Friday, May 12, 2006

Lee Myung-bak: Here to save your Seoul!

Suggest an appropriate caption! Photo from Time.

The Marmot linked to this Time article, “Saving Seoul”, about Lee Myung-bak and the environmentally friendly changes that have occurred during his tenure as mayor. It was nice to see that Time basically rewrote this Sept. 2005 Korea IT Times article.

On top of that, they didn’t see fit to mention that Lee is likely to run for president in the next election (instead of “Saving Seoul”, their next article about him may be titled “Saving Korea”). I have to say, I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking into the Cheonggyecheon project, the new town project, and several other topics related to these, but I amassed so much information (and found other topics to write about in the meantime), that I just haven’t gotten around to starting to write about these projects yet. Consider this a dry run, as I comment upon a few aspects of this article.
Seoul—a city long synonymous with unchecked urban development, where Parks were more commonly found in the phone book than on the streets—is growing green. Besides the restored Cheonggyecheon, which opened last October, the city has helped plant some 3.3 million trees since 1998 and recently developed Seoul Forest, a $224 million patch of urban woodland comparable to London's Hyde Park.
Hyde Park? Wherever did Time get such a comparison? Perhaps from the Seoul city website?
Seoul’s so called Hyde Park, "Seoul Forest" will open on June 18 after 2 years and 5 months of construction.
The aforementioned IT Times article mentioned that the
Ddukseom area, where there had been a golf course and a horse-racing course in the past, could have generated profits of about 4 trillion won if it were developed into a residential area by building apartments or commercial buildings. But we judged that it will be far more meaningful for our citizens and descendants to make it a green zone instead of a residential or commercial area.
Just to compare, this is how the Hankyoreh put it:
It was not constructed unilaterally at the hands of the city government. The body behind Seoul Forest's construction is Seoul Green Trust, an organization that his half-government and half-private. Accepting the citizen demands for more green areas, the city gave 350,000 pyeong in land, and private citizens then sought corporate participation and organized volunteers to build the forest
I have to admit, I haven’t made my way over to Seoul Forest yet, but am a little curious about a park that won’t allow people to walk around in the forest, instead channeling them through it upon elevated walkways. Still, it’s better than another apartment complex. The Time article continues:
And when soccer-crazed Seoulites gather by the thousands in front of City Hall this summer to cheer South Korea's performance in the World Cup, as they did in 2002, they'll be celebrating on a neatly trimmed lawn called Seoul Plaza.
It’s handy that Seoul Plaza, with all of its festivals, concerts, the ice skating rink in winter, and the fountains for children to play in during the summer, is directly in front of City Hall. No one is going to say that replacing asphalt with grass is a bad thing, but the location of this popular spot basically provides a constant reminder that all of this was “brought to you by City Hall", and by association, the mayor – who has made no secret of his presidential ambitions. I tried to pass in front of City Hall the night after Cheonggyecheon opened, and was surprised at the crowds in front of its front door – until I saw the mayor a few meters from me, shaking hands and walking around with a grin that was impossible to miss.
Cheonggyecheon, which means "clear valley stream," has been a mirror of Seoul since the nation's capital was first moved there in 1394. During Chosun times, Cheonggyecheon was a prime site for laundry, gossip and kids at play, and as early as 1760 the government began landscaping it, employing 200,000 men to build stone embankments along the stream to prevent floods. As Seoul expanded, the water grew foul, becoming little more than an open sewer after the Korean War, when refugees built shantytowns along its banks.
I can’t help but chuckle and remember Horace G. Underwood, giving a talk for the Royal Asiatic Society a few years ago (shortly before he passed on), saying “It was never a clean stream.” The “open sewer” aspect of it predates the Korean War by quite a bit. Isabella Bird Bishop wrote of it during her first visit to Seoul in 1894:
One of the “sights” of Seoul is the stream or drain or watercourse, a wide, walled, open conduit, along which a dark-colored festering stream slowly drags its malodorous length, among manure and refuse heaps which cover up most of what was once its shingly bed.
Even back in the early days of the Chosun dynasty, a decision was made to treat the stream (and all of its smaller streams flowing into it) as a means by which to flush the waste out of the city – in other words, as a sewer. The 'restored' stream has not been restored to its previous function at all, but instead has been recreated in a very idealized form. It may have been so idealized, in fact, that the city, in its hurry to finish the project, cared little about the numerous cultural properties they found as they excavated the stream - until a citizens' group filed a complaint. 'Development at any cost' may not be such a relic of the past - just look at Saemangeum.
After South Korea's development kicked into gear, authorities were quick to hide the stream with the highway, a symbol of Seoul's rush to modernize regardless of the environmental cost. "Under the highway, the area was filthy, and population and business decreased," says Seoul Vice-Mayor Chong Seok Hyo, who led the stream project in its later stages. "There was a need to change the environment totally."
This vice mayor seems to be forgetting the business of the well-known markets and street vendors that existed in this area prior to the redevelopment. I guess that’s the easiest way to sidestep the images of riot police sweeping them off the street and sticking them in the middle of Dongdaemun stadium, where they do a fraction of the business they used to.
There's also mounting skepticism about the assumption that clean, attractive environs come at the cost of economic performance—a belief still widely held even in advanced Asian cities like Hong Kong. "If we don't place an emphasis on environmental friendliness, not only will citizens leave the city, but foreign investors won't choose Seoul," says Mayor Lee. "I believe that over the long term, choosing the environment serves a dual purpose."
The mayor may perhaps be a little disingenuous when he suggests that he is in fact choosing environmental friendliness first, and the image of the city and its attractiveness to foreign investors second. There are numerous plans to develop the Cheonggyecheon area in order to make the northern part of the city more competitive with Gangnam (Not for nothing did vice mayor Yang Yoon-jae accept some hefty bribes in order to change height restrictions in the Cheonggyecheon area so developers could squeeze a little more profit out of the property.)

