13 January, 2021 | By The Room Architecture and Design
In the second of a two-part sit down with our CEO, we look deeper into the hot topic of the moment – urban planning. Here Pawel touches on the long-term work that needs doing in Phnom Penh, from waste management to green spaces, and why he’s opting for mixed-use developments as a way to organise the city
What are some of the issues that Phnom Penh faces in terms of urban planning?
Even if you’re a tourist and have only spent a week or two weeks in Phnom Penh, you already know that there are some items that need improvement. It’s obvious from the traffic system, the lack of security, the lack of public transportation, the lack of a proper drainage system (etc.) that there's no control over how and where the city spreads.
What’s changed in the past decade?
I've seen a lot of improvement – roads have been improved, electrical systems, street lighting, and traffic lights have been installed. The drainage system in Phnom Penh city centre has been improved. So a lot of things are happening but it seems to me that there’s a lack of a general vision that is available to the public.
So how can we fix this?
First, start with the global scale. We are talking about the way that a city spreads, which is linked to how you drain the city – how you manage rainfall and flooding. How do we direct the city to develop in a particular direction? Is it going to be north, south or northeast? We know that two roads are being built to Siem Reap, so my impression is that the city is going to develop north and south while the other side of the river is slowing down. Then you need to consider the traffic system, because people are getting pushed out of the city and they need to commute, which creates a carbon footprint. These are global problems.
Moving on to the smaller scale, we need to think about how city blocks and buildings are created. I’m opting for mixed-use developments on a large, medium and small scale. But that needs planning. Some cities deal with the problem of business districts that only operate during the day. After 5pm it gets really empty and it’s not safe, not clean – it doesn’t work.
How do mixed-use developments work?
There are different theories. For example, an ideal mixed-use city or development is considered one where you can get everywhere within 15 minutes walking distance. In Cambodia we are far away from that model. There’s no environment for the pedestrians to walk. You need to set the target first and then figure out how to make it happen. So, for example, how about dividing the city into small districts and then thinking about what kind of functions should be placed there to limit the commuting time. Or create walkways. Ideally there should be a school and a hospital or clinic in each of the districts, and convenient access to a bus stop and retail shops. There are a couple of ideas but they need to be planned from the beginning.
What about social housing?
I would like to see something that is a mixed-use type of housing and that doesn’t push poor people out of the city. I would like see those projects well-managed, with good financial models. There are some examples from the past of really well-designed social housing buildings in Cambodia and the region, but they failed. The White Building was social housing at some point, but the problem was there was no management. No one was controlling it. That’s why it went – the technical condition was really poor and finally they demolished it.
What’s the priority at the moment?
Everything needs to be happening at the same time – and it needs to be planned ahead and it needs to be done as soon as possible. Public services, hospitals, schools are the skeleton of the city. And then the roads need to be done. It needs to be planned because if it’s going to be done in a random way, it’s not going to work. If all of the hospitals are located north of Phnom Penh, then this is not going to work for the inhabitants travelling from the south.
There are very few green spaces, which is a big part of planning. They are not only a place to hang out but also allow the city to be cross-ventilated. A green space lowers the temperature of the streets and the asphalt. It’s not only a park, it’s a major functional element for the city. There’s also a lack of pedestrian walkways. There’s huge potential to create creative and cultural spaces and theatres. But these are just small elements of the whole organism that is called a city.
Are you optimistic change is coming?
I believe it will get fixed. It just needs a vision and then people who are able to make that vision happen.
This interview is part of our latest campaign, where we are marking a turning point in the life of The Room Design Studio and unpacking our vision for the future. Over the past decade we’ve given a little piece of ourselves to Cambodia. As the country’s cities were reshaped through architecture, we did our bit. We’ve set new standards for quality design. We’ve made a name for ourselves as the technical expert that doesn’t cut corners. We’ve dared to ask for change. Now we want to refocus. As we begin a new chapter by changing our name to The Room Architecture and Design, we’ve got our sights firmly set on the future – cleaner, smarter and stronger communities for not only Cambodia but the wider region too.
Ask questions. Reject the status quo. Dare to have grand ambition and grander ideas – and then make them happen.
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