GETTING TOSUSTAINABILITY LESSONS FROM YANGON There are some who define âsustainabilityâ very narrowly – âIf you get a gold sticker because you use low wattage light bulbs and waterless toilets, you are sustainable.â The international framework for sustainability is much more comprehensive and includes three components: economic responsibility, environmental responsibility, and social responsibility.
This is usually represented graphically as a Venn diagram.
More recently some have approached sustainable development has having four elements, adding âcultureâ to the other three.
In 2015 the European Commission issued the Culture Heritage Counts for Europe report and used this image: The Emirate of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – a country that is committed to setting an international example of sustainable development – has also approached the concept more broadly through their planning approach, Estidama.
Now that countries are starting to formally adopt the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which for the first time include cultural heritage as a target, this broader perspective will be used more frequently.
But for any sustainable development approach to work there is one prerequisite – a legal framework to allow it to happen.
And that is the challenge of Yangon.
In recent years Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been emerging from decades of international isolation as the military government is gradually yielding its power to a democratically elected civilian parliament.
Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the largest city in the country, has the most extensive collection of 19th and early 20th century colonial buildings in Asia.
While they are deteriorating, hundreds of blocks and thousands of buildings are still in place.
At one point the city was the centre of the British Empire in the region, and today could redefine its international position as one of the worldâs great historic cities.
There is plenty of money flowing into Yangon today to fund that evolution.
Except for one problem – there is no legal framework for property ownership to make that happen.
There is not yet a law that protects the heritage buildings, so dozens of potentially listed buildings disappear every month.
Though lots of countries have inadequate protection of their historic resources, in Myanmar, however, the problem is much more basic.
When the country became independent in 1948 there was a common law framework inherited from the British that largely worked and in some cases was built upon.
In 1960 the nominally socialist military government passed a rent control ordinance, nationalised all private property two years later, and then reallocated a partial interest to others.
Subsequent legislation granted what are basically possessory rights to any tenant who occupies the property for 12 years.
Today most of the land in the country is owned by the government, individuals and companies own buildings, and tenants âownâ the right to occupy.
Sort of like a condominium, but with no condominium law, and with âownershipâ achieved by simply being there rather than purchasing a legal interest.
The rent that the âlandlordâ receives on the space is next to nothing, often US$1 per year or less.
This is clearly inadequate to make an investment to improve the property.
Tenants have neither the motivation to make building improvements (since it is their space and not the building that is owned by them) nor often the money to make the most basic of repairs.
And if they choose to pool their money and fix the roof, for example? The landlord has the right to deny that investment since it is his building.
That is exactly what frequently happens, with the owner hoping the property becomes completely uninhabitable, then everyone moves out, and he can sell it to a developer to demolish and build a larger structure.
On top of all of this, there is little transparency in the ownership system.
A working cadastre system (the chain of title, boundaries, ownership limitations, deed registration etc.) is not yet fully operable and many transactions go purposely unrecorded.
The new parliament has hundreds of priority agenda items to address.
Both Buddhist and Islamic property interests add a level of complexity.
Meanwhile, owners prior to nationalisation are resurfacing asking for the repatriation of their ownership rights.
Trying to help the Burmese address these land ownership legal issues is the Pyoe Pin Programme, established by the British Council and receiving support from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA).
They have at least begun by defining the scope and complexity of the problem.
A pilot study of eight heritage buildings has also been undertaken in Yangonâs city centre to explore solutions.
In the meantime, what could be one of the greatest collections of heritage resources in the world is being chipped away almost daily.
That will not stop until there is a workable legal system for property ownership.
The big lesson from Yangon is this: sustainable development by any definition will remain at best an abstract concept if there is not the legal framework to make it happen.
By Donovan Rypkema Donovan Rypkema is President of Heritage Strategies International.
HSI was established in 2004 as a companion firm to PlaceEconomics, a consulting firm of which Rypkema is the principal.
The activities of HSI focus on the intersection between the built heritage and economic development..