The Debate | Opinion | Southeast Asia

How Phnom Penh Can Recapture Its Mid-Century Glory

Once regarded as the “jewel of Asia,” Cambodia’s capital has since become a byword for sprawl and shambolic planning.

How Phnom Penh Can Recapture Its Mid-Century Glory

A map of central Phnom Penh from a French guidebook published by Hachette in 1926.

Credit: Claudius Madrolle

The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh was once considered the Jewel of Asia. “I hope, one day, my city will look like this,” Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, reportedly told his host, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, as he cruised along the capital’s elegant boulevards in a Mercedes convertible during his visit to Cambodia in April 1967.

Phnom Penh was founded as the capital of the Cambodian kingdom in 1434 but was abandoned several times before being reestablished again as the capital and center of royal power in 1865. Under the French protectorate (1863-1953), Phnom Penh was used as an experimental blueprint for French architects and engineers. The French planners carefully crafted a modernization plan for Phnom Penh by laying out roads, designing public buildings, and locating urban spaces via a thorough analysis of the city’s physical characteristics.

Gazing at a map of Phnom Penh from the 1960s, one cannot ignore the order and the alignment that characterizes the street networks in the central part of the city. A series of almost-identical city blocks are hugged by networks of small streets that run parallel between the boulevards and the main streets, creating an order and a strong connectivity of roads, and a good flow of traffic. The city’s highly organized numbered street system and defined hierarchy of urban spaces were designed to integrate the rural areas with the urban as the boulevards and the main roads stretched toward the outskirts.

The design not only focused on highly-planned street networks but also took careful consideration of other vital urban amenities, including public parks, greenery, and supporting infrastructure. The streets were equipped with broad sidewalks, and lined with trees and candelabra streetlights. Networks of roads featured full-fledged systems of water supply, drainage, infrastructure, and electricity network.

The Era of Urban Sprawl

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Modern-day Phnom Penh is playing witness to a rate of urbanization that can be best described as relentless. Urban sprawl and haphazard development along the city’s edges stretch out in all directions. Uncountable numbers of condos, villas and housing projects are expanding the suburbs and exurbs to accommodate more and more people migrating to the city in search of better opportunities.

Rural farmlands are being transformed into commercial and housing projects. Lakes and wetlands with ecological and hydrological importance are being filled to meet the growing demand for land.

But, while these other topics have been well-explored, an element of this sprawl that is particularly troubling, and largely ignored, is the planning – or lack thereof – of the new city streets.

Taking a bird’s-eye view of the modern map of Phnom Penh, focusing in particular on the outer districts west of the center, we see that the network of streets is fragmented and patchy. These outer sections are completely devoid of boulevards and main streets, and the smaller streets lack connectivity with one another, resulting in weak road connectivity between the outskirts and the downtown.

The likely cause is that these streets were built as an afterthought. Real estate developers who buy land in these areas have a myopic focus on building housing and commercial spaces, and only consider the logic of the road placement after. The result is that road systems in these areas exist purely to serve the accessibility of these individual real estate projects, for obvious profit-based reasons. This piecemeal mode of urban development results in a lack of broader public-facing road connectivity and coordination throughout the edges of the city.

However, Phnom Penh can change​ course and regain its order with proper urban planning and implementation. One of the first and most important steps to take is better street network planning.

The Importance of Street Network Planning

Street network design could influence the development of Phnom Penh in a number of crucial ways. First, street network design determines the level of traffic safety, mobility, and transport efficiency within the city. One study analyzing the street networks of ASEAN cities has shown that street networks with longer street lengths and many intersections tend to promote a better flow of traffic due to the formation of a square-like structure with a high degree of street connectivity. This allows commuters to travel faster, more safely, and more efficiently to their destinations. Applying these findings to Phnom Penh, we can understand why these peripheral parts of the city lacking street density are more prone to traffic disruption and congestion.

Second, street network design determines commuters’ behavior and the choices they make around modes of transportation. A well-connected system of street networks makes streets more accessible for walking and biking. A study on Phnom Penh’s street networks, drivability, walkability, and bikeability shows that the street networks in the central districts are more accessible to walking and biking than the peripheral ones. More walking and biking ability would lead to less vehicle dependency, resulting in less congestion and less consumption of fossil fuels. Evidently, many Cambodian people decide to own private vehicles at least partly because of the city’s disconnected streets, long distances, and unreliable public transport services.

Third, street network planning is also strongly linked to the economic activities of urban spaces. The study on ASEAN cities indicated that a high degree of street accessibility provides a boost to urban business activities. For instance, businesses that are located on more interconnected street networks attract more sales opportunities as these streets attract more visits and through-traffic. Shops located in disconnected areas with streets that are harder to navigate force people to visit those shops only with purpose, instead via natural encounters.

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Given the importance of a well-executed street network, it’s important to ask how Phnom Penh can get this critical component of urban planning back on track.

The Challenge of Enforcement  

It would be incorrect to say that Phnom Penh currently has no master plan for the city. At the end of 2015, in collaboration with development partners, City Hall issued Phnom Penh Land Use Master Plan 2035, providing broad strategic directions for the capital.

How much the plan is actually being implemented is another question.

There is some ambiguity regarding whether private developers consult the master plan before planning to build a project. The overall lack of enforcement and unclear construction and real estate development policies lead the city’s urban development into a devastating combination of illegal construction sites and implementation loopholes as the capital continues to progress into an urban mess. The lack of enforcement and coordination in urban planning have clearly taken a huge toll on the city’s street networks, the planning of which falls among the city’s least-prioritized tasks.

This clearly shows how badly Phnom Penh needs an improved and updated master plan. Such a plan must include thoroughly-studied land use and zoning policies with built-in practical enforceability and well-designed street networks, and must consider the infrastructural and architectural identities of the city.

Perhaps most importantly, any land or construction permit granted to developers must be in strict compliance with the city’s land use master plan. Street networks cannot be an afterthought that follow profit-driven decisions by real estate developers. City authorities must act to collaborate with, and monitor these projects on the outskirts to be sure that they adhere to the larger vision for our urban space.

If the status quo continues unchecked, we will be left with a tangled mess of disconnected streets, wondering how our city lost its character and order. A more coherent street network design alone is not likely to fix all of Phnom Penh’s mounting problems. It is, however, a critical starting point. Only by focusing on this issue, by prioritizing long-term planning over the single-minded profit needs of real estate developers, can we establish a stronger foundation for the urban development projects to follow.