Category Archives: History

Think Again: Lessons From Cambodia’s Rebirth Through the Arts


The revival of Cambodia’s rich and unique cultural heritage has fueled the country’s impressive recovery from the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of 1975-79. This message rang unmistakably true as the Season of Cambodia (SOC) has dazzled New York audiences in museums, universities, galleries, and performing arts centers over the past month. Both the U.S. and the Cambodian governments stand to learn from this game-changing lesson for post-conflict development strategy, but neither government seems to have noticed.

The 125 Cambodian artists supported and hosted by over 30 New York institutions have revealed the near miraculous preservation of the venerated arts of shadow puppetry and Cambodian classical ballet, as well as the dynamic new visions in dance, visual arts, and film of the artists from Cambodia’s youthful majority (70 percent under age 30).

To understand the significance of creative expression and cultural heritage in rebuilding Cambodia, you have first to understand the utter devastation wreaked by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror.

Nearly a third of the population, between 1.7 and 2.5 million out of a total population of 8 million, was killed between 1975-79. The dictator Pol Pot, himself with a degree from the Sorbonne, targeted anyone with an education. Ninety per cent of artists and intellectuals were murdered.

The U.S. opened the door to Pol Pot and his genocidal regime. America supported General Lon Nol over the more popular King Sihanouk, but it was the massive US bombing campaign, with more ordinance than the total dropped by the Allies in World War II, that led Cambodians to see the Khmer Rouge as their salvation. (The analogy to the drone campaign radicalizing Pakistan has been made.)

Greeted as liberators when they entered Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge immediately launched their brutal campaign. They divided families and outlawed familial love, moved everyone into the countryside, eliminated all cultural traditions and creative expression, and made the entire population work grueling 18-hour days on a subsistence diet.

Arn Chorn-Pond — musician, Cambodian genocide survivor, former child soldier, and founder ofCambodian Living Arts, the organization behind the Season of Cambodia — recognized the essential role of reviving culture in rebuilding the country. In returning masters of music, dance, and puppetry to their rightful place in society, Chorn-Pond and the other co-founders of Cambodian Living Arts helped restore identity, pride, and resilience to the Cambodian people.

The Khmer Rouge targeted artists, Chorn-Pond explains, because “they expressed who they were as human beings.” While brutal regimes like the Khmer Rouge or the Taliban recognize the threat that cultural identity and expression pose to their totalitarian control — think of the fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas or of the libraries in Timbuktu — the United States rarely prioritizes culture in post-conflict situations. (Afghanistan, where the U.S. successfully has supported culture and media, is an exception). No USAID funds for Cambodia have gone to culture.

The Season of Cambodia shows that recovery from trauma and conflict requires more than food and security. The soul of a country must also be nourished. The shell-shocked Cambodian survivors had to move beyond the genocide, and develop the strength to rebuild their country.

The story behind Lida Chan’s documentary Red Wedding, screened in the SOC’s Film Festival illustrates how the process of filmmaking as well as the end product can heal past pain, empower Cambodians to chart their future, and bridge the generation gap between survivors of the Khmer Rouge and today’s youth.

Chan’s film chronicles 48-year-old Sochan Pen’s determined search for the man who forced her, at age 16, to “marry” him. Pen escaped, but not until after her Khmer Rouge “husband” had raped and beaten her.

The process of sharing her story with the young filmmaker empowered Sochan Pen to testify against her “husband” at the Cambodia Tribunal, and to travel the country, telling her story, empowering other forced “brides” to speak up with her example.

Trained by Cambodia’s most renowned filmmaker Rithy Panh in his Bophana Center, Lida Chan and her experience affirm Panh’s belief that “Cambodians are learning to tell their own story, something that never has happened before.”

For his critical work preserving Cambodia’s cinematic past, and teaching future generations, Rithy Panh receives little support from the Cambodian or U.S. government.

To date, the Cambodian government has not made support for the arts a priority. Imagine what a fund built from a small tax added to Angkor Wat ticket prices could do to unleash the creative and economic potential of Cambodia’s youthful population.

