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Restoring Yangon One Street At A Time

Emile Roell Is Reviving The Urban Landscape Of Myanmar’s Capital


If you had walked by 27th street in Yangon before July 2016, you would not have noticed this alley in the Myanmar capital, and might even have tried to avoid it altogether. Today though, you would stop and even taken an Instagram-worthy picture.

That’s because it has been transformed into a garden filled with street art and planter boxes. Children play happily in the clean environ and there is not a single piece of rubbish to be found. It is a far cry from its previous incarnate as a rubbish dump.

All this is thanks to the intervention of Emilie Roell, through her non-profit social enterprise Doh Eain, which is aimed at citizen-led heritage conservation and urban renewal in Yangon. The rejuvenation of 27th street is one of 20 projects the organisation is involved in, and a significant one for that matter.

“Through our alleyway project, we encouraged people to stop treating their back alleys as waste spaces where they could dump rubbish, but to see them as potentially valuable neighborhood spaces where their children could play, and people could sit outside and relax,” says Roell, who hails from The Netherlands.

Founded in 2015 by herself, Doh Eain started out by doing pre-financed renovation and restoration of small heritage sites in Yangon. Since then, it has branched out into property management, where it helps owners rent out their renovated homes to generate income. It is also involved in community research and consultation.

Roell’s chosen path is not without grounds. According to UN-Habitat, Yangon’s population could expand from around 5.7 million residents now to more than 11 million in 2040, “Following decades of relative isolation and standstill, such rapid population and economic growth are now leading to a construction boom destroying many badly kept but unique city elements such as heritage buildings, green spaces and other traditional neighborhood characteristics.”

She therefore decided to start Doh Eain to work on conservation and urban regeneration directly with and for the residents of Yangon, delivering user-centered design and restoration or construction projects that preserve and improve historical, cultural, natural and social assets in the city. 

Judging by the numbers, there is much work to be done. Yangon has over 6,000 historical buildings still intact. Of those, 70 per cent are smaller, privately-owned shophouses and residential buildings that mostly need preservation and maintenance.

Roell recognises the importance of her work since across the world, there is now a heightened awareness of the value of historic towns, districts and parts of cities for their uniqueness and sense of place. “They help to attract tourism, employment and local investment, fostering the sustainable development of the city,” she says. 

There are plans to further scale up the work they do in Yangon, all of which is funded by angel investors and foundations. Roell is also currently preparing for another round of capital-raising in early 2018.

“Most of all, we are keen to become a key platform for human centered urban design and people’s engagement in their urban built environment, connecting spaces, local authorities and people.”