- Cambodian people look at Angkor Wat temples models at the Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap province. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP
Emphasis on public spaces and physical connectivity can help Cambodia's cultural capital thrive.
Astroll in Siem Reap’s neighbourhoods reveals much about its unique character. Artists live and paint along the road to Angkor, their works displayed nightly at local galleries. Theatres and performance spaces dot the city, hosting a variety of both traditional and contemporary shows. And the city’s historical downtown is replete with restaurants and stalls offering a range of delicious local dishes and vibrant nightlife.
Siem Reap can leverage these rich cultural resources to enhance liveability and boost recovery, but to succeed it must also increase the share of public spaces, foster targeted initiatives, and emphasise physical connectivity in its street network.
A city’s sense of place is determined by amenities and activities which makes that city feel unique. This is what urban planners refer to as “placemaking”. Placemaking is a powerful tool to enhance a city’s liveability, which in turn contributes to economic prosperity. This is because high liveability attracts skilled individuals to live, study, and start businesses that directly contribute to productivity and human development growth.
Vienna is considered to be the world’s most liveable city according to the Global Liveability Index 2022. Austria’s Chamber of Commerce reported that in 2022 businesses owned by immigrants in Vienna generated $8.6 billion(€ 8.3 billion euros) in revenue, employing 45,500 people, and paid around $3.8 billion annually in taxes and duties.
In Siem Reap’s case, these activities are directed towards tourists, yet they still contribute to improving liveability for locals. With Cambodian cities and its regional neighbours in need of revitalisation, they should embrace placemaking as a crucial part of recovery, now more than ever.
- Tourists wear face mask as they walk at Pub street in Siem Reap province on March 5, 2020.
Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP
Public Spaces are Crucial
Charles Landry, who champions the concept of cities driven by creative abilities and potential, wrote that “placemaking should create spaces of communication, where it is easy to socially connect, interact, and physically move around.”
Yet the current layout of Siem Reap is not not ideal for this concept of placemaking.. Structurally it offers inadequate public space, which hinders the city from truly harnessing its potential. Only the Royal Independence Gardens serves as the city’s primary public green zone, which is inadequate to support Siem Reap’s steadily growing population of 300,000 inhabitants.
In order for Siem Reap to thrive this needs to change.
Siem Reap officials recently unveiled creative ways of expanding public space by completing a new linear park. This park, which sits on top of a formerly open sewer canal, serves as a pedestrian thoroughfare and will stretch 625 metres from National Road 6 to Samdech Preah Moha Sangkhareach Tep Vong street, adding much needed public space.
Similar pedestrianisation efforts should be examined elsewhere in the city. Pokambor and Achar Sva avenues which flank the Siem Reap River can be fully pedestrianised. A project like this could turn a 3.3 kilometres stretch from Wat Damnak to the Angkor Conservation Center into 19.8 hectares of public green space.
- Plan Siem Reap thoroughfare. Image: Aron Sakda for Southeast Asia Globe
Lastly, public buildings should not be overlooked as venues for additional public amenities. Public schools can upgrade exercise areas to share with locals, helping them stay fit and healthy. The school’s library could be expanded to co-locate a community learning centre, a co-working space, and even an auditorium for performances and events. By reconfiguring into a “community school” it can provide after-school classes on technical skills, art courses, gardening, and many others, which would benefit both the student and the general public.
Creating unique neighbourhoods
Placemaking gives character to locations, making them distinct, memorable and unique. Many of Siem Reap’s neighbourhoods already have recognisable characteristics that can be built upon into fully fledged districts dedicated to various facets of civic life.
New efforts should seek to build in harmony and strengthen these unique identities, giving each Siem Reap neighbourhood a distinct feel. This can be done by creating civic zones focused on art, knowledge, spirituality, commerce and leisure over the next couple of years.
- Civic and public spaces in Siem Reap. Image: Aron Sakda for Southeast Asia Globe
Neighbourhoods with existing artist workshops and local art galleries, for example the area that hugs Siem Reap River’s eastern bank could be designated as a visual arts zone. Art zones should focus on incorporating outdoor public art display areas along its street and public spaces. Crucially, outdoor art installations should be given more freedom occupying not only street surfaces, but wrapping around the street three-dimensionally forming roofs, seating areas, play areas, and entrances.
For performance art, a zone located along the western bank of the Siem Reap river near existing theatres and on the opposite bank could cultivate a bustling district. Establishing multi-purpose plazas to double as event spaces for festivals, concerts, and street performances is crucial to support and enhance such activities.
The northern tree-lined neighbourhood around Wat Preah Enkosey and centrally located Wat Bo area are tranquil sanctuaries. Well-suited for spiritual and religious tourism, they should be designated as zones catering to meditation retreats and religious festivals. Public spaces, especially along the riverside, can focus on passive activities like enjoying scenic views by providing amenities like picnic tables, observation areas, and botanical gardens.
Locations which pulsate with energy from nightlife and vibrant restaurants, are obvious choices for a leisure zone. But for families and visitors looking for a quieter experience, quieter locations should also be established to focus on Khmer cuisine, spas, and cinemas.
The growing community of researchers and academics drawn to Siem Reap’s unique environment as a hub for their work should not be overlooked. Knowledge zones should be established near existing schools, universities and research institutions, with public spaces around them emphasising well shaded public seating areas, outdoor cafes, micro-gardens, and public washrooms.
Pivoting to the knowledge sector is especially crucial for Siem Reap, because it is a driving force for diversifying the local economy beyond mass tourism. Through improving liveability and dedicating public amenity for the knowledge sector, scholars and academics will be attracted to live and work in Siem Reap.
- A tourist takes pictures of boats on the Tonle Sap lake near the Kampong Phluk commune in Siem Reap.
Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP
Tying it all together
With each neighbourhood cultivating a unique activity, seamlessly connecting them together is critical. Rather than relying on infrastructure for cars, Siem Reap should connect these neighbourhoods with pathways that allow visitors to walk or cycle easily and safely between zones.
Ideally, these corridors should be more than just streets from point A to point B. They should be enhanced with additional placemaking features and green infrastructure to improve user experience and comfort, effectively converting these streets into mini-destinations in their own right.
Street space can be converted into vibrant public spaces by adding seating and dining areas, incorporating on-street vendor stalls, and playgrounds, where pedestrians and cyclists could pause to rest and play below the canopies of canvas awnings and trees.
Flexible, multi-purpose squares located along pathways could be given over for local artists to display rotating art installations. Commuters can also be entertained by performers in designated stages and amphitheatres nestled alongside the street.
Local communities might consider organising events and festivals for special days of the year, that temporarily transforms more of Siem Reap. Since placemaking doesn’t have to only happen on dedicated streets.
At the moment, Siem Reap’s cultural resources and economy face stagnation. Placemaking-oriented initiatives provide a framework to not just jumpstart the local economy, but to reshape Siem Reap’s image into a vibrant, creative and prosperous urban centre.
For Siem Reap to continue exuding an authentic sense of history and heritage, it is crucial that urban planners, local residents, and artists come together to collaborate on a revitalisation strategy which increases public space, fosters unique initiatives, and enhances walkable city-wide connectivity.
As well as benefiting locals and visitors, these efforts have the potential to facilitate Siem Reap’s long term prosperity by attracting human capital and pivoting to a more diverse economy. Thus reshaping itself into more than just another mass tourism destination, all the while enhancing its cultural gravitas.
Committing to this vision ensures that Siem Reap, and perhaps other ASEAN cities, can be both financial and culturally sustainable.