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Mandalay moves toward heritage-based urban design


Christopher Green
Christopher is engaged as the international urban planner for Mandalay under the ADB Future Cities technical assistance. An architect and urban designer with 30 years experience in Europe and Asia, he is involved in various integrated urban development projects, such as those financed by ADB and Agence Française de Développement. He is currently based in Myanmar. 

November 2017

Mimicking its history, Mandalay is aspiring to build its city anew. Before it was for security reasons, today the motivation is sustainability.


Mandalay was a royal city created in 1857 by King Mindon. He moved his capital from Amarapura to strengthen its security from the British threat. The idea was to make it a unique, large-scale town planning project, which would feature an outer city and an inner city that includes the palace. The entire city would be a delimited sanctuary with the aim of becoming a new center for Theravada Buddhism and learning. The King was also influenced by the European style of building cities.

The outer section was built using a regular grid pattern of north, south, west, and east, with a strict ordering of space set around the massive square of the palace. This was laid out in 1859 and entirely built in the 1860s between the Ayerwaddy River to the west, the plains and Shan plateau to the east, the Dotawaddy River to the south, and the Madaya River to the north. The outer city eventually expanded to the west with the construction of the ground levee in 1875. Remarkably, more than one and a half centuries later, the city has stayed within its bounds.

However, present Mandalay is no longer immune to urbanization. From its current 1.2 million people, its population is expected to grow to 2.4 million people in the next 20 years. A large contributing factor is the city’s strategic location along the West–East Corridor between India and the People’s Republic of China.

ADB worked with Mandalay to build knowledge and expertise on heritage-led urban design and regeneration tools, to help conceptualize urban design solutions that can accommodate population growth.

The city’s development, though, is constrained by its natural boundaries. The density of the city can increase by building on the existing layout, and expansion can occur to the north and south. To meet the projected population increase in the next 20 years, a mixture of the two will be employed. Mandalay envisions becoming a livable and sustainable city while retaining its identity.

Banking on the royal city’s built heritage

To help Mandalay City reach its vision, the ADB Future Cities technical assistance (TA) ­– an incubation mechanism that seeks to engage with six pilot cities using innovative ideas – provided capacity building to the Mandalay City Development Committee (MCDC). Specifically, ADB worked with MCDC’s Urban Planning Unit (UPU) as well as the students and professors of the Mandalay Technical University (MTU) School of Architecture from December 2016 to May 2017. This is to build knowledge and expertise on heritage-led urban design and regeneration tools, and help officials and stakeholders to conceptualize urban design solutions that can accommodate population growth and spatial expansion.

Part of the intervention is to identify built and natural heritage that can serve as demonstration benchmarks in development and regeneration in the central area of Mandalay, such as the Thin Gaza Creek area between the Palace and the Ayerwaddy River, and 22nd Street. This latter area has historically connected the palace to the commercial hub and river port areas of the city.

On the other hand, the Thin Gaza Creek area has some of the highest population densities in the city (averaging between 6,867 and 12,489 persons per square kilometer) and has the poorest housing and service infrastructure. Even the creek has degraded into an unsanitary, slow-flowing drainage, since residents have been using it as a solid waste disposal site. Because of this, the area is a primary focus of the Mandalay Urban Services Improvement Program (MUSIP), an ADB project that was approved in 2015 covering wastewater and drainage improvements.

The findings of the capacity building workshops, along with other outputs from the Future Cities TA, are intended to be incorporated in various activities to improve the Thin Gaza Creek area under MUSIP. The goal is to improve the area and have this stimulate the city’s urban renewal process.

Map of the city of Mandalay reproduced from an original map (extracted from a thesis submitted to the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies by François Tainturie, September 2010)

Enriching local capacity for a better, future-ready city

Using a participative approach and co-construction methodology, the capacity building workshops had the UPU and MTU representatives design the future of the city based on four steps:

  1. “Read the city” through urban data collection. The objective was to get a comprehensive understanding of the city and to be able to collect data related to existing physical, natural, social, economic, and sensible elements that make the specificity of an area;

  2. Produce urban planning basic surveys and urban diagnosis that identify the challenges and opportunities of the areas, based on the analysis of the collected data;

  3. Define a vision for the development of the area and define strategic scenarios for the implementation of integrated urban development projects; and

  4. Develop urban regulation that would favor implementation of both private and public stakeholders of the proposed projects.


Each team (grouped as A, B, and C) focused on a specific site, and all were tasked to use natural and built heritage to leverage on the potential of the sites to become sustainable urban development projects, integrating basic services and facilities improvement, heritage preservation and promotion, and amelioration of the living conditions of the communities. In addition, the participants were advised to take into account the historical background of the city in order to understand the growth and future of Mandalay. Insights about the city’s character are vital for sensitive and resilient development.

Group A was assigned to assess the Royal City Block. They proposed that the 22nd Street stretch from the palace to the river could become a key commercial and residential area, with matching attractive streetscape (trees, pavements, and lighting) and soft transport (cycles and pedestrians) and conserving notable buildings by favoring adaptive uses. Buildings in the area should have a height limit so as not obstruct the view of the moat and pagoda compounds. Among rules and regulations proposed are prohibition of noisy and nuisance industries, encouragement of mixed land uses, and regulation of car parking spaces.

Group B concentrated on the 22nd Street to 26th Street area of Thin Gaza Creek. Their main objectives were to reduce solid waste and improve wastewater services, increase access to good housing and basic services, and prepare for natural disasters. The area also has a great tourist potential, so a guide or heritage walk could be implemented from the palace and moat to Thin Gaza Creek.

The link between the moat and palace and 22nd Street is of importance to the city and its green future


Le Ywin
Mayor, Mandalay City

Proposed landscape design along Thin Gaza Creek.
Photo: Chris Green

Lastly, Group C attended to the Chanthaya Bridge and City Park section of the city. They envisioned civic and green spaces, such as those along the banks of the creek, a green corridor linking back to 22nd Street and the palace moat;, and a promenade area. To improve their area of focus, priorities suggested include proper waste management and provision of waste tank, road improvement, installation of drainage, and prohibiting the cutting of trees.

‘Exciting’ development ahead

During an official presentation, the proposals attracted the attention of the Mayor. He said: “The link between the moat and palace and 22nd Street is of importance to the city and its green future. Enhancing and redefining 22nd Street from the palace to the river for commercial activity and designing it for pedestrians and bicycles together with upgrading the banks of Thin Gaza Creek as an urban park sounds like a very exciting project.”

Following these workshops what remains is to formulate an implementation plan with tools and regulations, as well as conduct consultations with the community, to turn the vision into reality. 

Urban planning is not only about the spatial distribution of functions. It must find an achievable future that still stays true to its identity and character, capitalizing on the past for a comprehensive, inclusive, and livable future.

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