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Political inaction risks Phnom Penh’s development

Mark Tilly and Pav Suy / Khmer Times Share:
Researchers say Phnom Penh may see a high amount of economic investment with a low level of city planning come 2038. KT/ Fabien Mouret

Endless traffic jams, apartment and office blocks lying vacant, and poorly maintained public facilities – welcome to Phnom Penh in the year 2038.
Research carried out by independent think tank Future Forum , which was presented during a Rotary Club of Phnom Penh Metro meeting on Tuesday, projected a future in which Phnom Penh would see a high amount of economic investment with a low level of city planning.
The research, which has yet to be finalised, is based on current trends and projections and was divided into four possible scenarios that Phnom Penh could face in its developmental future.
Senior policy and research advisor Marcus Mohlin, who presented the research, said the variables that could lead to a high amount of investment combined with a high amount of city planning, much like Singapore, are available.  However the current dearth of political will to make serious inroads in city planning, preferring it being left to the wills of the free market was the more likely scenario.
“We think that’s the most likely scenario, we’re going to see certain investments, but we’re going to see high rises that remain empty, we’re going to see the same pattern that we are seeing today,” he said on Tuesday.
“The worst case scenario is high economic development, and a city hall that says, ‘It’s up to you guys’.
“We’re going to see the city develop, but we’re also going to see traffic congestion, sewage that isn’t working, it’s going to be anarchy. This is our worst case scenario.”
The nine-month long research was designed as a real estate investment pitch for investors to gauge whether the capital is worth economic investment.
Mohlin said it was critical City Hall not leave urban planning up to the market, as it will only exacerbate the capital’s existing problems.
While the research is based on Phnom Penh’s future, it is hard not to see what Future Forum’s projections are based on.
The newly opened Platinum Bay condominium in Boeung Keng Kang features 222-units, with only 10 of them occupied, as investors and experts debate whether the market is in the midst of a bubble.
Meanwhile, local media reported yesterday residents living in house boats on the Tonle Sap lake have fled toward Phnom Penh to escape runaway sewage from the capital.
It is these issues, Mohlin said, which highlighted the importance for City Hall and the government to take decisive actions so that it’s predictions do not become a reality.
“Sewage, traffic and similar issues must be resolved before the market forces are let loose to develop any areas – otherwise we will end up with areas that are not sustainable in the longer run,” he said.
City Hall spokesman Met Meas Pheakdey, who labelled the research as ‘baseless’, questioned whether the researchers lived in Phnom Penh as they failed to see the improvements it was making.
“Not only have the Phnom Penh Administration, but also our partners, worked hard to contribute to the development of the city,” he said.
“Are they living in Phnom Penh or elsewhere, that’s why they don’t know about the city?”
He referred to City Hall’s cooperation with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in recently installing 100 traffic lights, which JICA funded, around the capital in order to ease congestion.
He admitted, however, that only 12 of the 100 traffic lights are operational despite the deal being inked last year.
He also stated the country’s political stability and security as an attractor to investors.
“They saw this evidence, they want to do business here and the construction (sector) is growing,” he said.
City Hall is cooperating with JICA to develop a 2035 master plan of the city, as well as plans on transportation and sewage, however funds from the national budget have yet to be allocated to it.  
JICA was unable to comment as of press time.
Mohlin emphasised that Future Forums’ projections were not set in stone, nor designed to predict the future, but were based on the trends of today. He also noted that Phnom Penh had the opportunity to become a poster child of urban planning, if the correct regulations were implemented and enforced.
“If the government takes control and starts doing action planning, starts enforcing regulations, this country could become an example,” he said.
This sentiment was previously echoed by research conducted by the Royal University of Phnom Penh released last month, which said while there were challenges, Cambodia had the chance to cut its carbon emissions, particularly in Phnom Penh, with correct urban planning policy levers.
“There are promising signs on the horizon including the recent shift towards hydropower, discussions of urban master planning, transport via waterways, and citizens being fed up with traffic gridlock and poor air quality,” the report said.
“Policy makers, planners, and citizens, engaged at multiple levels, can push for a shift towards a low carbon economy, in large part because it is an opportunity to enhance everyday life, particularly in the city.”
Mohlin said there needed to be greater coordination between the public and private sectors if this was to be achieved.
 “Only the government can allocate money to these things, combining the public and private sectors together, but we’re not seeing that.”

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