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City Grapples With Urban Growth

City Grapples With Urban Growth

The once elegant riverside city of Phnom Penh is getting a facelift and a fresh coatof paint with the arrival of UNTAC, but the city will need a lot of time, money,and political stability before its rebirth is complete.Firm and inspired municipal leadership will also be required if the Cambodiancapital, once dubbed the Paris of the East by homesick French administrators, isto retain its grace while catching up with the modern world.Phnom Penh, Rangoon, and Hanoi-thanks to decades of political turmoil-are perhapsthe only major Southeast Asian cities in a position to avoid the mistakes of otherregional centers.Deputy Mayor Kry Beng Hong, the only Western-trained urban planner in the country,advocates drafting a strict blueprint for long-term development of the city."If we don't make a masterplan maybe we will have a lot of anarchy, we willhave a chaotic situation-maybe worse than Bangkok," he said.But U.N
Development Program (UNDP) Deputy Mission Chief, Rajeev Pillay, whileagreeing that controlled development is essential, rejects the masterplan idea."I think masterplans are bad as they set everything in concrete

.a moredynamic approach is needed," he said, adding that monitoring systems are vitalto determine changing needs.Certainly no masterplan guided the early growth of the city, which has been an importanturban center since 1434.But its modern reign as a capital only began in 1867 under King Norodom, proxyruler during the French protectorate.Not many original structures remain from this period or earlier, with the exceptionof Wat Phnom, the Silver Pagoda, and the recently renovated Napoleon III Pavilion-a gift to the nation to mark the opening of the Suez Canal in the 1860s.Over the next 40 years the French colonialists added their own distinctive stampto the city while overseeing several buildings in the classical Khmer style, includingthe Museum of Fine Arts complex and the Throne Hall of the Royal Palace."The city developed from time to time under the French protectorate [1863-1953],"said Hor Lat, dean of the Phnom Penh University architecture faculty
"Theyconstructed buildings and organized urban planning."The French added several graceful colonial buildings that still stand, includingthe Royal Hotel, the Railway Station, the National Library, and more modern structureslike the current UNTAC headquarters near Wat Phnom and the Art Deco style CentralMarket.In 1930 the city boasted three European-run hotels and one cinema, a handful ofphotography, chemist and book stores, three French banks, branches of American Expressand Thomas Cook and three clubs for expats.The King's Military Band used to give recitals on Thursday and Sunday eveningsat the Wat Phnom bandstand, which is now used as a bingo venue.Wat Phnom and the Royal Palace, surrounded by a group of dusty villages, formedthe hub of the sleepy city until the late 1950s, when Phnom Penh was home to almost400,000 people.British author Norman Lewis wrote of the city after a 1950 visit: "It isapproached through unimposing suburbs: several miles of shacks among the trees, mostof them reeling slightly on their supporting posts."He also noted a casino, "which, started in 1949, is said already to havebankrupted half the Cambodians of the capital."Modern Phnom Penh's golden era of development and first period of systematic planningcoincided with formal independence in 1954 and the rule of Prince Norodom Sihanouk,as the former monarch pointed out earlier this year."My party, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Popular Socialist Community), created thegreat and modern capital of Phnom Penh with its broad avenues, its gardens with fountains,its monuments, its modern districts and reclaimed marshland for residential areas,"Sihanouk wrote, after reading reports that the French were responsible.A French-trained Khmer architect, Van Molyvann, was behind much of the work
Hismost notable monuments include the Olympic Stadium, the Independence Monument, theCham-carmon state guest house, the Bassac Theatre, and the Chatomuk conference hall.The Cambodiana Hotel, started in the 1960s but not opened until July 1990, was designedby Lu Ban Hap and Chhim Sun Fond, with encouragement from Sihanouk
But with the overthrow of Sihanouk in 1970 and the onset of civil war, developmentand urban planning came to a grinding halt Kry Beng Hong says of the 1970-1975 civil war, there was "a lot of fighting,but just small bombs and not by airplanes-otherwise it would be like Sarajevo."According to a 1985 report by the Phnom Penh government, during the 1975-79 KhmerRouge regime, more than a third of all houses in the city were destroyed and thesewage, water, and electricity systems left non-functional.Khmer Rouge rule undoubtedly left Phnom Penh in a sorrier state than when theytook power but that was mainly due to neglect and ignorance.Attempts by the Phnom Penh government to rebuild the city have been hampered bya chronic lack of experts, skilled workers, and funds-a result of its almost totalisolation by the world community in the 13 years leading up to the peace pact.This problem will continue to haunt development over the next decade.A team of U.N
experts, after visiting Cambodia in May, noted that the main obstacleto development was the lack of funds and qualified staff.

