Resilient urban development against the backdrop of large-scale transitions, Srei Sophon, Cambodia
This studio is linked to a larger collaborative project in which the Faculty of Architecture works together with several Cambodian Universities, research institutes and the city of Srei Sophon.
The project is coordinated by dr. Koen De Wandeler and dr. Caroline Newton
Academic year 2020-2021, semester 2, Ghent
Engagement: Urban Cultures
The city of Srei Sophon is going through major changes at the moment due to development plans
that are part of the national plans for infrastructure development and reconstruction as well as the
regional infrastructure plan that reaches Thailand. the city has witnessed a serious growth over the
last years, attracting new businesses and people. This growth can be attributed to several factors
such as the good location of the city and its connectivity with other major cities in Cambodia and its
close distance to Thailand.
During the term we aim to:
understand the complexities of urban growth in the context of rapid change and transition.
recognise the challenges to deal with these complexities through (architectural, urban, service,…)
propose spatial strategies to deal with these major challenges
More specifically we aim to develop spatial strategies that:
create a more resilient and diverse urban (rural) landscape and enhance the rural urban relations
raise awareness of the potentiality of local resources and cyclic systems
optimise the production and use of local resources
allow the development of systems for locally produced (green) energy
promote production and distribution of local food
stimulate sharing and collaboration in the communities
house people in an integrated way, not only provide a dwelling space, but a space that is
productive, inclusive and enables the empowerment of the community.
design individual architectural housing proposals. These can be either site specific or on a
Starting as a collective the students are expected to contribute to the overall strategic design. As
individuals they will then focus on specific design interventions whereby they illustrate the impact of
their intervention over time and in space.
We will work on different scales, from that of the city to that of the ‘architectural object’. Masterplans
will help to elaborate how resilient strategies and cyclic systems create urban form. Models and
drawings are instruments to imagine future urban alternatives and possibilities, they are arguments
that show opportunities and ways in which urbanites can activate them in order to realise their
A week to week planning will be available at the start of the studio.
1. On the group level: A strategic design will be presented in a format that is supportive to the
2. On an individual level: The design intervention will be presented in a format that is supportive to
the content. A model on a relevant scale is expected.
3. Each student will submit a booklet that brings together both the process, the research and the
outcomes of their work. The indesign format will be provided.
It is crucial that the output, the research and the sources used are referenced correctly to
enable a future use of the material.
All the material that will be produced will be shared and made available to all people
collaborating in the project and to the local municipality and the communities involved.
Cities in the Global South are coping with an unprecedented rate and pace of urbanisation.
Especially secondary cities face unseen challenges in terms of governance, resource management
and social and economic equity. Whilst they may have been of some importance as regional urban
centres, they tend to gain more importance as infrastructural and trading networks expand beyond
national borders. Local authorities often are ill-prepared to handle this situation: they either lack the
capacity, the material and financial resources or the institutional and regulatory framework to cope
with an exponential growth of urban populations and activities.
The environmental impact of unbridled urban growth is well documented. Efforts to limit the
ecological footprint of growing cities essentially revolves around the reducing the input of resources
and the output of waste. Almost 24 million people are involved in some sort of waste management
around the globe, 80% of them are waste pickers. World Bank research suggests that about 1% of
the urban population in developing countries are making a living out of waste picking and recycling
Three decades of advocacy on sustainability have demonstrated that a circular economy creates
various ways to avoid stretching scarce resources and handle value chains in cost-effective,
environmentally friendly, socially just and culturally validated ways. In line with this approach, this
Studio Project is designed to clarify the cornerstones of circular thinking, elaborate feasible scenarios
and offer concrete measures to implement a stepwise conversion of local economies. It explicitly
focuses on the spatial aspects of this conversion to help anchoring the activities in the everyday life
of all stakeholders and realising a truly circular city.
This approach is of particular relevance for Cambodia as it is, once again, in a time of transition.
Urbanisation is steadily progressing, but increasingly, cities will have to manage the challenges of
urban growth by themselves. Therefore, all knowledge that can be developed and shared with local
authorities will be useful to cope adequately with city-wide transformations.
RECENT HISTORY AND POLITICAL CONTEXT
At the turn of the 20th century Cambodia was part of French Indochina The French Protectorate
over Cambodia (1863-1953) was established in August 1863. At that time the territory of Cambodia
was only 100.000 square km and was inhabited by about 1 million people. Phnom Penh did not
count more than 25.000 inhabitants at that time (Vann Molyvann). Durin this period the French
organised the major cities according to the French notions of urban life. Phnom Penh became the
seat of government and home of the royal palace.
From the 1920s onwards Phnom Penh faced rapid modernisation and grew into a noteworthy city.
The French constructed vast boulevards, churches, hotels, and villas for the well-endowed.
When Cambodia became independent from France in 1953, Phnom Penh was further developed
and Prince Sihanouk stimulated the use modern urbanisation using ‘New Khmer Architecture’, a fusion of modern European architecture with traditional Angkor typologies and ornaments. (Turnbull
2007). He also initiated more expansive suburban development to accommodate small but rising
upper and middle classes. Phnom Penh expanded rapidly and doubled its inhabitants from 364800
in 1950 to 760000 in 1970.
Fig. 1: Map of Cambodia and location of Srei Sophon
Durin the 1960s comprehensive urban plans were developed and large scale public works initiated
A railway link between Phnom Penh, Battambang and further North ws introduced in 1936.
During the late sixties the first peasant uprisings paved the way for the establishment of the violent
Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot. This devastating civil war between 1970 and 1975 destabilised
the country. Pol Pot and his army took over the capital in 1975 after having “tortured the capital
almost continuously”, “inflicting random death and mutilation” on millions of civilians and reducing
the city to rubble (Barron and Anthony 1977). City dwellers were forced to move to the countryside
and work as agricultural labourers. Under the terror of the Pol Pot regime millions were tortured and
executed, those who could fled the country.
While Phnom Penh was home to more than 1 million people at the beginning of 1975, by April 1975
the city was literally emptied. Only a couple of hundred people were living in the capital during the
Khmer Rouge regime.
An invasion from neighbouring Vietnam ‘liberated’ the capital in 1978. Former residents together
with thousands of others, returned to Phnom Penh. Homes were occupied on a first-come, firstserve
basis (Barron and Anthony 1977). The Khmer rouge fled to the border regions. In 1981
elections are held, but the results never recognised by the international community. The government
in exile (former Khmer Rouge) keep their seat at the UN. In 1989 the Vietnamese withdraw from the
country. In 1991 a peace agreement is signed.
Fig 2: Successive Government in Cambodia since independence (Ross, 1990)
In 1992-93 the United Nation Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) is established. The UNTAC
aimed to restore peace and civil government after decades of civil war, and to hold free and fair
elections (September 1993) leading to a new constitution. It was the first occasion on which the UN
had taken over the administration of an independent state.