Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema announced a new round of renovations of the capital’s gardens earlier this week in order to meet the public’s rising demand for green space. But some urban planning experts wonder if enough is being done to create green spaces and recreational areas for the city’s increasing numbers of inhabitants and visitors.
Sam Samouth, director of park construction in the municipal public works department, said the governor on Tuesday ordered the renovation of park and public garden areas along the Tonle Sap river, near the Royal University of Phnom Penh, in front of Century Plaza Market near the airport, and at roadside gardens west and north of Wat Phnom.
Around 6 hectares of park and public green space would be upgraded with new lighting, seating and trees and plants, while 0.7 hectares of new gardens would be created west of the Royal University at the western outskirts of the city, he said.
“We renovate them because we want to beautify our capital and become more green, so people can enjoy walking and exercising,” he said. “Whenever we complete the construction of a park, people flock to exercise.”
He claimed that currently there is around 70 hectares of parks in Phnom Penh, and that “a large” park was going to be developed next to Phnom Penh International Airport.
Municipal Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said authorities were serious about creating more parks, and City Hall had plans to establish district committees that would work to find space for parks in their communities.
“I went abroad and I saw more people walking and playing because those cities have more parks, and Phnom Penh should also have more parks,” Mann Chhoeun said.
But experts and local businesses say that Phnom Penh has a long, long way to go on that front.
“In Cambodian cities you don’t have neighborhood parks, so there’s a lot of pressure on the central parks,” said Walter Koditek, an urban planning adviser from Germany’s development agency DED, who assists the masterplan team of Battambang city.
He added that neighborhood parks were an urban planning concept that originated in the 1920s in the US and the concept had never really reached Asia.
The main gardens in the capital, Mr Koditek said, were designed for decoration next to prominent places such as monuments and were created during the French colonial era or during then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk reign in the 1950s and 1960s.
Few new public gardens or parks have been created in Phnom Penh in recent years, he said, and the municipality’s focus seems to have been on redeveloping existing parks. The only new public gardens and parks being created in the capital were along roadsides or located in private, gated housing communities, he said. Mr Koditek said the likely reason no more green space was being created for the public is because the required land is being sold or used for construction, as this is more profitable.
In many cities around the world it is mandatory that when a real estate project is developed a certain percentage of green space is included, Mr Koditek said, adding that he doubted if such rules existed or were being enforced in Cambodia.
“It is hard to find any green space in the new housing development areas [at the edge of Phnom Penh]. Even the road corridors are very narrow, there is not enough space to plant trees along the roads,” said Ralf Symann, DED coordinator and landscape architect who advised the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
“In the long term this will reduce the value of these quarters,” he said, as living quality in these areas is low and residents will probably want to leave after some time.
Over the years the municipality had destroyed or sold public gardens and open spaces such as the old Royal University campus and gardens around the Olympic Stadium, and was doing so again with the filling of Boeng Kak lake, Mr Symann said.
But, he said: “It is still possible to create a green city…. I think there is a lot of potential,” adding that public green space policy was included in Phnom Penh’s masterplan but was not being implemented.
Manuel Garcia, manager of the three Boddhi Tree guesthouses and hotels in Phnom Penh, said more parks and green spaces would be a welcome improvement to the cityscape, but added this should be part of a wider municipal policy to make the capital cleaner, greener and more walkable for inhabitants and tourists
His businesses gets thousands of foreign visitors per year, he said, most of them leaving with the impression that “[Phnom Penh] is a nice city but you can’t walk anywhere.”
Mr Garcia said that for tourists, existing parks in the city are “not a very relaxing place,” as they are dusty, lack trees that provide shade and are places where tourists are likely to get hassled.
“Most big cities, like Seoul or Singapore, transform themselves to become more attractive to businesses, tourists and inhabitants. Some time in the future Phnom Penh would have to look at that,” Mr Garcia said.
Tep Bunharith, director of the local Culture and Environment Preservation Association, said the Phnom Penh Municipality should designate more space for green areas, as there currently is no balance between the city’s population and green spaces and parks.
“As we increase construction, we also need to expand the green space zoning to guarantee that people have enough space to play games and sports,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)