With peace in the offing, the government and foreign experts agree that systematicplanning and development-essentially rehabilitation at this stage-must focus on utilitiesand housing.Both problems have been exacerbated by the influx of hundreds of overseas businessmen,U.N
peace-keepers, and squatters drawn from the countryside by the false promiseof a new Eldorado."There is no doubt that they place an increasing strain on services and facilities-[most]Cambodians don't use air conditioners," Pillay said of the expatriates.He noted that the four working power stations servicing Phnom Penh have a totalcapacity of 62 Megawatts, but produce only 27 Megawatts against a demand of 55 Megawatts.Inadequate maintenance and fuel, and presumably sub-par staff, are to blame.Oxfam's Laurence Creegan, an electrical/mechanical advisor to the Phnom Penh WaterSupply Authority, says it will take years to install a decent distribution system,let alone meet demand.The city has just two water treatment plants, with the Phrum Prek station besidethe Boeung (lake) Kak providing 90 percent of output, or 70,000 cubic meters a day.But the distribution is so bad, with sewage seeping through leaky pipes, valvesand pipes lost under tarmac , and hundreds of illegal connections, that many citydwellers must buy their water from entrepreneurs tapping the system.In some city districts locals pay 800 riels a cubic meter to these entrepreneursagainst the official rate of 300 riels a cubic meter
Turning off one valve so thatan elite area can get more water can deprive an entire district, Creegan says.

He says the French and Italian governments have shown interest in improving thesystem, but says full development will take at least 10 to 15 years and a huge budget.Pillay touts regulated use of the private sector in developing utilities, especiallyin investment and management, saying their participation might give "scope formore rapid development rather than waiting for [foreign aid] handouts."Housing may prove an even trickier problem, but Kry Beng Hong advocates creatingself-contained suburbs of 50,000-100,000 people each, separated from the capitalby green belts.The U.N
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) goes along with these ideas.UNHCR spokesman Iain Guest, whose organization is struggling to find homes for morethan 300,000 refugees from Thai border camps, has suggested that Phnom Penh can copewith a large influx if city management is handled properly.The U.N
experts who visited in May found areas in the south and the east of thecity that could cope with new settlers, Pillay noted. But outward development oflow-lying Phnom Penh is hampered by geographical considerations-it tends to floodbadly during heavy monsoon storms.Satellite towns should satisfy everyone-especially the government which is concernedabout an expanding squatter population encamped by the Bassac river and the railwayline-but the new towns will take a lot of time and capital to develop.Zoning is also a consideration in development, and Pillay said if UNDP was askedfor help in the future, "our advice would have zoning and environmental regulationsas part of urban planning-but that's way down the line."Traffic has also become a problem, acknowledged Kry Beng Hong
Since the signingof the peace accords, the streets have become clogged with U.N vehicles competingwith mopeds and cyclos, confounding ill-trained traffic policemen.The deputy mayor, seeking funds from the government and overseas, said: "Alot of traffic is concentrated on asphalt-the main artery roads
We need to pavemore roads-that could alleviate a lot of traffic congestion."Kry Beng Hong-who has the power to say yea or nay to developers-is determinedthat the city will not become an architecturally characterless city like Bangkok.Nonetheless, banal structures financed by foreign developers are going up, whilea handful of colonial buildings have been torn down-including the former riversidequarters of Cathay Pacific.But Kry Beng Hong says he is drawing up regulations with a team of Paris municipalityarchitects to protect the heritage and character of Phnom Penh while allowing itto develop modern facilities expected of a 21st century urban hub.Sadly, it seems that Cambodian architects might have little immediate part inmoulding the new face of Phnom Penh-the university's seven year architecture coursewas launched in 1989.However, Hor Lat, who helped design the skull-filled stupa commemorating KhmerRouge victims at Choeung Ek, reckons his pupils and Khmer studying overseas willplay their part-they have already helped redesign the UNTAC building and French Embassy."We think the Khmer [architects] must return to rebuild our country,"he said, describing a poignant vision of a city where buildings will be barely visibleabove tree-level and the view from the sky will be of a leafy-green pollution-freeparadise.Leo Dobbs is a freelance journalist resident in Phnom Penh.


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