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An architecture of humanity

An innovative university project has teamed students with local housing rights advocates in an to attempt to design alternatives for residents displaced by development in Phnom Penh


Helsinki University students in the Expanding Architecture project examine models showing the planned development at Boeung Kak.

As the forced evictions from Phnom Penh's Dey Krahorm  community in January so clearly demonstrated, interests of developers and residents are all too often in conflict.

The violence of that day did little to advance the idea that architects and planners can cooperate with at risk communities to find development solutions that work to the benefit of all. With the Housing Rights Task Force - a local NGO - warning recently that a further 15 Phnom Penh communities are currently facing eviction, fears of more violent confrontations are running high in the nation's capital.

Against this backdrop, a three-day workshop held at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh last week, centered around the idea of "design as activism", set out to  explore a new way forward.

"Expanding Architecture: Designers and planners working with communities under threat of eviction" was a collaborative project involving architecture students from Cambodian universities and the Helsinki University of Technology (TKK),  which in 2007 became the world's first UN-accredited Habitat University.

"More than ever, inspired urban design is needed to prevent Asia's cities becoming sites of enormous slum settlements," said Hallam Goad, a representative of the local housing rights advocacy group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), which helped organise the workshop.

Tanzanian architect and TKK lecturer Humphrey Kalanje said he was keen to reinforce in Cambodian and international students the significance of urban development.

"The issues facing us - my country, and your country - are the same: a legacy of colonialism, rapid modernisation and reconciling government and ecology," Kalanje said.

"There is an increasing gap between rich and poor, and this is also true in developed countries. The marginalised exist in all societies."

Participants spent three days examining problems faced by designers in cities affected by forced eviction, with case study visits to sites in Phnom Penh.

Their priority was to integrate pre-existing communities into new developments rather than seeking to relocate them out of sight and mind. They sought to synchronise, rather than juxtapose, the interests of residents and investors through a process of consultation.

This ethos was demonstrated through development plans incorporating residential arrangements into commercial space, ensuring sites remained ecologically and financially sustainable for local communities.

Alternative designs for Boeung Kak lake - the scene of a controversial commercial development that entails filling 90 percent of the lake -  for example, included green zones and pedestrian walkways to enhance tourist appeal, a commercial esplanade and high-density office space, fishing enterprises for residents, and a plan to harness the freshwater resource in a sustainable sanitation system.

Students also developed an extensive international tourist campaign, centring on the lake as a natural attraction and the rustic appeal of pre-existing structures.

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

A construction worker looks out over the shrinking Boeung Kak lake, being filled in as part of a commercial development that is displacing residents.

Increasing concern over evictions

The number of people affected by developments such as that at Boeung Kak has increased rapidly over the past decade.

STT estimated 11 percent of the city's 1.2 million people are now displaced. In a 2008 survey of 41 relocation sites in Phnom Penh, it counted 15,831 families who were moved, willingly or not, to make way for construction projects.

And while NGOs have generally welcomed development in Cambodia, they say forced evictions without reasonable compensation or legal protection is a major concern.

As a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Cambodian government is obliged to protect the population from forced eviction by ensuring developers adhere to local protocols of consultation and compensation. But a tangible government policy on resettlements is yet to materialise, with a draft Expropriatory Law under consideration by the Ministry of Economy and Finance since 2006.

"Cambodia's laws and policies do not adequately address resettlement issues," the ministry's Resettlement Department deputy director, Sim Samnang, told a recent workshop on involuntary resettlement, stressing the urgent need for a national resettlement policy.

Meanwhile, this legal fissure has left responsibility for resettlement largely in the hands of developers, whose priorities are often shaped by thrift and expediency.

Where politics and law have proved impotent, organisations such as STT have stepped in to advocate for the rights of those affected.

Through a process of direct consultation, STT aims to provide low-key interventions and resources to communities without the means to seek legal recourse. As Goad says, communities often have the skills but lack the tools.

"But we can still encourage, advise support and, most importantly, be with people," he said.

A landscape architect, Goad sees himself as a "bridge", providing alternatives by translating community aims into coherent and workable physical and political demands.

"The key thing about these workshops is exposing design students to some of the wider issues," he said.

"Working with urban poor communities, even knowing they exist, is often a completely new experience."

Project co-founder and lecturer Hennu Kjisik said designers tended to cater to the minority needs of their client.

"We need to fundamentally ask ourselves what our role is," Kjisik said. "We cannot continue to ignore the needs of the majority of the world's population."

Solutions far from easy

The TKK students faced a mammoth task of cultural and technical translation when they arrived in Phnom Penh a fortnight ago.

For many, their case-study brief, coupled with the foreign location and idiosyncratic Cambodian context, was daunting.

"The housing problem here is really quite confronting and unique," Australian student Peter Scott said.

"You can see how the city was completely emptied during the 1970s, and now everyone has just flooded back in. Obviously we can't even begin to understand their city, especially in this space of time, so [the Cambodian students'] local knowledge and experience is essential."

The local students also learned from the project. "Visiting sites and talking to locals, I have really gained some understanding of the reality of the problems and concerns of communities," Cambodian student Sopchaeta Veasna said.

And while a number of innovative answers were devised by the students, the issue remains far from resolved, and solutions far from easy.  

For Boeung Kak, it may be too late, but whether this challenge will be met on a local or global scale in coming decades remains to be seen.

As Maurice Leonhardt of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights suggested at the workshop: "The reality is that much of the time in Cambodia the power of the developer and investor is overwhelming."



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