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A woman walks home from work along a stretch of road that is under construction on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in mid-December.
A woman walks home from work along a stretch of road that is under construction on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in mid-December. Heng Chivoan

Capital’s rapid urban migration

Cambodians are flocking to Phnom Penh for work. So much so, in fact, that the city’s size has increased at a faster rate than most other East Asian cities, the World Bank says.

The World Bank yesterday released its first report on urbanisation flows across the East Asia region. Cambodia’s only urban area with a population greater than 100,000, Phnom Penh, grew from 110 to 160 square kilometres between 2000 and 2010.

The capital’s population grew from 900,000 to more than 1.4 million during the 10-year period, according to the 180-page study.

“The Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Cambodia, still mostly rural countries just beginning to urbanize, had the fastest rates of urban spatial expansion, 7.3 per cent and 4.3 per cent, respectively,” the World Bank report states.

“More than 90 per cent of the built-up area, urban population, and urban expansion was within the boundaries of the municipality of Phnom Penh, although urbanisation has spilled over, particularly to the south and west.”

The Kingdom’s growth, while one of the most rapid, remains dwarfed in absolute terms by neighbouring nations such as Vietnam, which jumped from having the seventh-largest amount of urban land in 2000 (2,200 square kilometres) to the fifth-largest amount in 2010 (2,900 square kilometres), overtaking Thailand and the Republic of Korea. Vietnam’s urban population was 23 million 2010, more than 16 times Cambodia’s.

Nevertheless, Phnom Penh’s expansion has resulted in an extra 49 people residing in every square kilometre block and an additional eight districts being formed since 1997, encroaching on provinces like Kandal and Kampong Speu.

This, according to Seng Vannak, deputy head of the Urban Management Division at Phnom Penh City Hall, will help alleviate congestion in the capital brought on by growing urbanisation.

Phnom Penh’s 2013 construction and transportation master plan envisions a network of roads connecting the city to the outer districts by 2020, catered for by up to 18 new public bus routes.

“If you want to develop the city, you have to develop the surrounding areas so that those new districts can absorb some of the pressure from the city centre and spread the population density,” Vannak said.

“Young people in Cambodia these days no longer want to work in agriculture. They want to come to the city and find better paid work. Women come to the city to find jobs in Phnom Penh’s garment factories, while men are coming to fill the demand for labour in construction.”

Vannak estimates there to be as many as 1.8 million people now residing within the city limits, placing added pressure on construction companies to complete housing projects sooner.

But supporting this population migration is not just a matter of building the infrastructure, said Alex van Trotsenburg, regional vice president for the World Bank Asia and Pacific.

Van Trotsenburg said during a press conference in Singapore yesterday that sound overall investment policies are needed to sustain Cambodia’s rapid urbanisation shifts.

“In the city, infrastructure development is important … but if the macro regulatory framework is not satisfactory, then even the city’s best efforts will not pay off in attracting more foreign direct investment,” he said.

“Foreign firms look primarily at the overall investment climate rather than just one city, Phnom Penh.”

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