Sunday, July 8, 2012

Development is More than Bricks and Mortar

A smaller replica of Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument is under construction in Kep. Similar to the original, as you might expect, it’s been sited at the center of an intersection. Kep has appropriate places for a monument that’re not associated with traffic that would’ve been preferable to placement in a traffic circle, but admittedly, visually it looks nice to have your view down a street anchored by a statue or monument.
At least Kep’s Independence Monument is on a street that has little traffic so it’ll be easy as a breeze to not only approach the building but also enter in. That’s in total contrast to the capital where you’d take your life in your hands if you tried to reach the monument on foot and if you did manage to make it there in one piece you’re not permitted to enter the area, but only look from outside. Any kind of peaceful energy you might feel being near it, or reflection or contemplation you might achieve from its vibes would be drowned out by traffic noise. Monuments are supposed to be felt and experienced up close and personal. So what does it mean to have a monument to ‘Independence’ choked by traffic? Well it doesn’t bode well for the concept being portrayed.
Ironically, that inaccessible space is counted as part of the 2% of Phnom Penh devoted to ‘parks’. Technically speaking, I guess you can call that park space, but really, where are the parks in the capital? Riverside Park? Hun Sen Park? They come a lot closer to what a park is than Independence Monument, and are heavily used by the people but still, strips of land that are 80% pavement and the remainder that’s in grass is off limits?
There are no places similar to what we refer to as parks in America or Europe or even other Asian cities. You know, places for sports with tennis and volleyball courts and football fields; with picnic benches for outdoor meals and grassy lawns for lounging; with small ponds and (eventually) small forests of big old trees. A place of respite from the crowded, noisy and madding city. Most other cities I’ve been to in Asia have at least some parks. Bangkok is extremely short on park space, probably worse than Phnom Penh considering its vast population, but at least it has Lumpini Park. Rangoon, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh all have large green parks. All Chinese cities have parks though they too devote only a small percentage of their space to greenery and charge people to enter them, but at least they have one or two places where people can seek out peace, tranquility and the sweet smell of greenery.
What about Olympic Stadium? Also not a park, though it does have some attributes of them, notably playing fields for football and other sports. Some years ago when teaching at Norton U. while pointing out the dearth of public space in the capital I asked where people could go to play football. Olympic Stadium, some replied. Where else? I asked. Outside the city was the answer. However, as far as I know there are no parks outside the city center so they were probably referring to vacant lots temporarily commandeered for the purpose and as we know vacant lots tend not to stay that way in a growing urban area.
Worse still, every year or so space on the periphery of the stadium has been or currently is being converted to commercial uses. In the latest crime against public space a large area of wetlands on the eastern and northern borders of the stadium is now being filled in and developed. The wetlands were placed there to absorb pretty much all the rain that fell in the entire complex. Now much of that will head straight for the city’s overloaded drainage system. That area could’ve been developed as a cool, green, watery park space, it was even big enough to allow for boating. Instead the city will get more department stores, shophouses, high-rises and the percentage of the city devoted to park or green space has been further diminished.
Unfortunately, the whittling away of that space has nowhere reached its end if the wishes of an important developer are to come to fruition. He was quoted in the Daily saying the area was ‘too crowded’ to have a stadium/recreation site there and it should be moved to a location outside the center city. So having the area developed in high-density commercial and residential uses will make it less crowded? Obviously not, though we know what he meant to convey; that the area is too valuable to be used for recreation and sports, activities which merely enhance the lives of the city’s inhabitants, but don’t allow for making big bucks. And instead of having a centrally located venue for sporting events, the majority of people would have to go long distances to participate, which further increases traffic congestion.
 In every case, except the aforementioned park strips, the city seems hell bent on converting every possible recreation space to commercial uses. Only a decade or so ago there were several large lakes that would’ve been ideal recreation sites. Today all are gone. In contrast, in the American city of Minneapolis, which is a small part of its metropolitan area and has less than 500,000 people, there are 26 lakes, half dozen of which are the size of the former Boeng Kak lake and all have public access. Some of the larger ones have swimming beaches and are enjoyed for windsurfing, kayaking and rowboating. Back in the sixties before Cambodia’s troubles began Boeng Kak lake was used for boating - one of the King father’s movies (he made a lot of them) showed boaters happily enjoying the lake.
Boeng Kak, the last of the city’s lakes has been filled in. To me, that was practically a crime against humanity let alone a transgression against the people of Phnom Penh, so I was shocked to hear a Khmer-American who spent decades in the US approve of filling in the lake. His reasoning was that it was polluted and ugly and surrounded by squatters. Why not just clean it up: You don’t abandon your house when it’s dirty, you clean it up. Another friend checking out an expat blog was equally surprised to see most people on the blog thinking of the loss of the lake as a good thing. Unbelievable.
