In a famous picture of Phnom Penh in 1979, two children stand in the foreground looking steadily at the camera, while behind them the city, once the ‘pearl of Asia’, is nothing but a desolated and spectral bunch of abandoned buildings. The urban history of the capital of Cambodia is demarcated by iterative evacuations and expulsions of its population. Although there is no agreement on numbers and scale of the phenomenon, the first evacuation took place in Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot regime. The vast majority of the urban population was forcibly deported to the countryside, in order to fulfil the utopia of a rural Kampuchea and a classless agrarian society; while public buildings, cultural and institutional symbols, were emptied, abandoned and eventually destroyed in what can be referred to as urbicide, an act of extreme violence towards the city and what it represents for its people.
At the end of the war, people returned to Phnom Penh. As refugees in their own city, they occupied abandoned buildings or settled in unregulated land. When, two decades later, Cambodia opened to the global market, and new foreign investments flew into the city, that land became attractive to the appetite of new developers. As a consequence, entire communities were brutally evicted and forcibly moved to peripheral areas. Relocations took place from the 90s to ‐ officially ‐ the early 2010s. Over this period, with more than 50 relocation sites around Phnom Penh, the relocation process has become the main way to produce the city.
Today, urban planning is still not high in the national agenda (there is a city strategy plan which level of implementation is hard to grasp and local investment plans which consider private development only), while the housing policy (released in 2014) is poorly articulated and not yet implemented. Although a social housing policy (programme) for low income people is under study, the housing needs of the poor are not addressed. In general terms, local government is not much interfering in the land market; such a laissez faire approach is favouring private-sector development, with no alternative for the poor. As the land on the market is not accessible to them, poor communities keep occupying public or private interstitial land along canals and unused infrastructure, mostly vulnerable and prone to flooding, while gated communities and satellite cities are growing in number. Given that 50% of the urban population are below the poverty line, who can afford these houses? Gated communities are probably aimed at a middle class that still does not exists or better to foreigners and officials that are part of a highly corrupted political system.
Most of the sites selected for the MSc BUDD fieldtrip – taking place in Phnom Penh for the third consecutive year – reveal aspects and nuances of these urban processes. Particularly, Pong Ro Senchey and Steung Kombot communities are informal settlements on narrow strips of public land stretched between private properties waiting for redevelopment; while Smor San settlement is located on a graveyard. By learning from the unique approach of our partners, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), Community Architects Cambodia (CAN-CAM), and Community Development Foundation (CDF), and from the people in each community, BUDD students, divided into three groups and joined by local students of architecture and urbanism, by UN intern and representative of the housing department, worked for five days in the three sites. Five days of emotionally intense engagement with the people and the context, trying to identify needs and aspirations, while unpacking the complex power relations within the government, digging into the legal and normative frameworks to understand how to ‘break the vertical’ and to disclose the potential for change.
After working with the communities to develop site upgrading strategies, the students were asked to produce an ulterior effort, that of looking across the different sites (and for this purpose the original groups have been reshuffled into new groups each one including at least two members from each site group) to address what we call ‘citywide upgrading’. This is a difficult and ambitious task, as it encompasses the multidimensionality of urban issues at the political, social, spatial and economic levels. Particularly, it calls for a multi-scalar reasoning and strategising that takes into consideration the community singularity and agency as well as the national policy framework in which community action needs to be framed. The scaling up of site upgrading strategies does not happen in a merely quantitative manner (i.e. iteration of a similar strategy), but rather considering the city as a wider community, where spatial proximity is replaced by shared practices and interests. Citywide upgrading is at the core of the BUDD pedagogy, and although this is not a new theory, BUDD students are currently contributing to its redefinition as a development theory for the poor, deeply embedded into the practice of ACHR and CAN.
Amongst the principles for citywide upgrading, three seem to be crucial.
First, to include the urban poor in the ongoing development. While Phnom Penh is witnessing fast urbanisation and growth, poor people are still uninscribed in such growth. How to capture and redistribute the profits and benefits? How to dismantle the hierarchical system that is at the basis of unequal development?
Secondly, to question the regulatory role of state authority. Although the government is merely indulging in highly corrupted laissez faire, legal and policy frameworks exist (for instance, art. 5 of the housing policy includes onsite upgrading). The question is how to implement them? How to monitor the implementation through accountable mechanisms?
Third, to address the aid dependency and foster self determination of the communities. This stems from the acknowledgement of existing potential: the people knowledge, skills, technology and capital. How to achieve political recognition? How to increase the visibility of people processes?
The above questions have been addressed through small, short or long term, concrete actions such as: environmental upgrading particularly related to flooding risk (households repeatedly affected by seasonal flooding or flooding related to climate change and land development, can access to new grants for upgrading); online knowledge platforms (as people are increasingly connected, online platforms can ensure easy and fast access to knowledge, and data collection and sharing; such platforms can be accessible also to NGOs and local authority); network upgrading fund (as private development is happening, social responsibility can be strengthen, for instance through new funding schemes sourced from the private sector and led by people); social ombudsman (in order to ensure the inclusion of the community as well as the transparency of the decision making process, the implementation of policy and scrutiny of the process).
As in the previous two years, strategies have been publicly presented by students and representatives of the communities, serving as a platform to advocate ‘the cause’ with national and local authorities. As political recognition remains one of the main challenges that the communities in Phnom Penh face, after three years of engagement, the ‘cumulative impacts’ of the work developed by BUDD with local partners has inspired a young and strong generation of architects equipped to take up the challenge of a more just future for our cities
Giovanna Astolfo is a teaching fellow at the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development, she recently joined students on overseas fieldwork in Cambodia. This is the third year that the MSc BUDD has visited Cambodia, continuing a collaboration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and Community Architects Network Cambodia