For the first time in history, more than half the world’s people are living in urban environments. While less than a quarter of Cambodians currently live in cities, Phnom Penh is growing fast. From being home to just over a million people in 1995, the capital’s population is expected to top two million in ten years time, if not sooner. AsiaLIFE explores whether there is a method to the madness that exemplifies the development of Phnom Penh.
The stampede at Koh Pich in November brought to Cambodia’s capital international headlines. While many readers abroad are likely to have dismissed the story as just another “developing country disaster”, many Phnom Penh residents were genuinely shocked. How could this happen on Diamond Island, the country’s flagship urban development?
In the aftermath, many questions were asked with the majority of commentators noting proper planning could have prevented the tragedy. Officially, no one was to blame. Though most likely a breakdown of crowd control rather than a failure of urban planning, the Koh Pich disaster brought questions about Phnom Penh’s development to the fore. And it was about time.
Urbanisation anywhere presents both opportunities and challenges. Young, recently established cities often feel growing pains.
“The development of the city of Phnom Penh today offers us a choice,” the country’s iconic master architect Vann Molyvann wrote in 2003. “We can either continue along the present path in which a form of laissez faire development responds to immediate needs and desires, or we can plan for a controlled development in which needs are anticipated and future requirements of growing populations are considered and prepared for.”
Eight years later, some contend the unique opportunity to rebuild and modernise the capital city has been wasted. Urbanisation has followed the money, not the needs of the city and its inhabitants. Phnom Penh could be on a path towards becoming another Bangkok, characterised by speculation, gridlock, pollution and empty high rises.
“The centre of Phnom Penh has been getting very dense in recent years with population growth of around four percent,” says Tep Makathy, a Japanese-trained urban planner and co-author of an upcoming urban sector assessment by the ADB. “It is imposing pressure on everything.”
Built at the confluence of four rivers, water both epitomises and puts a strain on the city. The Tonle Sap and the Mekong curtail its growth to the east, while flooding and drainage problems affect the expansion to the west. Nevertheless, the boom of the 2000s saw significant construction particularly in the outer districts lying close to the airport.
Limited laws and regulations mean the development has been largely uncontrolled. Zoning does not exist, while lack of planned parking facilities has led to traffic congestion on the city’s main arteries. Demolition of old buildings is a regular occurrence, with replacements going up equally as fast. The suburbs in particular are experiencing sweeping changes in land use, as former agricultural land is bought up and put to other uses.
As the city changes, its most vulnerable residents are caught in the crossfire. Rights groups report over ten percent of Phnom Penh’s population has been displaced in the past decade.
“Since around 2005 there has been rapid physical development and the city is not really ready for it,” says Makathy.
Din Somethearith, current hotelier and former head of the local UN-Habitat office, concurs. “There is no plan for the urban sector and no money allocated for urban planning in particular,” he says.
That’s not surprising. Somethearith notes rapid urban development is the norm in the region. “European cities have had hundreds of years to gradually grow, while most cities in the East have developed over the past hundred years or less,” he says. “We can’t control it.”
After years in the making, a master plan for the city is finally at the cusp of being adopted. A 330-page document, the “Livre Blanc du Developpement et de l’Amenagement de Phnom Penh” provides a comprehensive description of both historical and current characteristics of the capital, ending with a strategic master plan leading up to year 2020.
Not everyone is convinced of its value.
“It’s just a coloured drawing,” says Somethearith. He argues the document provides little practical direction for the development of the city. “Urban planning is about finding solutions. It’s costly and it takes a lot of time.”
Makathy too argues a more practical roadmap towards achievable, short term goals is needed. “City development can’t wait for ambitious plans, it moves on especially during rapid property booms such as the one we saw in 2004-2008,” he says.
Geoffrey Pyle is a British architect with studios in both the UK and Cambodia. According to him, the lack of plans and regulations mean decisions over land use are currently left to the investor.
“Rather than guidance from the city on the growth of the city, we’re steered by clients,” he says. This makes for haphazard development where high rises flank wooden corner shops. “You need an authority with a vision. Having some kind of a strategic master plan is important in guiding how investors choose to develop sites.”
Still, Pyle is realistic about the power of planning.
“If the plan goes contrary to the market, then land will just sit idle,” he says. Laws and regulations are further needed to ensure any plan is implemented, as investors otherwise are unlikely to take heed.
Somethearith argues this is not possible in the current economic climate. “Conditions can’t yet be put on investors as it would make Phnom Penh lose its competitive advantage,” he says. “Economic growth is needed. It’s a good image for the government and it’s good for the people. No one builds skyscrapers in wartime.”
Foreign Cash Leads the Way
The lack of restrictions and oversight has led to growth of the city being typified by ambitious construction projects. The filling in of Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh, which rights groups say will displace over 4,000 families, is a prime example of urban growth following the money.
Golden Tower 42, Camko City, and Grand Phnom Penh International City are further cases in point. They represent an imported urban future, which the majority of Penhites, not to mention the rest of Cambodia, can’t afford. “We don’t have a lot of middle class people–only the rich can afford these developments,” says Somethearith.
As the city centre becomes increasingly dense, the building of “satellite cities” has emerged as the number one solution for easing congestion. Yet the amount of planned mega-developments has experts worried.
