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.

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.

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