Mon, Jan 13, 2020 - Page 8 News List

Building an inclusive city, one trash alley at a time

From Kenya to Colombia, Spain to Singapore, urban planners, businesses and citizens are creating green, open spaces in fast-growing cities to foster community spirit and tackle rising pollution and cramped living spaces

By Thin Lei Win  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, YANGON

People in June walk beside the drawing at the back street between 35 street and MahaBandoola street during the event to mark the World Environment Day in Yangon, Myanmar. Asia claims 99 of the worlds 100 most polluted cities.

Photo: EPA

For years, Yee Lay kept the back door of her ground floor apartment firmly shut to keep out both the stench from the rubbish that other tenants would carelessly throw behind the building and the hordes of rats that fed on it.

Now, standing in the narrow back alley in downtown Yangon, the longtime resident beamed at the scene in front of her. There were colourful wall murals, neatly potted plants, small wooden seats, swings and a bright green and yellow see-saw.

“It’s wonderful to see a backstreet looking like this,” sighed Yee Lay, 55.

The alley’s transformation from a trash-strewn street into a public playground and garden occurred in 2017, spearheaded by Doh Eain, a social enterprise determined to make this booming city more liveable.

“Yangon has one of the lowest ratios of public spaces in the region or in the world,” Doh Eain founder Emilie Roell said in another colorfully-painted alley behind their office.

“That means children have nowhere to play, the elderly have nowhere quiet to sit outside and there are very few places where people can just come and gather,” she said.

For its latest project, last June Doh Eain opened a community playground and park in Yankin, a Yangon suburb, in an abandoned plot of land that was fast becoming another garbage dump.

From Kenya to Colombia, Spain to Singapore, urban planners, businesses and citizens are creating green, open spaces in fast-growing cities to foster community spirit and tackle rising pollution and cramped living spaces.

With more than half the world’s population living in cities, according to the UN, it is crucial for urban areas to be inclusive and sustainable, said Robin King of the Washington-based think tank World Resources Institute.

“It’s particularly important for poor people because they don’t necessarily have the opportunities to pursue private recreation spaces,” said the director of the institute’s Sustainable Cities program.

Roell shares the same concern, saying privately-owned playgrounds and spaces that charge families to use them are popping up around Yangon.

“Some of the wealthier children can afford to play there but a lot of the poor children, they need to go miles in order to have a nice playground or they don’t get to go outside so much,” she said.

‘OUR HOME’

A study by local non-profit Another Development found that between 1990 and 2014, the population of Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital and largest city, nearly doubled to more than 5 million.

But the amount of green space per person declined by nearly 40 percent to about 0.40 square meters.

This is much lower than other densely-packed Southeast Asian cities such as Jakarta and Bangkok, both of which have about seven square meters per person, according to government data and various studies.

For Roell, an anthropologist by training, her mission to get more green space into Yangon started as a side project after she moved to the city in 2013 to work for the United Nations.

Helping a friend renovate his apartment in a historical building got her involved in heritage restoration and converting a small alley near her home into a garden led to more projects.

When Roell and a few friends organized some activities with the neighbourhood children, “a discussion started to emerge about how people should be taking more responsibility over their waste and how they haven’t got enough public spaces,” she said.

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