The Ecotopia 2121 Project details the futures of 100 cities across the globe as though they've somehow overcome all the grave environmental challenges our age and grown to become super-Green and super-ecofriendly. This month, we highlight the future of Phnom Penh.
During its colonial days, Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, was known as the Pearl of the East since the French architecture on the Mekong riverside merged via beauteous contrast with the ancient feel of the traditional buildings.
Nowadays, Phnom Penh is a city as far from utopia as one might imagine. The city suffers from health-hazardous air pollution and intractable water issues, as well as urban squalor, over-crowding, misgovernance, corruption, and a general lack of social and environmental well-being.
The motorcycle traffic, alone, considered by some to be iconic and 'full of character', is dangerous, smoky, noisy and chaotic. There are no public buses on the city’s roads, no trains to serve the suburbs; no public transport at all. The only visible state-sponsored infrastructure projects are new parliamentary buildings for the political elite, a few massive modern-style condos for the business elite, and a huge casino resort for rich Chinese gamblers.
One of the persistent challenges for cities on the Mekong River, including Phnom Penh, is flooding. These floods can be seasonal or episodic. The seasonal floods are generally welcomed by famers but still challenging for urban centers whilst the episodic floods are often quite disastrous. With the help of foreign aid, the Cambodian government has attempted to implement flood control structures but these are incomplete and far from reliable. When there are floods that sweep through the city and suburban streets, the Government usually tells the people it’s not them to blame and they turn around to point the finger at the citizens because they have settled in the wrong place and because they recklessly dispose of their plastic bags which clog up the waterways and impair smooth drainage.
Although it is now a city of two million, Phnom Penh was once purposely de-populated. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s the urban middle classes were forcibly ruralized to work on the land so as to provide food for the nation. The ideology espoused by the Khmer Rouge insisted upon the primacy of agricultural production, both as a sector and as an ethic, and they believed many people in the city needed to be weaned off their counter-revolutionary impulses by toiling with common folk in the fields. When the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979, the city of Phnom Penh bounced back to be re-populated by displaced residents.
In future Phnom Penh, as envisioned in the picture below, the agriculture moves from its rural setting and comes to the city (rather than the other way around), as the era of urban agriculture dawns. The importance of urban agriculture for developing nations like Cambodia is multifarious.
By incorporating large-scale urban-based agriculture that works within the prevailing ecosystem, food security will be enhanced and the nutrition for of the urban poor will be improved. With food so close to its consumers, the costs of its production and transport will be lessened. It’s also likely less food will be lost through spillage and decay because the supply chain will have been shortened and simplified in terms of both distance and complexity. It’s doubtful that urban agriculture in Cambodia or elsewhere will ever completely replace the need for rural agriculture but it will complement it; and will allow for a general increase in the efficiency of the national food system as a whole.
The urban economy will also be boosted since apart from the farming, many allied activities and services will be opened-up (like, for instance, animal health services, book-keeping services, as well as low-tech and high-tech transportation services).
The technological background to this new ‘city of agriculture’ involves the use of condo-style residences placed on a set of twenty-five concrete stilts above the flood-prone areas of the Mekong River. The river is not engineered and controlled but allowed to flow in a natural way through and around the city. Between the sinuous channels and water-zones, the city residents have wet gardens to grow crops. During seasonal and episodic floods, Phnom Penh residents will stay dry and safe above the flood line. The main crop species of the city is likely to be flood-tolerant rice but also many other wet plant species and freshwater crustaceans can be farmed as well.
Another advantage of this flood tolerance is the positive impact it has on biodiversity.
In 2017, Cambodia's wetlands and mangrove communities are suffering at the hands of pollution and rapid development. Concrete channels, barriers and dams often do nothing but make this worse, especially for the aquatic fauna. Here in future Phnom Penh, however, the natural shape of the land and the use of an organic wetlands-based agriculture encourage the riverine fauna ecosystem to flourish so that sustainable harvesting of the fish is made possible as well.
In the Cambodia of today, the public’s socio-economic and political expectations are rising. Along with other South East Asian citizens, the people of Phnom Penh aspire to better living conditions (especially with regard to housing). In many Asian nations, the condominium tower-block has become the preferred standard for living for many city-dwellers. In South East Asia, the word condominium usually refers to high-quality tower block rather than a specific ownership scheme.
The convenience and comfort of condominiums is also reinforced by the provision of in-house shopping and some common space for residents to relax and congregate within. Such high-density residential tower blocks are also declared to be a lot more environmentally friendly than a typical detached or semi-detached house.
After one or two ‘eco-condos’ are constructed with respect to the technical features outlined above, and after they are shown to survive and prosper through various flood episodes, they will serve as inspiration to further construct such housing projects in Phnom Penh; until, one day in the future, they become a ubiquitous form of residential living.