Unused Traffic Lights, CamKo City, Phnom Penh, 2011

Following on from the recent post about ghost cities in China, this short piece seeks to illustrate the impact of cycles of investment on urban development in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The example of Phnom Penh is illustrative of the extent to which the image of the globalised city as representing the ideal future of society (high-end apartments, offices and shopping centres in a largely privatised ‘public domain’), that is more often than not created through highly speculative investment, has become all-pervasive within the current projections of city development. Furthermore, to all intensive purposes, the situation illustrates the complex tensions and contradictions between the current economic system and urban development. The sheer contrasts between ‘those who have’ and ‘those who have not’ is here clearly illustrated, with the desire to create a city of high-end apartments and offices standing in striking contrast to the eviction of the poor from central areas that have become highly valued pieces of real-estate. The imbalanced and dysfunctional nature of this approach to planning and housing provision is further emphasised by the reality of the current situation, with half-finished office-blocks, ‘ghost-estates’, and roads that literally lead to nowhere becoming a common feature of present-day Phnom Penh and its surroundings.

Gold Tower 42 (back left), Untouched since September 2010, and De Castle (Centre) Still under Construction, on Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh, 2011.

Partially developed apartments beside completed apartments, CamKo City, Phnom Penh, 2011

Such an image may paint a familiar picture to readers of this blog, yet there are, of course, some significant differences to the Irish situation. The relative strength of economic growth in Asia, combined with the multitude of sources of funding, have ensured that the current situation in Phnom Penh is marked by a stalling out of some projects (predominantly larger-scale projects) and the continuation of others (predominantly stand-alone apartment or other smaller-scale developments). The most high-profile example of the former is that of ‘Gold Tower 42’, which was being developed by the South Korean firm, Yon Woo. Originally billed to be Cambodia’s tallest building, it currently stands as a half-built shell, untouched since September 2010. While a number of large-scale developments continue, such as Rose Condominiums and De Castle, which are both high-end residential developments at the centre of Phnom Penh, presently, a number of high-profile large-scale ‘new city’ developments at the periphery remain only partially built. One example of such is CamKo City, on the northern periphery of the city, which is currently stalled due to liquidity problems and questions of fraud within the South Korean owned Busan Savings Bank (believed to be the main backer of the project). Further outside the city, Grand Phnom Penh, an exclusive ‘citidel’, which is to have commercial, residential, and leisure functions, remains only partially developed (some of the villas and the golf course are developed), due to lack of market demand. Furthermore, a number of more centrally located projects, such as Star River, have been only partially developed, with a significant amount of the land that has been cleared for development in the area beside the Tonle Bassac River remaining vacant.

Extent of Infill of Boeung Kak Lake from Google Maps, 2011 (The sand now extends further into the fromer lake).

Meanwhile, many of those who cannot even dream of the new forms of lifestyles being promoted are being removed from their homes, with Amnesty International recently stating that 10% of the residents of Phnom Penh have been evicted between 1990 and 2011. The example of Boeung Kak Lake at the centre of Phnom Penh, which is currently being filled in, has become symbolic of the tensions between everyday life in Phnom Penh and the sheer power of current investment in reshaping the city. In 2007, the Cambodian Shukaku Inc. (owned by Senator Leng Meng Khin of the ruling CPP Party), in partnership with the Chinese Erdos Hong Jun Investment Co. were granted a 99 year lease to redevelop the lake as a high-profile mixed-use development to be called ‘New East City’. The result has seen up to 4,000 families living in the area surrounding the lake  either  evicted or under threat of eviction.

Boeung Kak, has, to a large degree, become representative of the wider issues facing Phnom Penh, and indeed, Cambodia more generally, with those whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by the pressures of development reduced to pawns in a game of extreme speculation. Despite the threats of the World Bank to withdraw funding from Cambodia, and the promise of land titling for some families, the sheer power of the forces at play continue to be evidenced, with the impacts upon everyday lives becoming more marked by each protest.

The current situation in Phnom Penh, and the form of urban and peri-urban landscapes being produced, serves as yet another illustration of the globalised nature of the recent, and, it should be said, on-going, form of urban development. It is a reminder of the manner in which the dominance of market forces as dictated by largely invisible globalised structures, which in this case have become partially visible in the built environment, are allowed to dominate and dictate everyday reality.

Philip Lawton