“Satellite cities need so much time to get established,” says Pyle. “It’s incredibly ambitious. Incremental development according to a plan following the economic cycle might be better.”
Somethearith considers many of the foreign-led developments too aggressive. “The market is not there,” he says. ”I think it will crash in the next few years.”
It’s not only a question economics. Wider concerns regarding the impacts of fenced-in development projects are also aired.
“The large scale developments are isolated and not very well coordinated with the existing city structure and infrastructure system,” says Makathy. “Take for example sewage connections, if there are not any in the area, is the developer going to build them? There are no requirements to this effect.”
Pyle is concerned poor development will take place. “It’s soul-destroying to see important sites being developed in an ad hoc fashion, not contributing to the quality of the city.”
He cites the Bassac riverfront area as a great opportunity within the growing city. Already home to the capital’s latest five-star hotel, Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeetra, Bassac could, with proper planning, become the city’s newest district. “Sofitel is making a statement, setting the tone of the area,” says Pyle.
The opportunity presented by the now free land in Bassac came at a cost. Rights advocates point out that the area used to be home to thousands of urban poor families, evicted to the city’s outskirts during the past ten years.
Somethearith laments what he considers rushed, non-transparent development that has made some groups increasingly vulnerable. “Development should not affect people negatively, there are win-win solutions,” he says.
Lack of vision and accountability means these solutions are not being implemented. Instead, over 40 so-called “relocation sites” in the capital’s four outer districts now house urban poor communities who previously called prime real estate their home.
“The government thinks that giving the urban poor plots in the suburbs is good, but it doesn’t work for everyone,” says Somethearith. “The lack of transportation to the city centre means it is impossible for the very poor to make a living there.”
Transportation isn’t the only problem. Lack of jobs and services, as well as drainage, sewerage and roads add to the recipe for disaster not only for the displaced poor, but for all those who choose to relocate to the suburbs.
“It’s not atypical for a city to face these challenges in coping with infrastructure and service provision–it’s very expensive,” says Makathy. “But one thing you can do is to have a plan or a vision–let these direct you to avoid adverse impacts in the future.”
While the city centre’s layout is guided by colonial and 1960s urban plans, the largely agricultural land in the suburbs is developed unrestrained. “The suburbs are already becoming dense,” says Somethearith. “If we don’t plan and prepare, in twenty years time Phnom Penh will be like Bangkok.”
Makathy argues that in order for the city to develop more equitably, the twin issues of demand for land and need for housing have to be resolved together. “There needs to be supply of affordable housing units–but who wants to invest in that?” he asks. “In other countries, governments take the lead in the provision of affordable housing options.”
Loss of Identity
The rapid gentrification of the city is not only changing its texture, but also its makeup. Some young, up-and-coming architects fear the city is developing out of their hands.
“The good point is that we still have the old layout of the city to guide some development,” says Serey Pagna, an architecture student. “But really, Phnom Penh today is unplanned.”
Unlike many of his compatriots, Pagna is a fan of 1960s Khmer New Architecture, and laments what he considers the destruction of historically and architecturally valuable buildings in favour of imported urban dreams.
He maintains the unique opportunity to modernise war-ravaged Phnom Penh with sensitivity has been missed and there is little sign of an emerging 21st century Khmer urban aesthetic.
“Vann Molyvann put the Khmer soul into the buildings he designed,” says Pagna. In contrast, contemporary local architects either copy designs from abroad or use obvious symbols to assert their “Khmerness”, he maintains.
Pyle looks at the situation from a historical perspective. He says Cambodia is by no means unique in destroying its heritage.
“Cultures go through cycles,” he says. “Many Cambodians think of the 1960s Vann Molyvann period as not very Khmer. It is seen as French and post-colonial, it’s not considered a part of the heritage.”
While the argument is not academically accurate, Pyle notes it is likely to take some time before wider appreciation for Khmer New Architecture is achieved.
An Unsustainable Future?
“By the end of the 1960s, all the structures were in place for Phnom Penh to become the great capital of a clearly developing country,” writes Vann Molyvann. Indeed, when Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, visited Phnom Penh in the 1960s, he reportedly remarked: “I hope, one day, my city will look like this.”
Compared to Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, and Jakarta, Phnom Penh remains a small, liveable city. “You can hardly breathe in many other regional capitals,” says Makathy. “Phnom Penh is really fresh in comparison.” But the real estate and construction boom is starting to take its toll.
As Phnom Penh repeats the mistakes made in other regional capitals, many working in the sector express deep frustration with the current situation. “The private sector is very powerful and the government only cares about macro-economic growth,” says Somethearith. “It will be too late when we realise the effects of that.”
Young professionals like Pagna provide a glimmer of hope. Benefiting from improved training and international exposure, they are better equipped to deal with urban development.
“I believe in what my generation and the next can do,” Pagna says. “We hope to learn from other cities and apply those lessons in Cambodia.”
If Pagna’s optimism proves founded then Phnom Penh might in the future start making international headlines for the right reasons, although Pyle’s summary that the “city will survive and grow, and there will be both good and bad bits,” seems more realistic. The extent to which the city’s authority orchestrates its future planning is likely to have a bearing on just how much is good and how much is bad. Only time will tell.