As the sounds of demolition and construction continue to ring out across Phnom Penh, we are reminded by Hollywood that cities of the future need not fully replace the small towns and communities of the past. Yet, it should not take a superhero, whether Superman, Batman or now, Black Panther, to remind us of that.
Black Panther, Marvel’s blockbuster early-2018 entry in its cinematic universe, has grossed more than $1.3 billion since its release.
That includes more than $105 million in China, and some $50 million in Southeast Asia with Indonesia accounting for more than $12 million, Malaysia for $10 million and Thailand for some $9 million. Those box office numbers make Black Panther the highest-ever grossing film based on a single superhero.
But more than setting a new standard for comic-book-inspired projects, the film, set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has caught the attention of urbanists in its presentation of city life. Indeed, Southeast Asia’s property developers and urban planners – including those with their eyes on Cambodia – should take note of how urban life in the film is depicted.
A good part of the film takes place in Birnin Zana, the capital of Wakanda, a fictional African nation protected from outside influences by the Black Panther, whose real identity is T’Challa, the king of the technologically advanced, but isolationist, country.
What is striking about Wakandan city life is how different it is from what we have become accustomed to see in movies offering a view of modernity, as well as in our own travels through the rapidly growing urban areas of much of Southeast Asia.
Indeed, the harsh division of past and present – which has helped fuel an in-with-the-new, and out-with-the-old mentality – has not always existed in the region.
One need only to look to Cambodia’s “Golden Age” of the 1960s as an example, when Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann fused building features of the Angkor Empire with modern design elements to help launch the “New Khmer Architecture” movement. His works were hailed for its synthesis of style and tradition.
By looking back, Molyvann’s forward-looking designs remained authentically Khmer. Sadly, many of his works have succumbed to Phnom Penh’s breakneck development and to a vision of urbanisation that seemingly emphasises size over authenticity.
It is this authenticity, however, that is among the critical ingredients in what goes into designing a healthy city.
That’s according to the Philips Center for Health and Well-being, a Netherlands-based think tank focused on improving the lives of people around the world. Rather than ignore history, urban planners and developers should embrace a city’s heritage, culture and environment to create a unique sense of place and identity.
This uniqueness, of seeing something we have never seen before and that exists nowhere else, is what we also react to when we see the vibrant streets of Wakanda on screen.
The challenge of preserving the best of the past is likely to only grow, as more people move from rural to urban areas, and inequality increases across the region.
A recent United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs annual World Urbanization Prospects report projects that many of Southeast Asia’s cities will experience double-digit growth between 2015 and 2025.
Manila, in the Philippines, is projected to grow 17.4 percent, from 12.9 to 15.2 million people; Jakarta, in Indonesia, 22 percent, from 10.3 to 12.6 million; and Bangkok, Thailand, 11.2 percent, from 9.3 to 11.0 million.
This rampant urbanisation has come at the expense of the region’s architectural richness and cultural fabric. What replaces many a cityscape is a generic blandness. This “mallification”, punctuated by the existence of a generic mega mall that is transplanted from country to country, too often draws little or no design influence from a country’s legacy.
Spoiler alert! As the movie Black Panther draws to a close, Wakanda’s leader, T’Challa, informs the United Nations of his decision to reveal the true state of his country’s advancements and development. The scene concludes with a foreign official responding by asking what Wakanda has to offer the world.
Here is one clear answer. Wakanda shows there need not be a default setting for what urbanisation looks and feels like. Dynamic, resilient living cities need not simply be Hollywood make-believe. Cities everywhere will continue to grow, but they can also do so by embracing their rich pasts while building a vibrant, unique and inclusive future. That too remains Cambodia’s challenge and opportunity.
Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group LLC. Jose B Collazo, a Southeast Asia analyst, is an associate at RiverPeak Group LLC.
Follow them on Twitter at @curtisschin and @josebcollazo.