Eben Forbes and John Taylor: Informal Urbanization in Myanmar and Indonesia

Yangon, Myanmar, left and Manado, Indonesia, right

Informal settlement as seen in Yangon, Myanmar, left, and rapid urbanization taking place in Manado, Indonesia, right. photo / Eben Forbes and John Taylor

The Department of City and Regional Planning (CRP) and Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) bring together two talks and a panel discussion on informal urbanization in Southeast Asia. Eben Forbes (Harvard Kennedy School) will talk about his research in Myanmar; John Taylor (Yayasan Kota Kita, Surakarta) will talk about his nongovernmental organization's work in Indonesia; with CRP associate professor Victoria Beard moderating.

Eben Forbes : Urbanization and Informal Settlements in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)

Eben Forbes began his career in New York City, working for the city as a housing specialist for homeless adults. Years later he earned his master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University. In 2003, he moved overseas to work in India, Nicaragua, and then Myanmar where he was a program officer with UN Habitat for four years. Currently on leave from the UN, he is engaged in a yearlong research fellowship through Harvard University investigating the effects of rapid urbanization on the urban poor in Yangon, Myanmar.


Myanmar (Burma) is often considered a "rural" country, yet at the current rate of urbanization, the urban population will exceed the rural by the year 2040. In Yangon, the provision of infrastructure and services is already unable to keep pace with population growth. While informal settlements have always been part of the city's landscape, recent years have seen big changes in the geographical spread of these settlements. Development in the city's core has led to the eviction of most inner-city squatters and the "pricing out" of many low-income renters, while new industry in the city's periphery has attracted many more squatters to peri-urban areas. During field research from December through February, Forbes and Thet Hein Tun interviewed scores of families representing the poorest of Yangon's poor: the residents of informal settlements in both central and peripheral areas of Yangon. This presentation will elucidate the trends observed across these settlement areas and will highlight the many challenges faced by this population during this critical time of transition in Myanmar.

John Taylor: Flexible Responses to Rapid Urbanization in Indonesia – Kota Kita

John Taylor is an urban planner and activist. He is the founder and director of the local Indonesian NGO Yayasan Kota Kita (Our City Foundation) whose mission it is to help people make thoughtful and inclusive decisions about the development of their cities — by facilitating citizen participation and collective action. Yayasan Kota Kita has recently worked on climate change vulnerability assessments in Kupang and Manado, as well as having conducted research on water management and urban poverty in other Indonesian cities. Taylor has served as a technical advisor to UN-HABITAT Indonesia, and The Asia Foundation, supporting several urban programs and research initiatives. Taylor has also worked in Latin America (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Honduras) and Africa (Angola) on urban development and planning issues. He received his master's degree in urban planning from Harvard University in 2006.


Rapid urbanization in Indonesia is changing the nature of cities and challenging them in a number of new ways. In particular smaller, secondary, and even tertiary, cities are experiencing such rapid changes that it is estimated they will double in size in as few as 10 to 15 years. Urbanization overlaps with other significant trends, such as climate change and the growing middle class, creating a set of complex issues for city governments, local communities, and planners to face.

Traditional approaches have not been able to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of cities quickly, or effectively enough, requiring alternative responses to generate new ideas, create new roles for stakeholders, and bring about different outcomes.

John Taylor will discuss how the Indonesian NGO, Kota Kita, is responding to rapid urbanization by being flexible, inclusive, and innovative. He will describe some of the alternative approaches they've developed, including how new roles and tools have been introduced to projects in over 12 cities across the country. An emphasis on adaptive arrangements, citizen participation, and empowering citizens through providing access to information, are values central to their work.

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