The breakaway success of Artisans Angkor shows that investments in culture also can reap financial rewards. Led by Phloeun Prim, the charismatic architect of the Season of Cambodia, Artisans Angkor in a decade evolved from a modest NGO to a business with tens of millions of dollars in revenue, and over one thousand employees.

The Season of Cambodia offers the vision of a creative, dynamic, country, with a distinctive past and a promising future, a country that, to quote Festival architect Phloeun Prim, “has made arts and culture its international signature, not just the killing fields”. That dramatic transformation should persuade both the American and Cambodian governments of the importance of supporting the cultural sector in rebuilding this and other post-conflict societies.

First published May 9, 2013 on USC’s CPD Blog

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What the U.S. Bombing of Cambodia Tells Us About Obama’s Drone Campaign


 FEB 14 2013, 7:30 AM ET

A look back at another instance in which the U.S. undertook a secretive and widespread bombing campaign.


A Cambodian man prays at a Buddhist ceremony as around 300 skulls that formed a giant map of Cambodia are dismantled at a genocide museum in Phnom Penh on March 10, 2002(Chor Sokunthea/Reuters)

Halfway through the Justice Department white paper [PDF] defending the lawfulness of government-ordered assassinations of U.S. citizens, there is a curious reference to a dark chapter of American history.

The memo, making the legal case for covertly expanding military operations across international borders, directs readers to an address by State Department legal adviser John R. Stevenson, “United States Military Action in Cambodia: Questions of International Law,” delivered to the New York Bar Association in 1970.

The comparison is fitting in ways the Justice Department surely did not intend.

Like the current conflict, the military action in neutral Cambodia was so secretive that information about the first four years of bombing, from 1965 to 1969, was not made public until 2000. And like the current conflict, the operation in Cambodia stood on questionable legal ground. The revelation of its existence, beginning in 1969, was entangled with enough illegal activity in this country — wiretaps, perjury, falsification of records and a general determination to deceive — to throw significant doubt on its use as a precedent in court.

The most important parallel, though, isn’t legal or moral: it’s strategic. As critics wonder what kind of backlash might ensue from drone attacks that kill civilians and terrorize communities, Cambodia provides a telling historical precedent.

Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives — more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II — on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City’s. Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.

The bombing had two primary effects on survivors. First, hundreds of thousands of villagers fled towards the safety of the capital Phnom Penh, de-stabilizing Cambodia’s urban-rural balance. By the end of the war, the country’s delicate food supply system was upended, and the capital was so overcrowded that residents were eating bark off of trees.

Secondly, the attacks radicalized a population that had previously been neutral in the country’s politics. The severity of the advanced air campaign — “I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them,” then-U.S. President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger — fomented immense anger in the Cambodian countryside. Charles Meyer, an aide to the deposed Prince Sihanouk, said that it was “difficult to imagine the intensity of [the peasants’] hatred towards those who are destroying their villages and property.” Journalist Richard Dudman was more precise. “The bombing and the shooting,” he wrote after a period in captivity in the Cambodian jungle, “was radicalizing the people of rural Cambodia and was turning the country into a massive, dedicated, and effective rural base.”

Nevertheless, many historians continued to deny the causal link between the violence and the political upheavals in the country. Cambodia’s embrace of radicalism instead fit neatly into the Cold War-era “domino theory” paradigm, de-emphasizing the role of local conditions in driving the country’s history.

William Shawcross, in 1979’s Sideshow: Kissenger. Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia , was the first to advance the theory that the meteoric rise of the Khmer Rouge was not in spite of the U.S. bombing campaign but because of it. Taylor Owen, the research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, and Ben Kiernan, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale, have concluded that the full war archives, released by President Clinton in 2000, confirm this version of history.

“The impact of this bombing… is clearer than ever,” they write. “Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, acoup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.”

