Asia - Issue 75 - Magazine | Monocle

thumbnail text

Growing cities

Chaos lacking in theory


The most immediate evidence of Mandalay’s past glories as the pre-colonial capital of Burma is a sprawling, gilded palace (rebuilt after the Second World War) and some ancient religious buildings. Today there is little sign of romance in this shambolic city of about 1.3 million people dotted with shabby street cafés. But the former royal capital still has considerable charms, not least its vibrant mix of sectors, including its role as a religious centre for Burma’s Buddhist sects, a creative hub for traditional art and home to three large universities.

The city’s defining feature is its strategic location on the mighty Irrawaddy river. As the economic heart of what is known as Upper Burma, Mandalay is a crossroads for river routes and overland passages from India to Thailand and China’s Yunnan province.

The city’s transformation is summed up by the luxury resort hotels cropping up on the city’s fringes and the new fast-food joints competing with tatty old tea shops on the main streets. Mandalay’s ethnic make-up has also transformed in the last 20 years with an influx of Chinese immigrants, which now comprise more than one third of the city’s population.

Together with the local and national government, bigger investors – including a growing number of western businesses – are behind a push to develop commercial, tourism and industrial zones and bring more order to the city’s chaotic sprawl. The challenge, like most aspects of life in Burma, is daunting.

How much is it growing?
A population of 1.3 million in greater Mandalay could reach 1.5 million by 2016, say local officials.

Why it works
Strategic location on river and land routes to China.

What it should do next
Manage traffic chaos and population growth through urban planning.


Christopher Choa

Principal, AECOM Design + Planning

International firm aecom Design+Planning advocates the “aerotropolis”: developments that create new infrastructure in close proximity to airports. Choa explains why Asian authorities are following this model.

What is the appeal of an aerotropolis?
In the 21st century airports provide connectivity and specialised industries want to be near them. People want to live near where they work and other services such as the leisure and shopping industries want to be near where people live.

What are some examples?
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport has a very specific plan for airport-city development. By 2030 there will be over three million people living in that area connected by high-speed trains to the traditional city downtown. In Taipei the Taoyuan International airport has a developing plan for an aerotropolis – 1,800 hectares will be used. Beijing Capital Airport City, the third airport, has a huge $12bn (€8.8bn) masterplan. China is expecting almost 100 new airports by 2022.

What about noise pollution?
There’s no question: airports create noise. Residential developments around runways are not advised because the approach and departure paths are particularly noisy. But when you go off to the sides and in between runways, these areas are comparatively very quiet. Even at Heathrow, the main terminal is not any noisier than any place in central London.

Share on:

X (formerly Twitter)




Go back: Contents



sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • Global Music