I am continually confronted with my own lens and values as I move through the physical environment of Phnom Penh. I have to remind myself of this, and pull back from the fact that I was raised in the USA, a country whose Anglophilic roots run deep. I have been trained in environmental design schools that worship the Northern and Western European aesthetic and ideals of form and order (who, honestly, interpreted many formal ideas from China and Japan) and balk at the idea of high-rise skyscrapers anywhere but a central business district. I take these ideals for granted, and what I find banal or disgusting about them, designers and developers in a different context find novel and attractive.
While visiting Diamond Island (Koh Pich, map below), a manmade island development sprung out of the Mekong River on the east side of Phnom Penh, one might find curving boulevards four lanes wide, designated parking areas, huge air-conditioned cinemas, and developments with stucco facades made to resemble the Classic facades of ‘Europe’. Koh Pich feels like Las Vegas to me; a pastiche that is foreign and unappealing to my training and personal taste.
Koh Pich is almost entirely under construction right now. Many of the gated suburban developments have only a few occupied homes, and the offices and shops seem largely unpopulated and unpatronized. However, it is very popular at sunset for teenage couples on motorbikes to sit and make out by the riverside. I have only ventured onto the island on my jogs, in the early morning or evening before prime lover-time, and so have not witnessed the phenomenon myself.
Koh Pich is unique in Phnom Penh in that it has a lot of non-linear public spaces, with a lot of planting. The space in front of city hall is a French-style maze of hedges, walkways, and benches.
My favorite has to be this park, which only has a Khmer name in Google Maps, so I do not know what to call it here. As one can see, below, the paths and plantings have no symmetry, no apparent plan, and it drives me crazy.
The park is tucked behind a condominium sales center, and north of the golf club, so there is a 100-foot net that rises up against that edge. Other delights include a cowboy-boot archway entrance, elephant fountains, and more colorful concrete monuments than you can shake a stick at.
My commentary on the park is mocking, I know, but only because I don’t understand it. My design-mind was going berserk with the lack of symmetry, straight lines, or focal points within the park however, every time I visited (at my odd jogging hours, remember) there were more than a few people enjoying the space.
Elsewhere on Koh Pich, the aesthetic is no less confusing.
I thought that this building, above, and its accompanying marketing sign, below, were indicative of contemporary development trends in Phnom Penh. The building does not have any Khmer characters, and while the marketing sign does have Khmer it is very small below the other target audience languages.
I wanted to see what it was like inside one of these ‘Elite Towns’ so I waltzed right through the most completely-constructed development I could find. I was surprised at how easily I walked right through the front gate.
What is nice about these developments however, is that there are shade trees on the street, which is really nice. However, I would think that these trees are going to have serious problems down the line because the planting wells are teeny-tiny, and they are so low-branched, it’s difficult to walk below them comfortably!
These peri-urban developments are more-intensely-hardscaped versions of the lifeless subdivisions many of my friends lived in growing up.
“Doesn’t everyone want to live in a four-story mixed use development?”
“Doesn’t everyone want a farmer’s market within cycling distance?”
“Aren’t we done bulldozing history to make condos?” — not really applicable here, since Koh Pich was created in the middle of a river for this exact purpose.
This is of course, an exaggerated transcript of my inner monologue. BUT, I realized that my Anglo-European-North American lens is colored deeply by an obsession with authenticity. Whether we like it or not, people in the US are obsessed with things feeling rustic, authentic, or local. It’s a gigantic part of marketing and design whether or not the product is actually handmade, vintage, or the definition of ‘local’ is Planet Earth. Whether I like it or not my immediate reaction to the sleek condominiums and huge roadways is confusion at why such things would be designed and constructed, when our Scandinavian colleagues got everything so ‘right’, and have handed down a cannon of environmental design knowledge. “Why wouldn’t these designers just ‘leapfrog’ to ‘green’ design theories and technologies?”.
I suppose one always wants what they do not have.
It turns out it is only just beginning. I should not be so surprised, I live in Seattle where a new high-rise condominium developments spring up in the backyards of Craftsman homes every day. Auto-centric malls are still heavily patronized in the US, though they are being built at lower rates, but this development trend is just picking up speed in many developing parts of Central and Southeast Asia. Phnom Penh is a tremendous real-estate bubble at the moment, with some of the highest real estate speculation in Southeast Asia. It turns out that corporate development wins over the low-income communities they displace all the time, in many places across the world.
The community we are working with wants a WIDE road (the dimensions of the community are 612 meters by 7 meters…. The road is 3.5 meters wide, with awnings, roofs, umbrellas, children, clotheslines, and dining tables in use intermittently throughout the day. The community members seem concerned with our proposals utilizing the road for play or gardening at certain points, as it minimizes the amount space for traffic and poses a danger to children. The men in the community seem to think that they will be able to some day fit cars and tall trucks down the road (no freaking way!) and want nothing obstructing this use. Through my stupid, Western lens, I suggested we show the community an example of a shared-use street or partial street closures — something so novel and quaint in the US– so they might better understand why we were making renderings with a bunch of play and seating in the middle of the road they need so badly. Ben gently reminded me that shared-use is the nature of most streets in Cambodia; the community wants to feel they are modern, and modern means a WIDE paved road without the obstructions or disorder associated with living in an informal settlement.
The road symbolizes formality, order, and an arrival into modernity for this settlement. Planters, loose seating, murals, flexible play equipment — all the tactical urbanist elements I am taught to associate with an exciting urban realm are met with positive reactions, but with a subtext that they obstruct the road and movement: “Just give us a road we can move a lot of stuff through”.
I am not naive that these sentiments could crop up any time, or any place, but the scale at which the Edge-City-type developments are propagating in Phnom Penh, and my own precious attitude toward the flexible nature of street edges in Cambodia has made me want to react and synthesize my experience in a public forum. I would welcome any insights or comments regarding contemporary development in Southeast Asia, particularly Cambodia and Phnom Penh.
Despite a personal consilience between differing but valid methods of development (in this regard, my concept of contemporary, neo-postmodern, Scandinavian-influenced, bioswale-loving, tactical urbanism-crazed West-Coast urbanism, and what little I’ve seen of Korean and Chinese-funded Southeast Asian development), Phnom Penh, and Cambodia in general, could use a lot more public green spaces, and much more infrastructure for stormwater infiltration — however that manifests! Children in Phnom Penh have to play soccer on pavement or in the street. Coming back from the community last Sunday, we were blessed with an hour of sweet, sweet, rain; but by the time we arrived back in town several streets around RUFA were ankle-deep with standing water. It took until the morning for the water to infiltrate! That is NO good.