Monday, July 24, 2017

A trip inside Yangon’s back alleys

How the city’s back alleys became what they are, and a glimpse at what they could become.

Your usual Yangon back alley. Photo - SuppliedYour usual Yangon back alley. Photo - Supplied

Yangon’s back alleys were not always the open sewer they are today.

Thirty years ago, they were a shortcut helping residents to move around their neighborhood more easily.

Though not always clean and pristine, they were at least practical. Today, alleys are blocked by huge piles of trash.

What happened?

Space-hungry Yangon saw the height of its buildings go up. As the residences grew higher, the residents grew tired of going up and down the stairs, so they started to throw their rubbish out of the windows. The era of trashy back alleys began.

“In the past, people living in houses owned them,” recalls a local councilor from Kyauktada township. “We all knew each other very well back then, and it would not have crossed anyone’s mind to throw their rubbish around”.

“But renting became popular, and tenants started to be less careful,” says the 61-year-old. With people coming and going for shorter periods of time, neighborhoods were treated less like homes and social links deteriorated.

Peer pressure has not entirely disappeared, but offenders have ways to get around it, explains U Kyaw Linn Aung, a ward administrator in Pabedan Township. “Bin bags are usually thrown out at 1 or 2am when nobody is watching. We tell people not to litter, but they don’t listen,” he told Weekend.

Kids playing in a redecorated back alley. Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar TimesKids playing in a redecorated back alley. Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar Times

Finding gold in the mud

But things are looking brighter as one group has decided to shake – or rather clean – things up.

In March this year, Doh Eain (“our home” in Myanmar), a social enterprise, decided to tackle the issue. On its own initiative, it started to clean back alleys and turn them into small gardens.

It started with its own backyard, near its office on 27th street downtown.

“Waste management and drainage are big topics in Yangon,” says Emilie Röell (pictured), the founder of Doh Eain.

Gradually, the project expanded. A bigger back alley on 39th street was turned into a spacious playground where kids have replaced the vermin. The latest project is the biggest of all. It is composed of four playgrounds, three gardens, two mobile libraries, two flower gardens and even a gym.

The initiative also makes economical sense. Space is scarce is Yangon, and what is rare is usually expensive.

The price of a square foot in Myanmar’s financial capital is about K800,000.

“According to our calculation, residents of 31st and 32nd street would get K8 billion worth of land back by removing the trash,” says Min Ko Naing, a leading democracy activist who was invited to speak at the launching event of the third back alley project this week.

And that does not include all the indirect benefits for residents’ health.

Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar TimesNyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar Times

Urban playgrounds

Children are the obvious beneficiaries of the initiative. But so are their parents.

“My kids can play near the house. It is more convenient for us,” says Daw Phyu Phyu Lwin, who lives downtown and is the parent of a 10-year-old boy.

But a resident living on the ground floor is not as enthusiastic. “We had to close the back door because a lot of children are playing in the alley.” Still, he’d rather be neighbours with screaming kids than with squeaking and scratching rats.

Local schools also benefit from the effort. A lot of classes are being taught in apartments where kids cannot play and run around.

“Our school sport hall is on the 6th floor of the school apartment. Children cannot play freely,” said Daw Yin Yin Mon, headmistress of a middle school in Kyauktada. “We are very happy the back alley is near our school,” she admits.

Emilie Röell, the founder of Doh Eain. Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar TimesEmilie Röell, the founder of Doh Eain. Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar Times

Back to the back alleys

Weekend decided to check out what all the projects were about.

Much to our surprise, the first redecorated alley was closed.

“The door is currently locked for security reasons,” explains U Khin Maung Latt, a local administrator. The apartments in the back alley are in fact being renovated.

This cannot happen in the third project, Doh Eain told Weekend. The first project was dependent on the security of just one apartment; the others are dependent on an entire street or block.

Can we say the first project failed? No, replied U Khin Muang. The first garden was only intended as a pilot project and it served its purpose, now that other projects are popping up. Besides, the attention the first project attracted raised awareness considerably among the locals.

The second project on 39th and Seikkhannthar streets is up and running. Seesaws are swinging in colorful alleys. It is open from 9am to 5pm daily, except on Mondays – a decision of the residents. “Children mostly come and play during the weekend, but they have to go back to school on Monday,” says U Myo Nyunt, one of the committee members in charge of the project.

On average, 30 to 40 children come to play on a sunny day.

Complete success? Almost. “Trash bags are no longer falling from the sky, but people still litter despite the three bins dispatched throughout the alley,” U Myo Nyunt grumbles.

The third and final project was inaugurated this week. Weekend was there and enjoyed the experience.

Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar TimesNyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar Times

A lab for local democracy

Basic infrastructure like the pavement and the drainage are paid for by the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). The clean up, decoration and painting of the garden was covered up to 80 percent by Doh Eain and the rest by generous residents. (Doh Eain gets its funding from various sponsors, from Coca Cola to the Danish embassy.)

“Myanmar is a democracy now. There is space for people to be involved in their surroundings. Local initiatives must be encouraged,” Emilie Roell, founder of Doh Eain, said.

Doh Eain’s mission, she explains, is to help with the first push, but then it is the residents’ responsibility to look after their own backyard.

Public figures are showing interest. The Mayor of Yangon, U Maung Maung Soe, was at the opening ceremony of the third project. In his speech, he warned that households who keep throwing trash bags in the alley will be see their water and electric supplies cut – outside of the usual power cuts, of course.

But what will make the projects work long-term is the people.

One committee has already vowed to keep the park in good condition. The residents hired a gatekeeper, who is on a fulltime salary.

Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar TimesNyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar Times

“When we have enough funds from the residents, we will install CCTV cameras to ensure the security of the children and make sure the alley is not trashed or used by squatters or drug dealers,” said U Myo Nyunt, a committee member.

Other projects will be developed in Latha, Lanmadaw, Botahtaung, Pazundaung, Kyauktada, Pabedan and Sanchaung townships starting in August.

Our newly recovered freedom enables us to grumble and criticise more freely. But most of all, it allows us to initiate projects like Doh Eain’s back alleys.

Dissatisfied with the way things are? Just change them.