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Conserving Cambodia's urban heritage

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The old Provincial Hall of Battambang was formerly the residence of the Lord Governor of Battambang Katha Thorn Chhum. It is the single most important urban heritage building in the city and will soon be renovated based on a heritage survey done by the Battambang District Administration’s Master Plan Team under commission of the provincial governor. The building was built in 1905 and was probably the seat of the French-colonial administration and residence of the French governor until 1953.

Urban heritage conservation is an important yet neglected task in Cambodia. Currently, the international community and the government concentrate only on the ancient temples of Angkor, largely ignoring the urban heritage in the country's cities and towns.

By doing so, they are missing out on an important opportunity to reduce poverty. Not only does integrated urban heritage conservation preserve the cultural dimension of a city's history, it can also contribute to the overall effort of poverty reduction through its potential for development, especially in the tourism sector.

To achieve this, cultural heritage preservation must be harmonised with the changes necessitated by social and economic development, and it must be based on community participation and local understanding.

Rapid urbanisation and modernisation in Cambodia, like in other countries in the region, is increasingly putting pressure on urban land use for commercial purposes and investment. This is most evident in the capital, Phnom Penh, but it is also the case in secondary cities and towns where much of the country's urban heritage is located.

Land prices in these locations are very high and easily encourage heritage owners to sell their properties. State land with heritage buildings in prime locations is privatised and given to developers in exchange for new public facilities at less valuable locations.

Furthermore, small-business and shop owners from urban core areas are increasingly investing in their properties for the sake of modernity. Inappropriate renovation and modernistic "facelifting" of heritage buildings thus contribute a lot to the destruction of the historic appearance and character of heritage areas.

There are many towns in Cambodia where urban heritage is still in a rather fair condition.

The lack of a national law and a regulatory framework on urban conservation, and the fact that heritage owners and decision makers seem to give little consideration to the value of heritage buildings, mean the survival of Cambodia's urban heritage is to a large extent in doubt. Overcoming these issues is key for the sustainable management of urban heritage in the future.
Layer cake

Despite the ongoing rapid transformation and widespread loss of heritage substance, there are many cities and towns in Cambodia where urban heritage is still in a rather fair condition and worthy of preservation. Among them is Battambang - the second-largest city in Cambodia with a population of 142,000.

The city has developed rapidly in recent years with numerous new investments and a great deal of construction activity. However, the inner city is still characterised by a largely coherent historic city centre of about 800 heritage buildings. Its urban layout and heritage clearly illustrates its 150 years of urban history from Thai control through the French protectorate era to the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period of Cambodia independence under Norodom Sihanouk.

Battambang has been a pilot district for administrative reform within the national Decentralisation and Deconcentration Policy since 2001. Since 2004 it has had the right to set up its own Master Plan, which has led to the development of an integrated spatial development plan for the district territory.

With the financial help and capacity building of the European Union (Asia Urbs Program), the German Development Service (DED) and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS), the Master Plan Team of Battambang District has finalised the land-use plan and other sector plans for the city. The technical team is now focusing on more detailed planning and integrated urban heritage conservation, with support from the district and provincial administration.

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Walter Koditek is the local organiser of the International Seminar on Urban Heritage Management in secondary towns and cities in Southeast Asia, currently being held in Siem Reap and Battambang. The seminar is organised and funded by the University of Cologne’s Forum Network for Southeast Asia, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Development Service (DED). Koditek is also the DED’s urban planning adviser to the Master Plan Team of the Battambang District Administration. He can be contacted via email at wkoditek@hotmail.com.

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