authority constructed the Seikgyi retaining wall in 1903 at the river bend to guide the flows of the river. This construction of the retaining wall became a remarkable milestone for the port industry in the port city of Yangon. Because of this retaining wall, the river near the waterfront became deeper and more docks were constructed along the river side. 

After Myanmar’s independence was declared in 1948, changes in political conditions had a significant impact on the port city. The military regime that controlled Myanmar since 1962 nearly brought the economy to a standstill. The US and the EU executed sanctions from the 1980s onwards, addressing the suppression of democracy in the country. Accordingly, there was no further port expansion in Yangon in the period between 1962 to 1990. After the military government initiated open market policies in 1990, however, more private ports were developed along the Yangon River. Since the country democratized in 2010, most sanctions were lifted and port and city infrastructures and businesses developed dramatically. At present, almost all of the Yangon riverfront is occupied by private and public ports and there is no room left for further port expansion.

Figure 2: Timeline of the port city of Yangon (prepared during the course “(Re)Imagining
Port Cities: Understanding Space, Society and Culture”) 

In this set up, various stakeholders with different backgrounds and interests have played together in shaping the port city of Yangon. They are as varied as the Port Authority, shipping companies, sailors, terminal operators, truck drivers, port workers, urban authorities, environmental organizations, educational institutions, labor unions, local residents, politicians, planners and architects, and all have different visions for the port city. The Myanmar Port Authority is one of the key players in the port city. It is a focal organization that associates with other stakeholders from the land and water side for co-development of the port and the city as a port city. 

Figure 3: Myanmar Port Authority Building, one of the colonial-
era buildings built in 1920 (Photo taken by the Author). 

The mission of the Port Authority is to facilitate the country’s trade and develop a sustainable and resilient port community. The Port Authority is located in the city center near to the water and ports, and its activities focus on facilitating international and domestic water transportation of goods and passengers. It coordinates with shipping lines, logistic companies, and customs for its interests in the development of maritime transports. On the other hand, the Port Authority usually debates with land authorities such as the municipality, the road and bridge authority on the issue of traffic management, land use issues and bridge clearance issues for the safe passage of vessels coming to the port. The Port Authority also cooperates with heritage related stakeholders for the maintenance and operation of historic port buildings. Yangon city hosts the largest number of colonial-era buildings in south east Asia and some of the significant colonial-era buildings include old red-brick warehouses and the port authority building itself.

Figure 4: Stakeholder map of the port city of Yangon (prepared
during the course “(Re)Imagining Port Cities: Understanding
Space, Society and Culture”)

Similar to the common challenges that occur in other port cities, conflicts between port and city interests continue the separation between the port and the city in Yangon. Combining the traffic of port and city became the biggest challenge for authorities in Yangon. The traffic congestion in the city has increased since 2010. The number of private vehicles is increasing as the government has allowed car import. The port tends to handle higher volumes of containers and larger vessels. Subsequently, the traffic of cargo trucks is also increasing. Port operators, consignees, consigners, and truck drivers are hindered by urban congestion, whereas the municipality, city dwellers and pedestrians have an interest in safe, clean streets without the noise that heavy truck traffic brings. They share the values of safety and well-being. To ease this traffic condition, the government temporarily solved the problem by banning port traffic during day time in the city. This, however, caused protest among port workers and thus remains a critical challenge for Yangon that can only be solved by a city-port planning approach to sustain the relationship of city and port. 

Political, economic and social turmoil has challenged port city relations in Yangon throughout history and will continue to do so in the future. How the port city will adapt - whether towards co-existing or towards separation - is critical for its  sustainability in the long term. A mutual development approach, the port city approach, is required to sustain the relationship between the city and port. Co-operation and correlation of both port and city actors is fundamental for creating port and city relationships. For Yangon, there are very few correlations between the port and city actors. Therefore, it is crucial to construct re-engagement of port and city actors as a first step. The concept of port city collaboration should also be distributed widely to all stakeholders in Yangon, and it would provide a smoother process in engaging different stakeholders towards a sustainable way of development as a port city. 

The free online course (Re)Imagining Port Cities: Understanding Space, Society and Culture, runs on the EdX platform. The blog was reviewed and edited by Carola Hein and Hilde Sennema.