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A City Without Zoning? Phnom Penh, Cambodia's Development Runs Wild

As the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is the largest and fastest growing city in the country with over two million inhabitants. In recent years it has seen unprecedented rates of growth in the economy, population and urbanization, however there is yet to be any regulations to ensure sustainable development. Without a comprehensive master plan for the capital city, there is no official zoning or building code requirements, which puts the future of the city in the hands of the private sector instead of the residents who are at risk of losing their city of water.

Phnom Penh , Cambodia Traffic

Zoning plans usually regulate land use, form, design or attempt to control development to maximize opportunity in the city and encourage growth that will support better living. However, with a lack of zoning, the city runs wild – growing according to immediate profits instead of future considerations. In Phnom Penh, factories are built next to schools and residential areas, local transportation routes are overwhelmed by the increase of traffic and deteriorate, and lakes are being filled in for more land leaving the city susceptible to constant flooding. By 2030 it is expected that almost half of the population of Cambodia will be living in urban areas, Phnom Penh being by far the largest. Without access to basic services and infrastructure laid out by zoning regulations in an urban master plan, the quality of life and efficiency of the city will decrease as urban development continues.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia green space

Some specific examples of lost opportunity in Phnom Penh are natural hazards and green space, which almost go hand-in-hand. From the French city plan in the late 19th century and the golden era of new Khmer architecture in the 1960's, Phnom Penh originally had many open parks and green spaces surrounding public buildings that served as social centres and absorbed flooding. Even beyond the Phnom Penh, lakes and rivers have long since collected the rain during the wet season, while the traditional building designs have been adapted to the conditions of living along the floodplains of the Mekong river. Unfortunately, as the green spaces are sold off to private and foreign developers, the natural flood mitigating features are replaced by modern towers spurring further urban congestion.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia flooding

The government has two existing master plans for the city of Phnom Penh, however, neither one has been passed, and even if they had step-by-step ideas on implementation, they are both short-sighted, aiming only at the next 5 years. Without a balance of public and private investments, the city is headed for the concrete jungle fate of other Asian metropolises, like Bangkok or Mumbai. Alongside Phnom Penh's rapid urbanization, a focus is needed on infrastructure, transportation, waste management, and drainage systems before it is overwhelmed by endless disconnected urban development.

What zoning regulations have helped your city control development and what might come of your city without zoning?

Credits: Images by Tara Whelan. Data linked to sources.