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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Urban heritage: will it stay or will it go?

Urban heritage: will it stay or will it go?

The Central Market - Psar Thmey - one of Phnom Penh's most distinctive

landmarks, is a giant beehive of activity. Beneath its towering yellow art deco

dome, tourists snap photos and shop for scarves and sunglasses beside Khmers

buying fresh fruit and vegetables, houseware, and other odds and ends of daily

life.

And visible from Psar Thmey, another, more modern dome looms over

the market square - the blue glass of the Sorya Center, with its shops,

supermarkets and fastfood restaurants. With the rapid development of the city,

the contrast between old and new is an increasingly common sight - one that

raises questions about whether the future will coexist with the past or replace

it.

The changing face of Phnom Penh - and many provincial centers - is

not going unnoticed, as highlighted by a national seminar on preserving

Cambodia's urban heritage, sponsored by UNESCO, the National UNESCO Committee

and the Municipality of Phnom Penh on January 16-17.

The Governor of

Phnom Penh, Kep Chuktema, acknowledged in his opening address that historic

preservation in the city so far has been largely ignored, but emphasized that it

was a centerpiece of the city's long-term vision of development and was vital to

tourism.

As part of Phnom Penh's Master Plan for 2020, the municipality

is looking to establish regulations for development that would preserve

architectural and historic monuments, complete an inventory of urban heritage,

and rehabilitate historic buildings in Khan Daun Penh.

"Preservation of

certain structures contributes to preservation of the city itself," Chuktema

said. Investment interests needed to be balanced with preservation. "We need to

keep our identity, because if it's lost, we cannot buy it back, no matter how

rich we are."

Dougald O'Reilly, director of Heritage Watch, told the Post

that the seminar was encouraging, as it shows that the government has some

interest in preserving its urban heritage. But, he said, he would also like to

see it begin to implement measures to save buildings.

As high rises,

apartment blocks, and glitzy glass storefronts go up along the city's main

thoroughfares, other buildings are being torn down to make way. Several unique

examples of colonial and Khmer modern architecture had been destroyed, he said.

If unchecked, the destruction could threaten the very charm that makes Phnom

Penh an attractive destination for tourists.

Augusto Villalón, an

architect and cultural heritage planner from the Philippines, said, "Phnom

Penh's architecture is very excellent in many ways. It is laid back, but has a

grandeur that you don't find elsewhere in Asia, especially because it is still a

low-rise city."

Comparing the city today to his last visit 30 years ago,

he said it still had the same identity and the same feel even though it is more

built up. "This is what it must maintain," he said.

Heritage Watch is

hoping to get funding to install information plaques at historic buildings

around Phnom Penh and to organize audio tours, a project O'Reilly describes as

"a small step in the right direction in recognizing Cambodia's urban

heritage."

Yet the challenges for saving the past are numerous, including

the lack of a legal framework under which the government can protect historic

buildings from demolition or careless renovation. "Without the law," says Ieng

Aunny, Director of the Bureau of Architecture and Urbanism for the Municipality

of Phnom Penh, "even if we want to do something good to preserve urban heritage,

we cannot."

Public safety is another important concern, as some buildings

are in danger of collapse. Without funding to purchase and restore such

buildings - which the city lacks - these buildings face being torn

down.

As a solution, the municipality is looking towards greater

engagement with the private sector.

"They are the ones who can contribute

financially. Without private sector participation, preservation is impossible,"

says Terou Jinnai, UNESCO Representative in Cambodia.

Says Villalón, "You

can make money out of old buildings. It is an old development fallacy that you

have to tear down the old to make way for the new." He said Singapore

successfully involved the private sector in setting aside historic districts,

offering a model for Phnom Penh of how the old and new can live

together.

Inevitably, some landmarks will need to be torn down. According

to Jinnai, "What to keep and what to allow to fall away is a key judgment" that

the government has to make.

Only the future will tell whether the city's

preservation efforts are successful. Helen Grant Ross, an architect with

Architecture Research Khmer, says, "We are looking at the beginning of a process

that has only just begun. We will not be able to see if it worked until ten

years from now."

The Central Market, at least, can breathe easy - its

future is assured. As part of a nearly US$8.64 million project, the French

Development Agency and Phnom Penh Municipality began renovations of the market

in November 2005, which should be completed in April 2007. The edifice,

constructed by French architects in 1937, might even have a shot at becoming a

World Heritage Site - the municipality is working on completing the necessary

documentation - ensuring its preservation for generations of Cambodians and

tourists to come.

"We will not change any form of the building," says

Ieng. "We'll repaint it, but we'll pay most attention to the structural

integrity and foundation. We'll make sure it's strong."

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