In tactical terms, contemporary drone attacks are far more precise than the pell-mell Cambodia-era bombs. One comparison, though, remains apt: in both cases, the American government has been less than forthcoming about the effect of these weapons on local populations. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that between 2,500 and 3,500 people have been killed by drone strikes, including — contrary to the recent statements of CIA nominee John Brennan — between 473 and 893 civilians, and 176 children. (The classification of civilians has been called into question as well. The Obama administration reportedly “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” unless posthumously proved innocent.)

Owen and Kiernan saw the parallel to current anti-terror operations before the Department of Justice did. In 2010, they published a paper in The Asia-Pacific Journal called ” Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent,” in which they argue that incidents like the predator drone strike on a Pakistani village in 2006 created direct blowback.

This point of view is echoed by Pakistani journalist Mohammed Hanif, who recently argued that the strikes are not only radicalizing the population but are “creating a whole new generation of people who will grow up thinking that this is what happened to us and now, now we want revenge.” In Pakistan and Yemen, Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times, “drones have become the recruiting tool of choice for militants.”

In this respect, the DOJ could not have found a more fitting precedent than the carpet-bombing of Cambodia. The purpose of the sustained bombardment from 1972 to 1973 was to prevent the Khmer Rouge from consolidating power. The result was the opposite.

The thousands of people killed so far by drone strikes represent a fraction of the several hundred thousand who died beneath the B-52s between 1969 and 1975. But the level of fear and anger — and the opportunity for insurgent groups to harness those emotions — cannot be so easily calculated.

In the words of retired General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, one can’t help but hear an echo of Charles Meyer, Richard Dudman, and other observers of the Cambodia campaign. “What scares me about the drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world,” McChrystal said last month. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes…is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

Is This The End?

Source: NY Times

Owen Freeman

By JAMES ATLAS Published: November 24, 2012 28 Comments

WE’D seen it before: the Piazza San Marco in Venice submerged by the acqua alta; New Orleans underwater in the aftermath of Katrina; the wreckage-strewn beaches of Indonesia left behind by the tsunami of 2004. We just hadn’t seen it here. (Last summer’s Hurricane Irene did a lot of damage on the East Coast, but New York City was spared the worst.) “Fear death by water,” T. S. Eliot intoned in “The Waste Land.” We do now.


There had been warnings. In 2009, the New York City Panel on Climate Change issued a prophetic report. “In the coming decades, our coastal city will most likely face more rapidly rising sea levels and warmer temperatures, as well as potentially more droughts and floods, which will all have impacts on New York City’s critical infrastructure,” said William Solecki, a geographer at Hunter College and a member of the panel. But what good are warnings? Intelligence agents received advance word that terrorists were hoping to hijack commercial jets. Who listened? (Not George W. Bush.) If we can’t imagine our own deaths, as Freud insisted, how can we be expected to imagine the death of a city?

History is a series of random events organized in a seemingly sensible order. We experience it as chronology, with ourselves as the end point — not the end point, but as the culmination of events that leads to the very moment in which we happen to live. “Historical events might be unique, and given pattern by an end,” the critic Frank Kermode proposed in “The Sense of an Ending,” his classic work on literary narrative, “yet there are perpetuities which defy both the uniqueness and the end.” What he’s saying (I think) is that there is no pattern. Flux is all.

Last month’s “weather event” should have taught us that. Whether in 50 or 100 or 200 years, there’s a good chance that New York City will sink beneath the sea. But if there are no patterns, it means that nothing is inevitable either. History offers less dire scenarios: the city could move to another island, the way Torcello was moved to Venice, stone by stone, after the lagoon turned into a swamp and its citizens succumbed to a plague of malaria. The city managed to survive, if not where it had begun. Perhaps the day will come when skyscrapers rise out of downtown Scarsdale.

Humans are ingenious. Our species tends to see nature as something of a nuisance, a phenomenon to be outwitted. Consider efforts to save Venice: planners have hatched one scheme after another to prevent the city from sinking. Industrial development has been curtailed. Buildings dating from the Renaissance have been “relocated.”

