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Cambodia's rapid growth outpaces urban development

Smile Village's Khmer-style houses (Photo by Peter Guest)

PHNOM PENH -- The Dangkor dumpsite, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, is ringed by small settlements of stilt houses, covered in salvaged plastic sheeting and squatting above stagnant floodwater. Cardboard has been flattened into sheets to dry along the roadside. The dump has been covered with earth, ready for closure, but scavengers have dug through, exposing veins of trash.

It was from a settlement like this that Ngeal Sophal moved in March 2015. Now she lives with her husband and seven of her eight children in one of 48 colorful Khmer-style houses that make up Smile Village, a social housing project operated by a French nongovernmental organization, Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (For a Child's Smile), in collaboration with a Singaporean partner, Solutions to End Poverty (STEP).

The difference in the environment is huge. "Here, there's fresh air," she said, standing in front of the barber's chair that one of her sons has set up to service the estate's residents and the surrounding area. "There, there was none."

Ngeal Sophal, who moved from a slum to Smile Village in 2015 (Photo by Peter Guest)

In the background, workmen are building a new workshop for woodworking, sewing and weaving, and space has been cleared for a nursery for fruit trees. At the core of Smile Village's design is an attempt to integrate economic activities and employment into social housing, giving residents a springboard out of poverty and an opportunity to break into the overheated and expensive private residential sector.

Like many of Southeast Asia's cities, Phnom Penh is in the grip of a housing crisis. The latest United Nations data show that Cambodia's urban population expanded from 1.9 million people in 1995 to 3.2 million in 2015. Phnom Penh absorbed much of that growth, accommodating an additional 900,000 people, and more than doubling in population over two decades. The physical size of Cambodian cities expanded by more than 4% per year between 2000 and 2010, according to the World Bank. In Asia, only Laotian cities grew faster.

"Asia is urbanizing very quickly. Governments maybe look at the case of China, where they really used urbanization as a tool of generating economic growth," said Matthias Helble, a research economist and housing specialist at the Asian Development Bank in Tokyo.

"But of course, it's not so easy to say 'we're going to urbanize and we're going to grow,' because you also need to provide adequate and affordable housing for your citizens," said Helble. "There are a lot of challenges to make sure that the lower and middle income groups actually have access to housing."

Fringe dwellers

The breakneck speed of urban growth, measured in gleaming towers and snarled traffic, has outpaced the ability of local and national governments to build infrastructure, leaving many people on the fringes of the region's development. Across Cambodia, 55% of the urban population lives in slums.

Slum housing near the Dangkor dumpsite, Phnom Penh (Photo by Peter Guest)

In Phnom Penh, private developments are rising out of the earth along all the main traffic arteries, which are clogged with dust from construction sites. With international names like The Gateway and Times Centre, many are pre-packaged for foreign ownership, and developers from Japan, South Korea and Singapore are behind several of the more stylish condominium blocks.

Away from the city center, with its condos and wats, or temples, clustered along the banks of the Mekong river, the bamboo and concrete skeletons of low-rise housing estates are emerging. But even relatively modest units can sell for $100,000 -- more if they are near a main road -- putting them far out of the reach of most people in Cambodia, where gross domestic product per capita is just over $1,000. All the developments are privately owned; there is no state-funded social housing in Phnom Penh.

Here, as in other fast growing Asian cities, the rising value of land has put huge pressure on informal settlements and squats, driving evictions and deepening the challenges of inequality and urban poverty. Even living in a slum is expensive, with residents often paying rent to landowners, financed by debts from private micro-lending institutions or loan sharks.

Many of the families rehoused at Smile Village have brought their debts with them. "Come here at 2 p.m.," said Sry Chanratha, managing director of STEP in Cambodia, "and you'll see the micro-finance people arrive to collect their interest."

As the supply and use of land is controlled by governments, the public sector has enormous influence on the affordable housing sector, said Helble. But the lure of easy private sector money can be strong. "It is a delicate balance to strike between public and private sector interventions," he said. "However, I believe that today governments in many low and lower-middle income countries rely excessively on the market."

Urban planners and municipal governments need to find ways of building affordable, accessible housing that does not exacerbate inequality or hinder social mobility. The NGOs do not see their Smile Village project as a permanent shelter for the families who are there.

Smile Village residents work at a rug-making social enterprise (Photo by Peter Guest)

The peppercorn rents that they pay toward the upkeep of the properties rises as their income increases, and they will be encouraged to move on to private housing once they can afford it. The houses are arranged around a children's playground and a community center. An elected committee oversees maintenance and security, and the profits from the small enterprises are shared.

The objective is to ensure that residents have a sense of ownership over the village, said Mao Ye, project manager for Pour un Sourire d'Enfant. Many have lived for more than a decade in slums and are used to a more transient, less responsible style of living. Previous projects, which have focused on providing shelter, have failed to deliver lasting social benefits.

"We don't just want to build a better slum," said Mao. "We want to build a community."

At Smile Village, that has meant building enterprise elements and social infrastructure into the master plan, which was overseen by architect Prasoon Kumar at billionBricks, a Singapore-based social design company. "Typically, when housing is done for people in slums, designers and architects go into the slums and look for how people live there," he said. "We went into the villages where people had come from, to see what were their lifestyles before they moved."

Kumar, 40, quit his commercial architecture practice in 2013 to launch billionBricks, in response to what he saw as a crippling lack of competition in the design and construction of social housing. He is an outspoken critic of the quality of many NGO-funded housing projects, which he said have tended to focus on providing the maximum volume of units for the minimum price. His company now works exclusively on social housing projects across South and Southeast Asia.

Whether it is London or Phnom Penh, cities all make the same mistakes during their boom years, Kumar said, adding that the Cambodian capital, which is still at an early stage of its development journey, has a better opportunity than most to get it right.

"But," he said, "I think the politics and the economics may not allow it." New private developments are already lining up around Smile Village. "Private housing can't provide homes for everyone," said Kumar. "There will always be people who don't fit into the financial and business model."

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