Urban lakes are more than just great potential recreation sites, they also absorb excess rainwater, cool the city down and are magnets for development. Think of Central Park in New York. If you look at an aerial view of upper Manhattan where the park is, it’s clear that many of the largest (and most valuable) buildings are those facing the park. In an extremely dense city like New York, there is a great premium to living near green space and so the land there is much more valuable than land just a hundred meters away. Back in the 19th century when planners were laying out Manhattan they looked at the map they had devised which showed the entire island covered with streets and realized that that was really not good enough and so placed the park there. That was one of the best decisions ever made for New York City because it would’ve been intolerably crowded and oppressive without the park at its center.
Here is an alternative scenario for the development of BK lake, which in some ways is still possible though it would no longer benefit the 4000 families who’ve already been displaced. Instead of filling in the whole lake, they could’ve filled a 100 to 200 meter wide strip all the way around the lake that would become a park. On the outer edge of the green strip next to the squatters and others who did own their properties, there’d be peripheral road. That would’ve left about 3/4 of the lake intact. The property outside the road facing the park would become very valuable and within a few years developers would come in and fill it up with higher value buildings. To sum up: Had that plan been the one pursued, the people living on the periphery of the lake would’ve been richly compensated for their land and the change would’ve happened naturally and gradually; brand new better class neighborhoods would be developed around the lake and the city would have a great new park and a cleaned up lake for the pleasure of large numbers of citizens.
What we got instead was protests, unrest and widespread dissatisfaction and a lake that’s completely filled in when the developer had agreed to leave a 10 hectare lake (out of an original 110 hectares) in the center. Where does progress at the lake stand now? Work started there in the middle of last year but halted in August. The Chinese have lots of money but the company financing the development evidently is having second thoughts about pouring billions of dollars into the project. Several very large projects in PP were halted a few years back when potential buyers dried up. There just aren’t enough rich local bureaucrats/ politicians and interested well-heeled foreigners to fill up all the giant middle to upper class projects planned for the city.
It’s not good karma to wish bad luck on others - schadenfreude - but in this case I’ll take my chances… I hope the CPP senator and his Chinese partner who cooked up this rotten scheme sink financially like a stone in quicksand. Meanwhile, as far as filling in the lake is concerned; easy come, easy go, though admittedly it’ll take a lot more work removing the sand than it did to put it there. On the other hand, construction sand is in high demand so they’ll make back a little of their investment by removing and selling it. They’ve got to at least remove 10 hectares to create the lake that was promised.
There’s one other very large area previously designated as park space that’s being developed, the 48 hectares at the tip of the Chroy Changvar peninsula, which is directly across the river at Street 178. A fantastic place for a public park is being turned into a hotel/convention center with lots of other development thrown in. The people will get a nice riverside promenade out of it, but still, compared to a large park, that’s nowhere.
Boeng Kak is an empty canvas, anything is still possible there. Not so with Chroy Changvar peninsula since very large, multi-story buildings don’t often revert to park space. Still, that large building takes up only a small part of the total area so all is not lost… at least in theory. The only factor that can change the likely outcome is the larger economic picture. I hate to wish for economic problems that would slow Cambodia’s growth, since the country still desperately needs expansion to bring large numbers of people out of poverty. However, it can be argued that no growth at all is sometimes better than a short term boost from destructive growth which then leaves a long term legacy of ugliness and awfulness. So once again here’s hoping another giant project designed for the elite but created by usurping space meant for the enjoyment of all is halted before all is lost.
Finally, regardless of the damage done or being done, the city should be looking towards the future. A case in point. Back in the late 1940’s the City of Portland, Oregon had the foresight to create Forest Park, a ten square mile - 25 square kilometer - forested mountain ridge that begins only about three miles - five kilometers - from downtown. It wasn’t much to look at then because most of it had been logged in the previous few decades. Today, 65 years later, and being Oregon where trees grow fast and big, it is now beautiful both from a distance and close up when hiking it’s many miles of forested trails. You can still hear sounds of the city from the park and see it occasionally where the trees aren’t so thick, but you feel you’re in another world that could be hundreds of miles from the madding crowds. Similarly it was great foresight on the part of New York City’s planners 150 years ago that created Central Park.
There’ve got to be many very pretty spots on the outskirts of the city that’re crying out to be made into park space. The process of identifying and designating potential park sites needs to happen now before the land becomes too valuable. Getting to the city’s periphery to enjoy a peaceful picnic in the park might take a lengthy moto or tuk-tuk ride from the city center but those parks would still be resources that would be heavily used and deeply appreciated by the citizenry. Is the entire and recently expanded area of Phnom Penh going to be developed without a thought to creating additional green space? That’s what it looks like now but it would be a terrible mistake and an awful legacy for today’s leaders to leave for posterity. They may have the best interests of the people at heart, but the reality will be far different.