Given the skyrocketing growth of population and rapid expansion of the city, Phnom Penh has witnessed a host of problems, including traffic congestion, pollution, sewage, trash, and the degrading quality of life over the last couple decades. The population in the capital to-date is approximately two million, equivalent to around 14% of the whole population. The population density is 5,343 people per square kilometer, which is much higher than the overall density of 82 people in the country. Phnom Penh’s population growth at 3.9% is also almost three times higher than the country’s population growth at 1.46% per annum.
Against this backdrop, the lack of public space is often overlooked and remains a persistent challenge within the city. Thoughtful planning for public spaces has not been the case for Phnom Penh. Pa Socheatvong, Phnom Penh’s governor, said during an interview with the Phnom Penh Post in August 2016 that the city population could reach three million in 2017, though the population census was quite conservative and did not reflect the real number of people migrating from the provinces to the capital, looking for work, or a better life. The authority is currently re-doing the census to better reflect the number and real situation. Despite the tremendous efforts made by the relevant authorities, city life is increasingly hard to bear given the lack of sufficient infrastructure to accommodate the population growth, particularly the lack of public space.
What is public space? Why is it important?
So, what is “public space”? Public space, such as public parks, beaches, public squares, libraries or the riverfront, is commonly known as a social space that is accessible to the general population. Many public spaces stimulate an atmosphere that is inviting and tranquil. People can go for a walk, get fresh air, exercise, and simply get away for a while from their stressful daily routines. That makes public space important for the Phnom Penh dwellers.
Famous public spaces in the capital include: the Olympic Stadium, Samdech Techo Hun Sen Park, Vimean Ekreach Park, and the riverside park where people gather to do open-air exercise, relax, play sports or even just come to see people, especially in the early morning and evening. These spaces are crucial for the wellbeing of people and a healthy society because people should be granted the right to enjoy the luxury of an open, accessible and quality public space regardless of their socio-economic status.
Notably, life in Phnom Penh has become increasingly disconnected and unbearable for many, particularly the lacking social bond and sense of community. These essential elements in city life are gradually disappearing due to the stressful and hectic routines both at home and at work. Public space can help rebuild a sense of community through place-making by Project for Public Space – “the art and science of developing public spaces that attract people, build community by bringing people together, and create a local identity.”
Public space however, is currently insufficient if a sense of community is to be built. The building of a community requires participation from the citizens who shall actively and proactively engage with community activities. In this spirit, public space is a platform for members of the community to come together, to interact with one another and to enjoy what the community can offer, such as the art installations, exhibition, greenery, or simply available seating space. There is a remarkable different between a well-designed park with plentiful seating space and greenery, and one which is dirty, not widely accessible and garbage ridden. It is therefore important that a public space is designed with people at its heart so that it can be inviting and conducive to community-building.
Public space also gives an identity to a city. It is increasingly difficult to design a city that is rapidly expanding in terms of both land area and population. Public spaces, including parks full of planted flowers, tree-lined paths, and art installations, are vital for both locals and tourists alike to take a break and delve into a tranquil place in the city. Those public spaces can liven up the city and complement the city landscape in a way that is encouraging, inspiring and pleasant.
What makes it difficult to create public spaces in Phnom Penh City?
Phnom Penh has increasingly become a “concrete jungle” where the buildings reign over the greenery and public spaces. This is not to say that Phnom Penh does not have parks, but the problems with the parks all over the city are that they are not people-friendly. They lack greenery – such as trees and other plants that can provide shade from the hot sun – a relaxing atmosphere, or clean air for people during the day. It is not convenient for people in a tropical climate like Cambodia to stay in the parks because they are not sheltered by the planted trees, which make the heat quite unbearable for many. That is why it is common to see people coming out to do exercise or play sports in the early morning or evening rather than in the afternoon.
Public spaces, particularly the parks, are also surrounded by traffic, meaning they are not user-friendly and easily accessible by the public. People with disabilities are denied from accessing this public good because the design is not well thought to accommodate the disabled. It is also odd to be in the parks, which are in the middle of the traffic because people are affected by vehicle fumes and are in danger at times. In addition, security in the parks is another issue, particularly later in the evening, after 7 or 8pm. People start to worry about their security later in the evening because these areas, such as Wat Phnom or other parks, are silent and dominated by drug addicts, gang groups, or street-walkers.
Finally, Phnom Penh city fails to establish enough public space, such as parks or squares, in accordance with the pace of population growth. It is getting difficult to find a suitable, spacious land to create a park in Phnom Penh because the price of the land has risen sharply. On top of this, lands, such as Borey Keila or Boeng Kok Lake, should have been built as parks or other types of public space. Instead, they are chopped up for sale and cleared for development, particularly the construction of satellite cities, residence or condominium without any regard to the wellbeing and welfare of the people. The quality of life in Phnom Penh has been degraded to a serious level.
Who should be responsible for the lack of public space in the city?
The use of, and access to, public space should happen without a cost since it is a common space for all. The government or relevant authorities need to be responsible for urban planning, as well as the management and establishment of public space. It is important that the government needs to work with the relevant stakeholders, including the private sector, and particularly the citizens, to find ways to establish public space for the current and future generations. It is not too late to tackle this persistent challenge because it just needs time and more efforts to do this. This is because the Municipality has not given up the ambition to create public spaces to keep up with the pace of population growth. Having said that, the creation of public space is not sufficient, and needs to be people-centered and well-maintained to ensure its durability and long-lasting impact. At the same time, people needed to speak in favor of greater and better public spaces so they have a space that allows them to feel empowered, relaxed, and engaged, and belong to a healthy and vibrant community.