The most ambitious project, begun a decade ago, is the installation of mobile gates in the lagoons. Known by the acronym MOSE — the Italian name for Moses, who mythically parted the Red Sea — it’s an intricate engineering feat: whenever the tide rises, metal barriers that lie in concrete bunkers on the sea floor are lifted by compressed air pressure and pivoted into place on hinges.

Is the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico — the project’s official name — some engineer’s fantasy? It was scheduled for completion this year, but that has been put off until 2014. Even if, by some miracle, the gates materialize, they will be only a stay against the inevitable. Look at the unfortunate Easter Islanders, who left behind as evidence of their existence a mountainside of huge blank-faced busts, or the Polynesians of Pitcairn Island, who didn’t leave behind much more than a few burial sites and a bunch of stone tools. Every civilization must go.

Yet each goes in its own way. In “Collapse,” Jared Diamond showed how the disappearance of a civilization has multiple causes. A cascade of events with unforeseen consequences invariably brings it to a close. The Norse of Greenland cut down their trees (for firewood and other purposes) until there were no more trees, which made it a challenge to build houses or boats. There were other causes, too: violent clashes with the Inuit, bad weather, ice pileups in the fjords blocking trade routes. But deforestation was the prime factor. By the end, no tree fell in the forest, as there was none; and there would have been no one to hear it if it had.

“Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice,” declared Robert Frost. Another alternative would be lava. Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius: A plume of dirt and ash rose in the sky; rocks pelted Pompeii; and then darkness arrived. “It was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but like being in an enclosed place where the light has been doused.” Who did this? It must have been the gods. “Many were raising their hands to implore the gods, but more took the view that no gods now existed anywhere, and that this was an eternal and final darkness hanging over the world.” But of course it wasn’t the end of the world: it was just the end of them.

Contemplating our ephemerality can be a profound experience. To wander the once magnificent Roman cities strung along the Lycian coast of Turkey — now largely reduced to rubble, much still unexcavated — is to realize how extensive, how magisterial this civilization was. Whole cities are underwater; you can snorkel over them and read inscriptions carved into ancient monoliths. Ephesus, pop. 300,000 in the second century A.D., is a vast necropolis. The amphitheater that accommodated nearly 25,000 people sits empty. The Temple of Artemis, said to have been four times larger than the Parthenon, is a handful of slender columns.

YET we return home from our travels intoxicated by beauty, not truth. It doesn’t occur to us that we, too, will one day be described in a guidebook (Fodor’s North America 2212?) as metropolitans who resided in 60-story towers and traveled beneath the waves in metal-sheathed trains.

It’s this willed ignorance, I suspect, that explains why it’s difficult to process the implications of climate change for New York, even in the face of explicit warnings from politicians, not the most future-oriented people. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has been courageous to make global warming a subject of public debate, but will taxpayers support his proposal to build a levee in New York Harbor? Wouldn’t it be easier to think of Sandy as a “once in a lifetime” storm? Even as Lower Manhattan continues to bail itself out — this time in the literal sense — One World Trade Center rises, floor by floor. The governor notes that “we have a 100-year flood every two years now,” which doesn’t stop rents from going up in Battery Park City.

Walking on New York’s Upper East Side, I was reminded by the gargantuan white box atop a busy construction site that the Second Avenue line, first proposed in 1929, remains very much in the works. And why not? Should images of water pouring into the subway tunnels that occupied our newspapers a few weeks back be sufficient to stay us from progress? “I must live till I die,” says the hero of a Joseph Conrad novel. The same could be said of cities.

When, on my way home at night, I climb the steps from the subway by the American Museum of Natural History — itself a monument to transience, with its dinosaurs and its mammoth and its skeleton of a dodo bird, that doomed species whose name has become an idiom for extinction — I feel more keenly than ever the miraculousness, the improbability of New York.

Looking down Central Park West, I’m thrilled by the necklace of green-and-red traffic lights extending toward Columbus Circle and the glittering tower of One57, that vertical paradise for billionaires. And as I walk past the splashing fountain in front of the museum’s south entrance on West 77th Street, I recall a sentence from Edward Gibbon’s ode to evanescence, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” in which “the learned Poggius” gazes down at the remains of the city from the Capitoline hill: “The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”

This is our fate. All the more reason to appreciate what we have while we have it.

