The language of the city

Three straps are beginning to criss-cross my feet in smooth, pale lines. Every time I look down, I see the hint of this tan and wonder how long it will take for it to boldly take over the visual landscape of my feet. I’ve always preferred walking to other modes of transportation, so after discovering that it takes only fifteen minutes by foot to get from my apartment to the AAC office, I regularly put on my sandals and traverse the streets of Phnom Penh to and from work. And then the sun takes it from there.

I’ve been told that Phnom Penh is not walking-friendly. Some may say that it’s true, what with minimal sidewalks and lights hesitating to illuminate the entire street at night, depending where you are. Whatever sidewalk space that does exist is eaten up by parked cars or food carts, and often the intrepid motorbike riders trying to squeeze ahead of the traffic. There’s a definite hierarchy on the road: the car owners act as though they own the road because of their size, followed by the tuk tuks. Motorbike riders gain their power through their nimbleness, and you can spot a bicyclist or two jauntily navigating the disorganization. Most of the time the pedestrian must practice his or her needlework along the sliver between the barriers and the vehicles, as well as crossings. At times I think I’m playing real-life Frogger.


Phnom Penh used to mirror its colonizer’s capital city with broad, tree-lined boulevards and colonial architecture. You can still find some of those qualities, but nowadays Phnom Penh is dotted and shadowed by shiny new high rises. Or at least the green-sheathed promise of them. Cambodia in general has undergone rapid economic growth, and walking around the city to the constant tune of hammers, drills, and horns gives just one indication of the city’s urban expansion. Though I haven’t done much research into Phnom Penh’s development, I have learned that it was once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia,’ even boasting a golden age of architectural development under Vann Molyvann. Yet despite its history, and the current building boom, questions remain as to whether this development is ultimately beneficial for all the people of Phnom Penh.

This past Sunday, I watched the film Urbanized, which looked at – you guessed it – urbanization and its history, complexity, and consequences for the everyday population. It’s main question: how do cities deal with growth? With the global trend of urban migration, this documentary is as timely now as it was when it came out in 2011. While it certainly had its flaws (among its offenses is the reductionism of Mumbai as the poster child for slums), Urbanized helped me reflect more on the interconnectedness of urbanization to many of the issues I’ve focused on in the program. Because everything, I’m convinced more and more each day, is connected, and we should be paying attention to that.

The documentary definitely won brownie points with me in its plain demonstration of how successful projects, smart projects, worked with the community that was to be affected to develop sustainable solutions. One example it gave was in Santiago, Chile, in which affordable housing developers, having built property on highly desirable land close to jobs for poorer communities, interviewed potential residents about whether they would want a bathtub or a water heater installed. All ended up choosing the bathtub, some among them stating that they wouldn’t be able to afford the extra energy costs, preferring to save up for a water heater later. Giving more importance to employment value over land value, and trusting that people will eventually improve their housing value on their owns? It seems a simple and obvious strategy, but in reality a more radical one that doesn’t seem to receive the attention it deserves in urban planning.

I wonder if that type of participatory development conversation happens here in Phnom Penh, but I don’t think it is. “You know about the money-laundering, and how they’re trying to build everything very quickly here, right?” my roommate cryptically asked me tonight when we were talking about the construction going on in the city. Walking around, both after watching the documentary and on my way to work, feeling water cover my feet to the ankles during a sudden downpour, noticing a bus stop that never has people or buses at it, and the incoherent traffic patterns, I get the impression that there is much work to be done.

But I will continue to walk around the city, with the hope that my knowledge of this place deepens with the tan lines on my feet.




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