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Comment: Our city is not for sale

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By Meng Bunnarith

Balance commercial concerns with the needs of residents

TRACEY SHELTON

Children ride their bike through the flooded Boeung Kak area last week

The news about Boeung Kak lake development is hot. It has appeared in newspapers every day since Phnom Penh's City Hall granted a 99-year lease to the developer Shukaku Inc.

Of course, the city needs development. If the development goes in the right direction, it could drive economic growth. However, if development goes in the wrong direction, it will adversely affect both the natural and built environments.

Any development projects that are likely to cause the loss of scarce natural resources, such as Boeung Kak lake, should consult with stakeholders and encourage involvement from the grassroots all the way up to professionals and top leaders.

Since the development plan has not yet been finalised, I wish that City Hall does its best to plan in such a way that all the negative impacts of development are minimised, specifically the social and environmental impacts. City Hall, as well as the company, should be ready for constructive criticism and then plan for the most appropriate development processes.

The design of the Boeung Kak development plan,  the so-called "Pearl Plan", which was awarded "First Prize" by the international jury in 2003, was an ambitious piece of work, in which I was involved. In fact, the plan was a result of an urban design and planning competition workshop organised jointly by the City Hall and its French partners, with the assistance of many international experts.

The Pearl Plan contains good components that could be integrated into the upcoming development. What was unique about the Pearl Plan was its ambitious vision to revitalise the Boeung Kak area. The Plan aimed to capitalise on the green and blue networks in the city.

It tried to advocate a development that benefits all generations through a trade-off planning advocacy, in which City Hall arranges for an acceptable resettlement program and residents agree to move there for the sake of the development of the city landscape.

To put it simply, in contemporary leadership vocabulary, it is a "win-win" solution.

Envisioning our city's future helps shape the direction of our city's growth. Such a vision would provide more scope for development to take into account urban population growth while stimulating the city's economy.

The lake water is becoming more polluted due to lack of care by both the municipal authorities and the residents around the lake. However, that does not mean the lake needs to be filled. Filling the lake would lead to unpredictable disasters caused by flooding, since there are not enough water catchment areas in the city.

This is not to mention disasters that are and will continue to be caused by the filling of other lakes to the north of the city. This is evidenced by the flooding of a few villages in Phnom Penh Thmei.

More to the point, the Boeung Kak development will need to take into account both short-term and long-term consequences.

In the short term, the project designers will need to be aware of social issues pertaining to the residents in the development area, and the flooding that will be caused by filling the lake.

Specifically, a social and environmental impact assessment needs to be carried out properly so that it can mitigate any problems arising from the development.

In the long term, as the development takes place, the area around Boeung Kak lake will obviously become more congested with traffic due to the increased density of development.

Without appropriately planning to cope with such a growth in traffic, Phnom Penh will become a place where outdoor pollution is increasingly a concern. The Pearl Plan was well-aware of these issues. It integrated the interaction between land use, transportation and environmental planning into the existing elements of the city, hoping that Phnom Penh would become more livable. We wanted to make sure that the development of Phnom Penh today would not compromise the city for the generation of tomorrow.

In a nutshell, any decision on city development rests with the municipal authorities. The ongoing debate about how our city should be developed is, at present, surely being dominated by this authority. However, we cannot develop our city based solely on market forces. We must develop based on our conscience. The city is not for sale on the market. The city is for all of us to live in.

______________________________________________________
Meng Bunnarith is deputy director of the department of urban planning at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. He currently is a PhD candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He was the Cambodian designer on the award-winning design team that created the Pearl Plan. 

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