Opinion: Placemaking Possibilities Are Endless if Riverside Is Transformed

Traffic on the Phnom Penh riverside in 2022. (Chanrith Natvathnak/Future Forum)
Traffic on the Phnom Penh riverside in 2022. (Chanrith Natvathnak/Future Forum)

The process of pedestrianizing Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay has the potential to eliminate four lanes of fast-flowing motorized traffic and hand that space over to human-centric use. What all this space would become leads to critical questions: What would this space look like? What would this place feel like to visit? And, perhaps most importantly, how would people decide to use this space?

The urban planning school of thought which concerns itself with these important questions is called “placemaking.”

The overall goal of placemaking is to shape a built urban environment so that it facilitates social interactions and improves the quality of life for communities. The placemaking movement, which combines urban planning, architecture and design, as well as community organizing, was sparked as a reaction against trends of top-down car-centric planning and a lack of human-centric public spaces in cities around the world.

As we explore the logistics, the economics and other benefits of a pedestrianized and revitalized Sisowath Quay, it’s useful to consider what placemaking as a school of thought and placemaking as a practical mode of design can bring to this space.

(Ses Aronsakda)
(Ses Aronsakda)

Learning from New York City’s Corona Plaza

One case that illustrates the principles, process, and benefits of placemaking particularly well is Corona Plaza in the borough of Queens in New York City, an area identified as a neighborhood lacking public space.

Corona Plaza, which was created out of a former service road, began in 2012 as just a paved triangle of ground in a bustling neighborhood. Planners added temporary features — planter boxes, sun umbrellas and movable furniture — that allowed people to congregate and meet.

What’s noteworthy about the temporary set-up is that it allowed architects and the people in the neighborhood to see how people wanted to interact with and use this space. This illustrates a critical aspect of placemaking, that the process itself can be just as important as the outcome. Ideally, a placemaking process would prioritize designing with a community, rather than for a community.

In the case of Corona Plaza, community feedback to designers uncovered information that otherwise might have been missed. The feedback, for example, included requests for a baby changing station, more shade, and seating facing multiple directions.

In 2017, five years after work first began on the Plaza, permanent features were built, and in terms of use and improved value to both the residential and business community, they were a huge success.

It’s a place that’s become central not just for those who enjoy the space for recreation, but it’s also become vital to the local economy. As many as 89 vendors regularly sell food and goods inside the 1,200-square-meter plaza and along adjacent streets, and this economic activity was cited as a crucial factor in keeping the community resilient during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S. found that with placemaking efforts like Corona Plaza, places can grow out of the needs and behaviors of their communities — but, likewise, places can also shape the way these communities behave and grow.

How would placemaking efforts shape life along Sisowath Quay and beyond? 

Placemaking Along Phnom Penh’s Riverside

Given its popularity, Preah Sisowath Quay is an example of a public space that promotes the connection between urban spaces and residents. Despite the intrusion from vehicle traffic, the urban landscape along the riverside is well utilized and longs for a transformation to reach its full potential.

Removing the vehicle traffic entirely could open up even more opportunities for the riverside to become a center of tranquility and well-being. Pedestrianizing the area can enhance its sense of belonging for local residents, making it easier for them to establish social bonds with neighbors and visitors alike and allowing cultural identity to be proudly displayed.

For placemaking to be successful, the riverside must focus first and foremost on human-centered design, human scale, social interactions, and inclusion. Research by Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit dedicated to placemaking in public spaces, found that placemaking efforts are most successful when they manage to succeed in a strategy they call the “power of 10+.” The case study evaluating this theory studied public spaces in New York City, Melbourne and elsewhere.

The idea behind this concept is that places thrive when users and communities have a range of reasons to be there — ideally, at least 10 of them. These reasons might include: a place to sit, playgrounds to enjoy, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience, and people to meet. If we look at the riverside area, it is a perfect place to implement the 10+ concept as there are already vibrant local spots that create or attract activities beneficial to the site. 

