Future Forum's junior research fellow, Aronsakda Ses was published in KiriPost on April 09, 2023. Check out the original article here, and read it below!
After a long day, it’s safe to say that most Phnom Penh residents would love to be able to step right outside their homes and be able to relax outdoors, in a tranquil space, away from rush hour traffic and the accompanying pollution and noise. Yet such places are exceedingly rare and growing more rare by the year.
Rush hours in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
One recent assessment of Phnom Penh published by UNDP found that the public space ratio in Phnom Penh has dropped from the already low 1.1 square meters per person in 2014, to only 0.29 square meters per person in 2020.
At the moment, most Phnom Penh residents looking to spend time socializing and relaxing outside have no choice but to drive to a handful of prominent parks, like Independence Monument or Riverside, that are too few and too far between. For many more urbanites, including the elderly, young children, and those residents with a disability, making such a journey is difficult or even impossible to do alone.
In an ideal version of Phnom Penh, inclusive and accessible public spaces would be just steps away from our offices and from our homes, spread across every neighborhood of the city. While this might sound impossible to execute given Phnom Penh’s current reality, an innovative urban planning concept could help us get there.
Phnom Penh should consider turning to a concept that retrofits existing streets, shifting them away from car-centric spaces to human use instead, allowing Phnom Penh to increase public space. The design concept I’m referring to, the superblock, has shown great promise when applied in cities abroad.
A park in a borey in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Benefits of the superblock
The concept was first pioneered in 2016, when Barcelona converted the Poblenou neighborhood into a superblock composed of nine regular city blocks grouped together into a three by three configuration. In one of these superblocks, vehicle traffic is rerouted to the perimeter streets of the superblock, and the interior streets are pedestrianized with restricted vehicle access.
The public spaces Barcelona wrestled away from vehicles were converted into gardens, playgrounds, and seating areas. With public space steps away from their doors, neighbors became more sociable, meeting more often, families sat comfortably along picnic tables shaded by trees, and children played freely without worry. Local businesses also enjoyed a boom as increasing levels of pedestrians and cyclists frequented their shops, not to mention the benefit businesses gained from additional seating space for outdoor dining.
Superblock implementation in Phnom Penh would create outdoor spaces neighborhood residents can enjoy—picture seating tucked into public gardens or places where residents could even string hammocks between trees. Spaces like these would allow children to stay active while staying safe from traffic, and would allow residents to socialize in areas flanked by bushes and shaded by awnings.
Within these spaces, neighborhood businesses could even set up additional outdoor dining space outdoors, boosting revenue and offering unique dining experiences surrounded by greenery.
Superblocks also have the potential to make significant improvements to our urban microclimates, making our neighborhoods more comfortable and healthier to live in. The superblock layout could cut down on sound pollution, for instance, which is rarely discussed, but has major implications on physical and mental health. By reducing motor vehicle traffic in front of homes, schools and businesses, superblocks would positively impact our well-being, by reducing air pollution and minimizing traffic accidents as well.
Cambodia's sweltering heat can be combated by the additional green space superblock-oriented development would create. Average land surface temperatures in Phnom Penh have risen by 3 degree celsius from 2016 to 2020 in most parts of the city, according to a comprehensive 2022 study.
City areas of high temperature, called urban heat island, are directly linked to negative effects on human health like heat stress, high frequency of intense heat waves, and increasing atmospheric pollution.
Thinking Differently about Urban Space
Shifting Phnom Penh’s neighborhood planning strategy in favor of superblocks would also mean shifting our priorities for what we allow to dominate our public spaces.
If you were to take a look outside, there are probably dozens of cars parked at any given time on any given street. Up to three quarters of our street space is usually occupied by these parked vehicles—often at the expense of space available to pedestrians.
These endless stretches of asphalt and concrete can and should be reimagined, but cutting down on space for cars doesn’t necessarily mean increasing traffic congestion.
Superblocks would reduce vehicle through-traffic and regain space for green space and human activity while addressing unproductive use of space. But, importantly, a balance must be struck between minimizing space for vehicles and retaining vehicle access for freight deliveries, public service and local users.
According to researchers in Barcelona, this planning concept can convert car space to neighborhood public space without exacerbating traffic woes elsewhere. A recent study on the city’s superblocks found that “on average, traffic levels on streets with [superblock] interventions diminished by 14.8% relative to streets in the rest of the city.”
The study further noted that, crucially, traffic on adjacent parallel streets, which may provide likely alternative routes for displaced traffic, also did not see any significant corresponding increase in congestion.
Phnom Penh Superblock - A New Neighborhood Scheme
Boeng Keng Kang 1 is a perfect location to pilot a Phnom Penh superblock because of its population density and its grid layout. The neighborhood is also flanked by Norodom and Monivong Boulevards to its east and west respectively, and is thus within walking distance of public transit stops.
Illustration of the concept by Ses Aronsakda
The interior streets of a BKK superblock should be redesigned to prioritize active commuters and cut down on through-traffic. This helps make the interior streets safer and quieter. Creating a more pleasant environment for residents to utilize as a public space.
Additionally, with less vehicle traffic and more active commuters, it would be possible to convert spaces into gardens, playground and seating areas; rows of street trees occupy where there used to be parked cars adding to the comfort level. For example, Street 57 can be completely pedestrianized throughout its entire length in this scheme, adding 13,500 square meters of public space.
Many shops nestled along BKK’s lateral roads, like those on Street 302 and 334, can take advantage of setting up outdoor dining areas. Likewise businesses in the neighborhood as a whole would also enjoy a boost from increasing pedestrian and cyclist footfall because active commuters are more likely to visit at a shop or stall and make multiple visits. Lively shops and stall fronts, active public spaces and a steady flow of active commuters would create an atmosphere of safety and belonging, reinforcing the social bond of the community.
The streets that make up the perimeter of each superblock, in this case Preah Trasak Paem street and Rue Pasteur, would carry unidirectional vehicle traffic to allow business and shops along the periphery better access to freight vehicles, public service vehicles and emergency services.
Superblock-friendly policy changes
Ideally, a Phnom Penh superblock pilot project should also be accompanied by a few key policy changes, including implementing a mobility-based land use policy. This policy would, for example, place larger stores, restaurants, convenience stores, office, and multilevel mixed-use buildings along superblock perimeter streets where they can have greater vehicle access.
Conversely, the inner streets of a superblock would be the ideal place for buildings that don't require access to large vehicles and will benefit from the quieter environment like residential units, cafes, or small shops.
Another key policy in need of reform is the current parking requirement. By scrapping a parking minimum and introducing a parking maximum instead we could reduce the number of available car parking, thus dissuading users from driving to these locations.