polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Unscripted Urban Street Life in Phnom Penh

by Min Li Chan

City life, though chaotic, is often one replete with rules — whether explicit laws or implicit norms about where to walk, how to drive, and where to engage in commercial activities or recreational pastimes. In many parts of the world, these rules are merely suggestions that can be rejected, embraced, reformulated or negotiated. A day-long ramble through the city of Phnom Penh offers up a plethora of such unscripted scenes:

Two locals manage a makeshift, single-cylinder gas stop by a busy corner, awaiting the patronage of motorbikes and auto-rickshaws.

At a bustling intersection, a flurry of activity surrounds a transient roadside purveyor of durian fruits, marked by a few plastic stools, baskets and cardboard mats. An electrician conducts repairs overhead.

Cutting across a steady stream of cars and auto-rickshaws at a roundabout, a local tradesman slowly balances a bicycle with the day's wares.

Tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood, men sit engrossed around an afternoon chess game under the shade of a large umbrella.

The setting sun by the city square marks the start of an outdoor public aerobics class, as a few enthusiastic young aerobics instructors pump up the volume on portable stereos.

Life in hypergrowth cities often does not follow a routine prescribed by the rules that local governments enact. These unscripted urban scenes remind us of the fallacy of waxing lyrical about the "intention" or "design thinking" behind urban projects, with no mention of how those urban solutions are ultimately used by the people for whom they were designed.

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