The Phnom Penh riverside in 2022. (Chanrith Natvathnak/Future Forum)
The Phnom Penh riverside in 2022. (Chanrith Natvathnak/Future Forum)

The wider riverside area offers local markets like Phsar Kandal, artistic and cultural areas including the Royal Palace, National Museum and art galleries. In addition to that, there are also monasteries including Wat Ounalom, Saravoan Pagoda, and Wat Botum. The riverside also offers obvious modes of recreation and exercise — cyclists, roller-skaters, badminton players and more already congregate there.

Implementing the 10+ model of placemaking along the riverside would simply mean building upon the reasons people already flock there, and enhancing those features. And in order for Phnom Penh to stay true to the ideals of placemaking, local residents must be able to give their input on which of these activities to prioritize, and in what way.

But it’s clear that the possibilities are endless. Building on the spiritual side of Sisowath Quay, for instance, might mean inserting a meditative garden that local religious and spiritual practitioners are able to access at any time of the day.

Building on the physical beauty of the riverside might mean placing viewpoints along the riverside to extend the opportunity for visitors to get spectacular views of the surroundings. Building on the physical activity side of Riverside might mean expanding the areas where users can jog and run.

Building upon the commercial side of the space might mean installing comfortable eating areas so that local vendors and customers can easily access one another. And building upon the cultural side of Sisowath Quay might mean creating temporary spaces for art shows for locals and tourists to keep the riverside active and lively.

One feature that is sure to set riverside apart and define it as a space would be to build upon the area’s connection to history.

Building on Sisowath Quay’s History

The name Chaktomuk refers to the confluence of the Mekong River’s four branches, located in the heart of Cambodia. Consequently, it is an area of historical importance with multiple points of interest that make the locale fascinating.

Historical buildings that could be turned into galleries and museums, such as the Renakse hotel, are a prime example. The iconic hotel sits empty at the moment opposite the Royal Palace on the waterfront at the Tonle Sap and Mekong junction. A placemaking effort along the riverside could see this particular building offer huge value to the local community.

A key philosophy behind placemaking is that places are intrinsically linked to the cultural values of the communities they serve. Enhancing and highlighting the historical buildings and cultural landmarks along the riverside ensures visitors linger and deliberately engage with monuments and activities.

Enhancing the use of street art displays along this part of the city could change the community’s narrative of the Phnom Penh quayside, could serve as aspirational beauty, or could help pedestrians navigate the city and keep the public space vibrant and alive.

High levels of cultural participation are a leading signal of a neighborhood’s regeneration, and can be critical in creating a positive attachment between people and the space. One example in the region is Hoi An in Vietnam, the Unesco world heritage center where people-centric spaces and historical environments have been melded together.

Historical buildings in Hoi An have been preserved through the collective effort of turning the area into a cultural heritage, so that the communities within the area can be used for economic activities. Communities are able to build reliable pedestrian traffic patterns along underutilized corridors by grouping together various sorts of art spaces. As the public shops and eats on these routes, it improves public engagement and stimulates the local economy.

In the case of Sisowath Quay, culture and the arts can be used as a vehicle for economic growth, but also for regeneration, integration, and inclusiveness. The distinctive and attractive riverside walkway can draw attention and can help to reinvent a city’s narrative and put it all on show.

The way local residents and tourists alike experience the riverside can be significantly altered through the efforts of placemaking. The Phnom Penh quayside is a good example to showcase the transformation of tactical urbanism by highlighting the potential of these types of functional public spaces.

The importance of public spaces for quality of life cannot be understated. Therefore, Phnom Penh must encourage more inclusive and more human-focused approaches in the design of these types of spaces. If an investment is made in the placemaking of quayside public space, this could be the site of even more meaningful human exchange and interaction.

Future Forum is presenting an urban design exhibition, “Preah Sisowath Quay: Riverside Heritage Walk,” from December 18-24 at the Friends Future Factory on Street 13.

Keth Piseth is a junior research fellow at Future Forum. A graduate of architecture and urbanism, he works for a sustainable urban community project in Phnom Penh. His interests range from sustainable and human-scale design to urban design and planning.

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