James Atlas is a contributing opinion writer and the author of a forthcoming book about biography.

Failed Enlightenment: Urban Design and French Modernity in Beirut

Note: Early urban planning of contemporary Phnom Penh was done by the French while Cambodia was a French Protectorate. Hence, the tangential connection to Beruit.

Source: Not Even Past

Failed Enlightenment: Urban Design and French Modernity in Beirut


This year’s John Ferguson Prize for Best Undergraduate Thesis went to Kate Maddox, a history major at the University of Texas at Austin. Her thesis explored the European political, social, and ideological influence in the making of the Lebanese city of Beirut. Read her abstract and take a look at some old photographs of early twentieth century Beirut below.


The processes that led to the remaking of Beirut reveal European powers’ economic penetration of the city, which resulted in to an ideological penetration of the city. This ideology, informed by the Enlightenment and French conceptions of modernity, manifested itself in several dominant themes, both in the period of informal European influence under the Ottomans and continuing during the period of direct French rule under the Mandate system.


In their production of the city center, and in the Ottoman urban planning projects that preceded the Mandate, French efforts drew directly and indirectly on concepts of the Enlightenment and modernity as well as other trends in imperial city building. The theory behind the making of a space deserving of the nickname “the Paris of the Middle East” can be divided into three motives, each addressed in turn in this thesis. The first, accessibility between the port and the city, owes more to economics than the social paternalism that marks imperial efforts of Westernization. The second principle manifests those efforts, the improvement of permeability of the downtown area and its buildings. Finally, the threat posed by disease and illness for the local population and, more importantly, European agents unaccustomed to the environment, combined with the concept of individual needs resulted in a focus on public health and hygiene. These ideas, however, are not mutually exclusive and developments often addressed all three. But together they drove the planning schemes in the central district that created the urban landscape that still exists, for better or worse.





About Katherine Maddox:

Katherine Maddox was born and raised in Houston, Texas. In 2008 she graduated from the High School for Performing and Visual Arts where she specialized in clarinet and bass clarinet. In the summer of 2011 she traveled to Beirut, Lebanon to study Arabic at the American University in Beirut and conduct research for her thesis. After completing her bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Texas she is travelling to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Following that she will be returning to Beirut where she will continue her Arabic studies and work for an NGO. Read her travel blog here.


National Bank

“Then, in 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital and evacuated its entire population. They used the stadium for political meetings and mass rallies. In the southern port of Sihanoukville, they tried to blow up Vann’s National Bank of Cambodia building (having abolished money) but gave up when the vaults proved too strong.” Source

“When the afternoon monsoon broke, the gutters were suddenly awash with paper; but this was money. The streets ran with money, much of it new and unused banknotes whose source, the National Bank of Cambodia, had been blown up by the Khmer Rouge as they retreated before the Vietnamese army. Inside, a pair of broken spectacles rested on an open ledger; I slipped and fell hard on a floor brittle with coins.” Source

The Riel Value of Money: How the World’s Only Attempt to Abolish Money Has Hindered Cambodia’s Economic Development

Top before KR – bottom after KR.

Historic Flooding National Museum

Two men in a pirogue paddle by the museum entrance. Circa 1934. Photo courtesy Nicole Groslier. Photo 1934. Via Di Dol Facebook.

Kep Expo February 2013

Source: and Facebook Page


– To participate in collecting and safeguarding Cambodian heritage, as a way to move forward for future generation through movies documentary, short movies interviews…
-By redrawing this unique city, by collecting testimonies of people who used to know Kep, by focusing on the original development of this exceptional seaside spot, the project aims to approach the full story of Kep as a very special display of the rise and fall of the New Khmer Architecture. Remembering is a way to discover and rewrite a lost chapter of the modern Cambodian history, previously to the war and the Khmer Rouge regime.
– To build capacity of young Cambodian artists and architects, through a creative collaboration with European professionals and students.
-The “Multimedia” workshop will provide them with technical tools and artistic skills to know how to define a subject or a theme of a film or photographic series. Professionals will “coach” the young applicants up to the definitive choice of the works to be exposed.
-Through the “Architecture” workshop, Europeans and Cambodians participants will share their personal ap-proach, their own vision of Kep and explore the history to draw visible sketches of old houses, create housing models and imagine the upcoming Kep.

