Transformation in a Time of Transition: Engaging with People-driven Upgrading Strategies in Cambodia
By Giovanna Astolfo, on 26 May 2015
In the last 20 days students from the MSc BUDD have been engaging with people driven upgrading processes in Cambodia as part of the annual action oriented design research fieldtrip project.
Working closely with local communities, in collaboration with the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC) and the Community Architect Network (CAN) and supported by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), BUDD students, along with 22 local students from 7 different Universities, developed design strategies for city wide upgrading and inclusive urban design, starting from a socio spatial full immersion in three informal communities in Phnom Penh and Kompong Thom.
Two of the three sites share similar challenges, even though one is located in a mostly urbanised area in the periphery of Phnom Penh (Chbar Ampov District), while the other is located in the Province of Kompong Thom, 160 km far from the capital city, in a mostly rural part of the country.
Poor though cohesive communities are here facing the perpetual lack of land tenure – one of the many by-products of the murderous urbicidal past of the country – and basic services (water, sanitation, waste management..); on top of that, seasonal flooding worsens the already precarious conditions in urban and rural Cambodia weakening the relationship between environment and people. But local people’s knowledge and technology, their inexhaustible inventiveness and resilience, their ability in organising and building, proves once more to be strong enough to imagine, design and plan a different future.
The third site, Anlong Kngan community, has been even more challenging, given the large scale (it is in fact formed by nine communities for a total of 500 households), the extremely contested and conflictive context (a relocation site in the periphery of the city, today a densely inhabited area with high pressure over land) and lack of cohesion in the communities. The Anlong case is paradigmatic as it represents a common feature in the urban production of Cambodia: massive settlements generated ad hoc from forced evictions and acts of emptying the centre of the city paired to the use of peripheral land to relocate informal populations, toward building the image of a ‘charming’, globalised and competitive city.
Anlong Kngan combined the perverse failure of the relocation system in Phnom Penh with another example of the resilience of the Khmer people and their ability to work out the worst condition, resist unjust urban dynamics, reclaiming the right to shape, built and inhabit the city.
The Kompong Thom community is formed by 30 households and lives in unhealthy and unsafe conditions above a polluted canal. Houses are built on stilts echoing the traditional vernacular wooden architecture ubiquitous in rural Cambodia. During the rainy season, the water of the canal reaches the floor level of the houses worsening the living condition of the residents.
In light of the vulnerability of the area and taking advantage of the lack of land tenure of the residents, the municipality is willing to relocate the community in a site 70 km far away causing the disruption of their livelihood. However, the small city does not show evidence of a possible pattern of growth or urban development that can explain the relocation or make sense of such pressure over land. Also, it is unclear how imminent the threat of eviction could be.
Nevertheless, the community urges to envision alternative scenarios as tools to expand the room for manoeuvre with the local authority, to catalyse attention, gain visibility, mobilise other communities and reach a level of autonomy. Helped by a pro-poor oriented Municipality, the BUDD developed and tested several proposals for on-site upgrading (domestic space, shared spaces and infrastructures), re-blocking and relocation to another land of choice.
The group of students worked along with community members to jointly develop a strategy to be presented to the local authority first, and, after further refinement, to the vice Governor in Phnom Penh.
It is of crucial importance that the first presentation is led by the community, in order to capitalise on the unique opportunity for urban poor communities to share their story and upgrading aspirations directly with local authority. Similarly, the aim of the second presentation is to facilitate the institutional recognition of the presence of such enormous capital in each communities.
Anlong is a peri-urban site for relocated people, where the government allocated empty land for victims of (deliberate) fire in the more central zone. Fast forward 15 years, the communities have transformed the empty land without infrastructure and services in a dense lively urban space.
Four of the nine communities not included in the relocation process, are illegally occupying part of the land. The site is therefore two times a locus of contestation, for being a relocation site and for being a squatted relocation site.
Great effort was put by the students in disentangling the complex dynamic of resettlement as a mechanism repeatedly present in the system of the city and in unpacking the conflicting agendas of different actors.
The proposed interventions aim at the incremental occupation and densification of the site (sensitive reblocking), the activation of self-sufficient mechanism and growth of the site as a self sufficient city, at strengthening the interdependency of the communities settled in the site, and at increase the rootedness and sense of belonging.
The three sites despite local specificity share similar features related to the uncertain institutional and legal framework for the urban poor’s access to land in the new course of the National Housing Policy implementation; even when present, laws and regulations on land and housing are rarely fulfilled.
The collaboration between BUDD students, Staff and representatives of the recently established General Department of Housing (GDH) as part of the Ministry of Land Management (MLMUPC), has been an attempt to catalyse attention to people driven processes in the production of the city and attentive participatory methodologies.
Since reliable data and maps, when existing, are difficult to gather or deliberately hidden or simply not recognised as forms of knowledge, a cross cutting underlying common goal of the fieldwork in each site has been the co-production of knowledge, including settlement profiling, enumeration, mapping, and participatory design activities, at the point that it is difficult to say who contributed more: the community, the Khmer students or the BUDDies.
Finally, a common trait of the work has been the constant learning attitude, inspired by the humble, no-hero work of CAN and ACHR. Such attitude is central and constantly reasserted in their approach: learning from the people, learning from urban reality, learning from each other, learning by doing.
If once Giancarlo de Carlo said that architecture is too important to be left to architects, maybe there is a greater role for Community architects?
Giovanna Astolfo is a lecturer on the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development, she recently joined students on overseas fieldwork in Cambodia. This is the second year that the MSc BUDD has visited Cambodia, continuing a collaboration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights that previously saw the programme conduct overseas fieldwork in Thailand in 2011-13. This year’s cohort of BUDD students will present the outcomes of their research on Wednesday 27 May 2015.