More than 100 international experts in the fields of urban planning, architecture and landscaping recently joined forces in a “contest of ideas” to help Phnom Penh regain some of its all-but-forgotten status as the “Pearl of Southeast Asia.”
Participating in a contest titled “Between Metropolitan Centrality and Poverty Reduction,” which ran Oct 27 through Nov 21, 28 young professionals from various countries were arranged in five interdisciplinary teams.
After a week of briefings on local economic, social and environmental issues, the teams were asked to come up with a project that would inspire Phnom Penh’s urban renewal efforts.
The competition, organized by the French University of Cergy-Pontoise, focused on plans for the 80 hectares of land surrounding Boeng Kak lake, an area tucked behind the Phnom Penh railway station and Monivong Boulevard that slowly has sunk into pollution and the mire of sprawling neighborhoods.
Municipal officials estimate that about 4,000 families, which city officials consider squatters, live on the lands ringing the lake.
The question for those who entered the contest was how to turn the crumbling and overcrowded lake area into a center-piece for the future Phnom Penh, while at the same time providing housing for the roughy 20,000 people who consider it home.
“The lake benefits from important landscape potentials and is at the crossroads of the city’s main networks,” said Gerard Abadia, a French architect on the expert committee.
“It could play a central structuring role in the city,” he said.
Although the municipality intends to take ideas from all 5 projects, the international jury on Thursday awarded one winning team for the perceived suitability of their Boeng Kak lake proposal.
The winning group, which included one Cambodian participant, Meng Bunnarith—an architect at the Department of Land Management, Urban Planning, Construction and Cadastre—focused on recovering the lake’s public use for leisure and recreation.
The emphasis is to create a “green ring” of public parks, a museum on the peninsula, and a mix of commercial facilities and residences.
Concerning the main question of the area’s current residents, the team suggested upgrading and allowing 1,000 to 1,500 families to stay in the region just north of the French embassy—where the occupied land has no identified owner.
However, families living on the state-owned west and south banks—running parallel to Russian Boulevard and Tuol Kok district— will be relocated north of Phnom Penh, according to the team’s plans.
While the theme of poverty reduction was one of the central element of the competition, some local experts said that the fate of the area’s current residents was not addressed adequately by the winning proposal.
“It’s not for the question of the relocation that this group won,” said Clair Liousse, representative of Urban Resource Center, a local NGO who believes all families should remain part of future plans for the area.
“More local NGOs and community representatives could also have been invited if these projects are intended to inspire the Municipality on what to do with the population around the lake,” she said.
Ivan Thebaud, country representative for Handicap International, said the winning presentation “had been too vague on the question of the relocation.”
In a Handicap International study published in 2001, about 70 percent of the slum population around the lake asked for on-site housing.
An Urban Resource Center study, published in 2002, found that past “relocations have increased poverty and social exclusion, at least in the short and medium term, among the relocated communities.”
With the planned construction of a Ho Chi Minh-Bangkok railway passing through Phnom Penh, and Cambodia’s population expected to double by 2020, the lake area will likely become one of the most prime pieces of real estate in the city. And the municipality knows it.
“It’s illusive to imagine we can propose correct housing conditions for these populations by an onsite relocation of all 4,000 families, “ said Eric Huybrechts, advisor to the Governor of Phnom Penh on urban development.
“We can use the [increase] in land value to fund off site relocations of reasonable density,” he said. “Whatever decision is taken in the future, we will discuss previously with the concerned population.”