Company Overview

VIMANA-CAMBODIA is a newly registered local non-governmental organization involved in the conservation, the development and the promotion of the Cambodian popular, cultural and historic heritage. Its various activi-ties take place in Cambodia and abroad in order to propagate to the Cambodians, as well as foreigners, the human usefulness of arts and culture, to collaborate and exchange with nationa

l and international partner organizations, to promote each networking opportunity to work together, to share knowledge and experiences with the next generations. To reach its goals, VIMANA is undertaking a meticulous work of research, identification and selection of audio-visual archives relating to Cambodia, to make them available to the public, through the organization of cultural events in Cambodia and abroad in artistic, audio-visual, architectural and historical fields. Since dialogue and exchange are the foundation of a rich and strengthened artistic experience, VIMANA also plans to implement training workshops for Cambodian youth, with the support of professional European artists, aiming at improving their skills and with the objective to participate in the re-birth of Cambodia’s professionalism in the arts.
Our project results from collaboration between France and Cambodia to create in Phnom Penh, a Multimedia and Architecture exhibition dedicated to Kep City, renowned as one of the most charming Cambodian Riviera location in the Sixties. Kep is both a symbol and a synthesis of Cambodia’s modern history. There is no place without memory and Kep is not an exception. Kep has its mystery; it is a short-lived souvenir of a Cambodian Golden Age. A bright celestial body suddenly faded, which seems set into the remains of vast forsaken houses. What are these ruins? What happened to this place? How do the people live there today? What future do they dream of? KEP EXPO searches for history, present and future of Kep. In 2013, Cambodia will celebrate its 60th Independence Day. KEP EXPO is a cultural cross-curricular project. Two collaborative workshops will be set up: “Architecture and Urbanism“ and “Multimedia and Archives”, involving extensive artistic exchanges between European professionals and Cambodian students, photographers, filmmakers, and architects. This event is an exciting archaeological journey through modernity. Cambodian and European participants to the workshops will lead the visible to reveal the invisible: past, present, and potential for Kep development.

Survival Lessons From an Ancient Failed City



Survival Lessons From an Ancient Failed City

The city of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, was a vibrant, growing metropolis in the late 17th century. Angkor was the New York, Paris or Rome of its time. At its peak from the 9th to 17th centuries AD, no one could have imagined any threat to this Khmer city-state. Yet, Angkor collapsed almost totally in the 17th century, and the reasons behind its demise offer an important lesson for today’s cities.

Angkor was built on a vast transportation network: canals acted substantially like freeways. The metropolis grew by expanding its network of canals from the central city to form a vast complex of suburban satellites. As depicted below, this was a gigantic enterprise. Ankgor grew exponentially as internal wealth and power increased. The waterways allowed goods and people to move well beyond the central core of the city.

Angkor Wat Water Suburbanization, photo by Roland Fletcher

But as Angkor continued to grow, its waterways became more fragile and vulnerable. Rain and other small but severe weather changes occurred, and the system began to crumble. My colleague Roland Fletcher, a professor of architecture at the University of Sydney in Australia, describes this process as “low density metropolitan collapse.”

Fletcher excavates cities to discover their social, physical, and economic trajectories. He and his colleagues have found a high correlation between extensive low-density suburbanization and subsequent metropolitan collapse. His thesis is that city expansion increases with wealth, which leads to, in essence, suburbanization.

Angkor expanded in a mild weather period. So, Angkor policymakers assumed this weather regime would continue forever and thus built their canals with few water catchments and earthen dams.

