Open space in Phnom Penh is highly prized but hard to find as the city’s few urban planners grapple with rapid construction and a fast-growing population.
New and improved parks are providing Phnom Penh residents some much-needed respite from the squeeze of the capital city’s increasingly cramped quarters.
The Wat Botom, Hun Sen, Vimean Ekreach and Wat Phnom parks have all undergone makeovers and are drawing hoards of locals to relax, exercise, picnic or loll with their sweethearts.
“My friends and I go to Botom Vatey Park everyday,” said 21-year-old university student Kim Rattana. “Like the rest of the city, the park is much more developed now than it was a few years ago.”
Chan Shithat, 24, said he has made a ritual of spending weekends with his girlfriend at Wat Botum Park, “a pleasant and romantic place that feels secure since it’s crowded.”
Phnom Peh deputy governor Pa Socheatvong said the parks helped draw communities together and also provided a venue through which foreigners could better immerse themselves in local life.
The increase in manicured parks in the city center would also help encourage investors interested in entering the local tourism industry, said Kong Sopheareak, director of statistics at the tourism information department.
But, while the growth in the number of parks in Phnom Penh was encouraging to both healthier lifestyles and investment, it was becoming difficult to situate new parks in a city in which open space was fast being consumed by development, said Beng Khemro, deputy director general of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
“The issue is not where you want to put a park, it’s where land is available,” Khemro said. “There isn’t legislation yet requiring that a certain percentage of land be used for public space.”
But, he said, the ministry was in the process of reviewing legislation that would require developers to set aside a minimum of 30 percent of development sites for public space.
Phnom Penh does not offer the diverse, prime expanses for public spaces offered by cities in more developed countries but was making progress, he added.
“You have to acknowledge that Cambodia has only recently come out of civil conflict. There are perhaps fewer than ten urban planners in the whole country. It’s a new concept for Cambodia.”
Local urban planners say public spaces remain few and far between and what’s there is inadequate.
People exercise along the Phnom Penh riverfront. Ministry of Land Management officials are considering a regulation to require that 30 percent of real estate development sites be set aside for public space.
Nhien Tharoth, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the Royal University of Fine Arts, said that new parks were a boon for a city increasingly starved for green space but were poorly designed, with basic considerations like access points and parking space neglected.
His colleague, Tiev Vinno, added that the increase in parks also lagged sorely behind the encroachment of concrete construction on open space in the city.
“Phnom Penh no longer has places where people can really relax, only a few gardens that are narrow and uncomfortable and crowded, and are unsafe at night,” he said.
“A park should have trees, a section for children, a section for music and eating, but we don’t have anything like this here.”
He said the city lost two areas ideally suited for development of public recreation spaces with the recent forfeit of Boeung Kak Lake and Pich Island in Chroy Changvar to real estate development.
“I have been making requests to the municipality to develop more walking paths and public spaces,” he said. “It’s City Hall’s role to use the land to serve the public, but instead they use it for new skyscrapers.”