The typical image of a “safe street” might conjure an image of a tranquil street lined by high fences protecting houses, not unlike some of the more sought-after gated communities, or borey, in and around Phnom Penh.
Yet numerous studies and real-world examples show that quiet or inactive streets are not the pinnacle of safety that we would otherwise expect them to be. Instead, it’s busy streets that signify not only safe neighbourhoods, but socially, mentally and economically positive ones.
Phnom Penh already has many active streets and public spaces, but the right formula can ensure that every street and public space is as safe as possible.
“Eyes on the street”
The renowned urbanist and writer Jane Jacobs was one of the first thinkers to popularise the concept of the lively street as an instrument of public safety.
According to Jacobs, a safe street has several main characteristics. Among these characteristics is the idea of “eyes on the street,” a phrase Jacobs coined in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a way to visualise the idea that a lively street is one that has people who watch over it.
Her solution for a safe street was to have streets watched over by residents, pedestrians, and street vendors using the street. In order for occupants to see the street, Jacobs suggested that buildings must face the streets with plenty of “permeable” surfaces, such as windows and doors. This system of street watching deters crime while assuring street users that it is safe for walking.
It should be noted that crime is still possible on a busy street or in a busy place such as a market. Pickpockets and purse-grabbers may still find a chance to hit their marks but with only one shout from the victims, everyone within the vicinity is alerted and ready to help the victims. Compare that to a deserted street where chances of getting help are slim.
In the recent case of a street robbery in the capital’s Por Senchey district, the thieves preyed on a victim leaving their home but were soon intercepted by bystanders and handed over to the police. And in another case in the city’s Sen Sok district, a purse snatcher was similarly nabbed by people in the vicinity. For both of these examples, simply having these “eyes on the street” helped create the means to stop crime immediately as it happened.
Reducing violent crime by livening up a desolate street
A case study from the city of Dallas, Texas, can illustrate the public security impact that transforming a desolate stretch of street into a bustling public space can have.
Malcolm X plaza was once an area surrounded by vacant lots and bad sidewalks.
These desolate streets were one of the most dangerous areas in the city. Before an initiative revamped the plaza in 2019, violent gun crime was 564 times more likely to happen there than anywhere else in southeastern Dallas.
In 2021 and 2022, a local non-profit, Child Poverty Action Lab, teamed up with the nonprofit Better Block Foundation to target and “activate” an empty lot in the neighbourhood. The lot went from being empty and vacant to hosting events ranging from Friday movie nights to Saturday basketball tournaments. By turning this empty stretch of property into a lively gathering space, the initiative produced real results in terms of public safety without any increase in traditional policing.
Data gathered by Better Block following these interventions found that keeping streets lively with neighbours engaged led to reductions in crime. Violent crime fell by 59% compared with 2019, with a 20% decrease in arrests. In total, this area, which had been the highest-risk neighbourhood in the police department’s patrol division, dropped to 463rd on that same ranked list.
Malcolm X Plaza shows how the space of lives and activities can be the key to a safer street. As in the words of Jacobs: “A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street”.
These efforts to improve street safety through busier and livelier streets can be similarly explored in Southeast Asia.
In Cambodia, a culture of bustling streets
Phnom Penh has several factors in its favour when it comes to street liveliness.
Lively streets are already the norm in many parts of the city. On the streets that run alongside the bustling Orussey Market, people come and go throughout the day to shop at the fish and vegetable vendors which border the roads. Amidst the alleyways nearby, outdoor eateries attract regular customers and passers-by to come for breakfast, lunch, afternoon coffee and more.
The spontaneous and vibrant nature of this type of Phnom Penh street is often overlooked or even regarded as a negative characteristic. This has bubbled up in instances when officials sweep street vendors from their locations for public order reasons, or label such vendors as the reason for traffic congestion. While some Phnom Penh residents may see these kinds of streets as too loud or too bustling, these lively areas are key commercial areas, where the bustle of daily life attracts even more people.
The use of these streets for commerce is one factor in making them lively, but another lies in the buildings that run beside them. Of these, perhaps none are more conducive to life than the shophouse. These ubiquitous structures are row-homes with the ground floor being often a shop or business while the upper level is mainly used as a residence.
Shophouses have long been the most common building typology in Phnom Penh and are an ideal configuration for the “eyes on the street” dynamic while ensuring the vibrancy of mixed-use neighbourhoods.
The capital already has these built-in features keeping streets lively. But there are also several factors Phnom Penh leaders should prioritise for improvement, to better ensure more active and therefore more secure streets.
Room for improvement
The first impediment standing in the way of livelier Phnom Penh streets is the lack of usable sidewalks.
This is because they’re often occupied by businesses extending their storefront, or otherwise for parking for motorbikes and cars. The most misunderstood aspect of Cambodian streets is that sidewalks are a private space – in reality, they are within the public realm.
This leads to the privatisation of these pavements that would lead to an inactive street.
Viewed from this perspective, our lack of sidewalks isn’t just a mobility problem, it’s also a public safety problem. Streets that only experience fast-moving vehicles through traffic and no slower-moving foot traffic are bound to feel less safe.
If Phnom Penh is to incentivise foot traffic, however, another critical point would need to be addressed. In a city where, for parts of the year, the temperatures soar into the high 30s or even low 40s Celsius, more shade coverage is necessary to keep people in the streets.
Phnom Penh must also be intentional about avoiding some of the most worrisome causes of street inactivity. One of these factors is the proliferation of empty lots and abandoned, half-completed construction projects. For a cautionary tale that spells out the negative impacts of this urban issue, look no further than the city of Sihanoukville, where hundreds of half-finished buildings have contributed to criminality and other public safety and public health issues.
Sihanoukville was popular in its casino and hospitality industry by Chinese investors. But after the ban on online gambling and the subsequent Covid-19 pandemic, many of the buildings became abandoned, leading to a deteriorating and unsafe look of the city.
For Phnom Penh’s existing empty lots, it would be wise to take inspiration from a place like Odom Garden, which repurposed a large lot which otherwise would have sat vacant for several months until construction on the land began. Instead, the lot was converted into a temporary public green space or “pop-up” with a liveliness augmented by commercial activities.
Pop-up gardens such as this one, which make use of an empty or unused space even just temporarily, should be an experimental ground for planners and designers to see what works and what doesn’t.
Healthy arteries for a healthy public
While safety is an obvious byproduct of lively streets, it’s also important to note the less tangible impacts.
When residents feel a strong social bond with one another, they are better able to create lively streets and lively neighbourhoods. But the causal relationship also runs in the opposite direction.
In one research paper on the “Busy Street Theory”, the authors note: “Neighbourhoods where residents feel safe and comfortable being outside are typically characterised by socially active streets. Furthermore, positive street activity promotes socialising between neighbours, enhances monitoring of neighbourhood activity, promotes patronage to local businesses, and helps to maintain the existing infrastructure.”
If activities within the neighbourhood foster informal interaction, residents are more likely to be able to connect with one another. For example, parents accompanying their children to a playground within a pop-up garden in their neighbourhood may deepen their ties simply through that regular proximity and the ease of conversation that it creates.
The liveliness and messiness of Phnom Penh is not something that we should seek to get rid of. Rather, it is at the heart of what makes our streets and city safe.
Prak Norak is a Future Forum junior research fellow and an architecture student currently studying at Pannasastra University. His interests are art and small-space architecture, where man-made buildings harmonize with nature