By Jeff Chase
Cities are like canvases. These urban canvases are always being painted and repainted by their residents, rising and setting, responding to change. Like the canvas, the ephemeral nature of the city presents remarkable opportunities for the bright, inclusive, peaceful, and just cities that we hope for. The city is peppered with places that are continuously creating meaning, purpose, and collective memory. Shared urban environments, regardless of their permanence, are always evolving, and have a profound impact on how we approach urban planning.
My bags were packed with theories of urban planning and the naivety of my own world view when I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2011, with the intention of undertaking a year-and-a-half long doctoral research project on how urban planning could respond to urban violence. I was interested in the role that the bricks and mortar of the city played in post-conflict reconstruction and city (re)building. I had spent many months designing processes, thinking through planning theories, reflecting on the dynamics of culture, power, and privilege at play in my work, trying to learn the Khmer language, and reading about Cambodia’s recent history. I arrived in the capital city, and quickly moved to connect with the planners, architects, politicians, and other stakeholders who had recently drafted Phnom Penh’s master plan. I asked questions about the city’s complex history, about the American bombing campaign of the early 1970s, and about its evacuation in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge emptied it virtually overnight, sending its more than one million residents to forced work camps in Cambodia’s killing fields. I asked about the tangible changes in the city after the genocide. In each interview, I heard that my research was irrelevant. While Cambodia was still struggling with its recent history, it became clear that the brutal legacies of historical violence were widely thought to be beyond the purview of urban planning.
One evening, several months after I arrived, I sat on the concrete steps of the city’s main sports stadium. Known as the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium, it is one of the few free and accessible public spaces in the city. On a near daily basis, I would visit the stadium to take in the sunset and watch the thousands of people who would come every evening around the same time. It was during one of these visits that a young man approached me,\ introducing himself as Vith. Vith was curious about what I was doing, and when I explained my research interests, he eagerly began telling me stories about the history of the stadium. Built during the 1950s in Cambodia’s “Golden Era” of rapid modernization and westernization, and subsequently used by the Khmer Rouge as a site of military training and execution in the late 1970s, Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium was now a fleeting, improvised, and treasured public space. For Vith, the stadium was a connection to a simultaneously glorious and terrible past which he knew only through stories. It was also a visible reminder of his trepidation for the future of his city. My conversations with Vith challenged what I had heard in earlier interviews, articulating the significance of place in thinking about the past, present, and future of Phnom Penh.
The urban history of the stadium was inspiring, and it soon became the center of my own journey to an encounter with place. I turned to the stadium as a case-study, a living museum upon which memory had been written and was constantly being re-written. I learned a great deal from people at the stadium, who told me their stories of great happiness and great pain, of hope and fear, of the past and the future. Residents recounted the long march out of the city and past the stadium in April 1975, when Pol Pot seized control of the capital. I heard of people participating in the stadium’s opening ceremonies in 1963 with a sense of nostalgia for the past. I also heard of new friendships formed at the stadium, and of the networks of social capital it enabled and perpetuated. Some stories were about the future — stories about the anxiety towards the future of public space in a rapidly neoliberalizing and globalizing city, where construction cranes loomed and an ultra corrupt government ran rampant. Some stories were short glimpses, while others were wandering odysseys.
In each story, the stadium was something different. An urban palimpsest of sorts, the concrete and rebar of this space ignited stories, memories, and hopes for the future of the city. As it turned out, these stories didn’t fit within a tidy box of urban planning theory, and they certainly weren’t written into a city plan or official policy. Phnom Penh is not static. No city is. Even a formidable structure like a stadium is in flux, intersected by the myriad narratives, experiences, and memories that define it. In other words, place is more than the bricks and mortar of built environment. Place is relational and fluid, continually made and remade through contingent networks of power and people. These places are constantly defining the ephemeral city.
Only through speaking with residents did I begin to get a sense of Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium as a uniquely meaningful and contested place in the city. My conversations unsettled the view of the stadium as simply a physical setting or space and, in so doing, challenged static conceptions of place within a framework of urban planning. It was not only that stories enabled local residents to better inform me about the history and meaning of Olympic Stadium, but that these stories and experiences were themselves part of the continual making of place. This contestation brought to surface my troubles with the staticity of the master plan on which I had initially hoped to hang my work.
With this understanding in mind, “place” in Phnom Penh was and is alive, and at the same time fleeting. When place as a concept is explored as something living, it presents a lens through which to (re)consider places within our cities and towns in a continuous state of flux. The shift in my research from a focus on formalized planning concerns to a focus on placemaking through stories and experiences, contributes to a broader discussion being had by planners in cities around the world. How might we begin to integrate more relational and fluid understandings of place into urban planning practice? Planning cities in ways that embrace deep complexity and change is no easy task, especially given the persistence of modernist, rational comprehensive planning legacies. While there has been progress made towards participatory planning, popular consultation and community engagement processes often fail to get at the deep and contested histories, experiences, and memories that inscribe place and our cities.
In reflecting on a relational view of place, I encourage planners to consider placemaking and place-fostering (for lack of a better word) as themselves political and historical processes that extend far beyond any defined planning process. Place is not a blank slate, but rather is imbued with intersecting and often divergent meanings. Instead of trying to diminish complexity and sidestep contestation, planners would do well to embrace complexity and contestation as fundamental starting points towards developing more socially robust engagements with place. In the Canadian context, this means, for one, attending to the continued legacies of colonialism as they are continually played out across the urban landscape. Unsettling our static conceptions of place presents an opportunity to re-think the landscape of the city and consider the histories and stories that we celebrate, and those we silence.
Changing the way we see place from something inked in permanence by planners to something living and changing forces us to honour and reflect on the complexities of multiple meanings, realities, and histories. Doing so presents all sorts of new opportunities for the canvases we paint together.
Jeff Chase is trained as an urban planner, with a PhD in Politics and Human Geography. Previously senior planner for CITYlab, City of Edmonton, civic co-chair for Edmonton’s Next Gen committee, and as a senior policy advisor to Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary, Alberta. He is returning to the City of Edmonton to serve as Senior Planner to lead infill work.