Today’s sprawling cities expanded in a period of mild weather too, with no anticipation that seas might rise or energy resources could be depleted. Angkor and modern cities resemble one another in that they were built to survive in only the most benign weather regimes. The roads, sewers and the like of the modern suburb are based on an assumption of mild weather and cheap energy. Recent events like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and subsequent Midwestern intense storms show how poorly modern infrastructure performs in extreme weather.

Elongated shallow roads and related infrastructure are as vulnerable today to destructive forces as Angkor Wat’s canals were. Fletcher explains the consequences of this process from dense city to decaying suburbs in the video below:

There may be some debate over the causes and consequences of how cities rise and fall, but there is no doubt we have similar processes at work now in America. New Orleans, Grand Forks, North Dakota, and urban South Central Florida have experienced crippling disasters in the last two decades, where part of the cities have been destroyed beyond our capacity to rebuild them.

In 2012, there were more national emergencies for tornadoes, hurricanes, and snow storms that in any other year since records have been kept. As sea levels rise and weather patterns are increasingly unpredictable, basic city settlement systems are failing. Angkor Wat was not the first or last place to go through this evolution of city boom, sprawl and bust. Beirut and other cities around the world have grown and retreated as climatic conditions changed.

And of course, we don’t have to look as far back for even more analogues. As our energy supplies dwindle, we’ve watched as radical weather imperils America’s aging infrastructure. It is too simple to suggest that we can draw direct parallels here. But it is useful to learn from the past as we try to build or rebuild for the future. It is also unwise to suggest all suburbs are bad. What policymakers have to confront is what can we do in light of this past evidence.

Two blighted houses sit vacant in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Photo by Lee Celano/Reuters

Climate change plays a part but is not the sole culprit. New Orleans, where I spent considerable time post-Katrina as Recovery Czar, is a classic example of city sprawl. The city had almost 15,000 vacant units of housing in its core when the storm hit in 2005. City leaders had expanded the city into surrounding swamplands from 1965 to 1990, doubling the geographic size of the city. So when the storm hit, the city was expanded beyond the bulwarks of levees, leaving the entire city vulnerable to sea surges destroying much of the suburban infrastructure.

Many American cities have large suburban extensions held together by vast, over-stretched infrastructure. As Fletcher notes, the expansion of low-rise land use patterns require continued expansion of roads, water, and energy resources. This, in turn, could lead to a situation much like New Orleans, where the entire city framework is threatened when climate change alters rain, heat, and sea levels. Beijing experienced this phenomena last month with more than 30 lives lost because the expanded city could not support the volumes of flood water created by expansions of the city into surrounding natural habitat.

The lesson for American and similar land use pattern nations like Canada and Australia is to build compact, flexible settlements. One direction already underway is urban consolidation, in cities such as Miami, Indianapolis, and Louisville. Another is containment of sprawl, similar to Portland and Seattle and now Los Angeles. Finally, Denver, Phoenix, and Dallas are trying to re-knit the suburbs with the cities using light rail to generate development along corridors rather than continuous outward development. All of these approaches at this point have merit, but they may not be enough to prevent massive systems failures. So as the nation debates the need for more infrastructure spending, it would be wiser to think of a strategy to improve city cores and reinforce transport spines. Angkor Wat is a useful lesson because it shows that if we don’t take drastic action, we are all facing the grim prospect of massive regional system failures. Cities can generate suburbs; but suburbs cannot save the city.

Photo credit: Andrew L. /Shutterstock

Edward J. Blakely is honorary professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He served as the Executive Director of Recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He is an international urban policy theorist and practitioner. His most recent book is My Storm. All posts »

French Colonial Ochre


Photographing the UNESCO building reminded me to ask: Why are the French Colonial buildings ochre?

This is the Wiki answer: “Ochre was a popular coloring in France during the time of the French Empire, and many French citizens living in foreign colonies would import a great deal of ochre clay from France to make their new lands feel like home. As a result, after the period of French colonization ended, ochre became associated with repression and fell out of favor.”

True? I haven’t located a more reliable source and the Wiki fact didn’t provide one…