Beyond a number of smaller projects and scheduled demolitions are some much larger projects, such as the Sewoon redevelopment project, which will see four large blocks in front of Jongmyo Shrine razed and rebuilt. The plan below was taken from the website of Koetter Kim & Associates, who won the contract. A few more photos can be found at their site.

The Sewoon development is separate from Lee Myung Bak’s new town project, which will see some 24 square kilometers of the city rebuilt. The location of the new towns can be seen below. Two new towns, Wangshimni and Changshin, will be built adjacent to parts of Cheonggyecheon.

I cobbled this map together quite some time ago, and it really needs to be labeled, but it will do for now. There are a few other non-new town developments there as well – two in Bucheon, which aren’t really related; the path of the new subway line 9 (which seems to have affected the choice of some of the new town areas); and the planned R&D town to be built in Magok-dong, near Kimpo Airport. Development in Magok (pictured below, with Kimpo Airport in the background) was first announced during Kim Young-sam's presidency.

The article does provide a bit of balance, however:
Some deride Cheonggyecheon as a developer's artificial idea of what urban ecology should be. "Environmentalists like to call it the 'fish tank,'" says Lee Cheol Jae, a water expert at the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, who says it will cost nearly $2 million a year to pump water into Cheonggyecheon, which is often dry on its own. "It's a fish tank that cost 360 billion won." Over tea in Insadong, the cheery, traditional shopping district near downtown Seoul that she helped plan, architect Kim Jin Ai makes the case that Cheonggyecheon is just fast-track overdevelopment by another name. "In the 1970s and '80s, Mayor Lee put up huge developments, and he never really came out of that mindset," she says. "I think he made a very artificial stream."

Lee doesn't dispute that Cheonggyecheon is artificial, but he believes that the stream's real value is as a symbol of the direction in which Seoul is headed. "We've made people realize that quality of life is important," he says. "We've set a new standard not just for Seoul, but for Korea." It's a standard that the rest of Asia can learn from, as its cities slowly wake up to the costs of development. Kim Won Bae of KRIHS tells the story of visiting Shanghai and meeting a Chinese urban planner who had a burning question: how many 100-m-high or taller buildings did Seoul have? "I asked her why she asked that," he says. "She was still in the age of triumphalism. Seoul was once in that period as well, but we have passed it."

When there are plans to build half a dozen buildings taller than 100 floors by 2010, (when the tallest building in Korea at the moment is only 73 floors) I have to seriously question that assertion.


Danger Mouse said...

Excellent post. Please blog more often.
By the way, are you, by any chance, the Matt who wrote about the Bubble Sisters for the Korea Herald?

Andrew Baxter said...


I guess we all knew that the Magok Dong thing was going to happen eventually, there have been all manner of surveying machinery, pre construction gear etc at that site for at least the last couple of years, and I've heard so many rumours about what was going to happen there, from a new town project to a university etc etc.
The only thing I can say is, that a research and development IT area is much better than a monsterously grotesque new apartment complex, maybe marginally, but nonetheless better. It's ashame that they couldn't keep it like it was, Gangseo-Gu was once a really unique area in Seoul for it's reasoanbly adequate green belt. But that's life, these things have happened all over the world, in fact the same thing is panning out in various outer areas of Sydney (which has a hell of a lot more land with a hell of a lot less population than Seoul). It will be interesting to see if the locals of Balsan, Banghwa, Gaehwasan, Gayang Dong etc get out to protest this development? Or maybe they'll be bribed by the developers, "if you keep your mouths shut there'll be a job here guarding at night for your uncles, cleaning for your aunties and little Min-Sok can come and work here when he graduates". We'll see I guess.
Great posting anyway mate, with particular interest to my own selfish interests, especially my office tel. not five minutes drive away from there.

matt said...

danger mouse -

No, I'm not Matt Hodges. I hadn't read that article (here) before; it's well worth a read (the metropolitician has written about the Bubble Sisters several times too).

Andrew -

I'd forgotten that the news about Magok came out just after you left. The equipment out there has been for the subway construction (which is a lot easier to carry out in an open field than in the middle of the city). I would imagine (or hope) most farmers will be well-enough compensated, but if they're not perhaps some grumbling will be heard. I know people living in the New Town area in Banghwa who are mostly resigned to having to leave (they own their houses). Whether they'll be able to easily reserve spaces in the new apartments I have no idea.

There's a sign at the Magok Badminton area that says in Korean "Gangseo's Land of Hope, the Magok Development", which always gives me a chuckle whenever I see it.

One of my students has an apartment in Yeomchang-dong (east of Gayang-dong), the value of which has started going up recently (likely in anticipation of the new subway completion). It's quite close to where your officetel is...

Antti said...

So it was you who had searched for "Cheonggyecheon" at my site ;) Nice to have been of help. BTW, has the work (pulling down) on the 3-1 Apartments in Hwanghak-dong already begun or are they still standing there?

matt said...

Antti - I'm not sure. I didn't actually know about them until you mentioned them. I was shocked by the condition they're in (photos here and here) and by that bombed-out looking area south of the easternmost apartments (which shows up on the (circa 2001) Google Earth satellite photo).

This photo I took back in August would seem to indicate that the apartments on the south side of Cheonggyecheon are missing a few floors (!), while those on the north side are still intact. There finally seems to be some construction (on the right) in that space which was open for so long.

I'll try to make my way over there next weekend to see what's going on right now (the fact that there's a great Indian restaurant nearby will make it an even more worthwhile trip).