Saving Seoul

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Standing ankle-deep in the frigid waters of Seoul's reborn Cheonggyecheon stream, a blustery March wind whipping through his suit, Mayor Lee Myung Bak could be forgiven for reconsidering this whole environmentalism thing. As a young employee at Hyundai Construction and Engineering in the 1960s, Lee helped pave over the once polluted stream, burying it under an elevated highway that would carry about 168,000 cars a day into the heart of the city. It was the kind of massive modern development that Lee later repeated throughout South Korea during his concrete-pouring tenure as CEO of Hyundai Construction and other Hyundai affiliates in the 1970s and '80s—a period when he earned the nickname "the Bulldozer." Lee kept on bulldozing when he became mayor of Seoul in 2002, but this time with a very different purpose. He started with Cheonggyecheon, ripping down the highway, tearing off the paving, pumping in water and landscaping the banks to create a 5.8-km-long, $360 million piece of urban watershed—in which he's currently standing, stoically enduring the early-morning chill. "The stream is cold, but that means it's clean," says Lee. "When it's warmer, young boys and girls will play in this water. I'm very happy with it."

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. A cutting-edge, clean-running transit system is slowly weaning Seoulites off their auto addiction. New museums including the Leeum, which houses Samsung's corporate art collection in a stylish building designed by three different world-class architects, are feeding the city's growing appetite for culture. 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. "When the Korean economy was just trying to get back on its feet after the war, having these parks was a luxury," Lee says. "But now we try to achieve a balance between function and the environment, and whenever we have to choose, we try to put the environment first."

The greening of Seoul has ramifications that go beyond the mountains that ring the city. If this concrete jungle can shift into clean, sustainable urban development, then there's hope that other messy, environmentally challenged Asian cities like Beijing, Bombay and Jakarta can do the same. The South Korean capital's example could be especially instructive for its fellow Asian Tiger Hong Kong, where short-sighted political leadership has allowed the environment to degrade alarmingly (see story, page 21). "Seoul is an interesting model in terms of a megacity," says Karl Kim, an urban-planning expert at the University of Hawaii who has traveled back and forth to Korea for the past two decades. "There are lessons to be learned here about environmental management and sustainable development. You want to be able to not just do business, but to live in these cities."
For all the commotion they're causing at Cheonggyecheon on a Saturday afternoon, the two celebrities might be film stars or footballers. In fact, they're a pair of mallard ducks, cruising as imperiously down the restored stream as fowl can manage while being pelted with bread crumbs by children giddy at the sight of actual nature. Though wildlife has returned to the stream gradually, people have come immediately, and in large numbers—the city clocked 10 million visitors to Cheonggyecheon within three months of its opening. Beginning a few hundred meters behind City Hall, the stream runs in a dugout below street level, giving respite from the traffic and noise. Office workers on lunch breaks and couples on dates follow the current as it tumbles over waterfalls, squeezes through stepping-stone crossings and flows beneath 22 different bridges, including two modeled on stone relics from the early Chosun dynasty. "This is the first time I've come down, and I really like it," says 59-year-old Chung Sook Tak, standing near the restored Gwanggyo bridge. "The area was so polluted before. I never thought it would turn out this well."

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. 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."


The idea of restoring Cheonggyecheon had been kicked around by urban-development experts for years before Lee adopted it as a mayoral campaign promise in 2002. Shortly after his victory, Lee confidently announced that he'd tear down the highway and renovate the stream, and that it would all be completed in just three years. Many experts were doubtful. "I thought he was nuts," says Karl Kim. "Where would the cars go?" But green initiatives like the stream project have increasing public support from Seoulites who have come to expect the city to work for them, not the other way around. Rising incomes play a part in the priority shift, but Kim Won Bae, a director at the Korean Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS), a Seoul-based think tank, traces the change back to disasters like the collapse of the shoddily constructed Sampoong department store in 1995, which killed 501 people, and the economic crisis of 1997. "Those events made a lot of people think again about what economic growth was all about," he says. "Now people in Seoul want to enjoy life and be proud of themselves and their city. They want to say, 'I live in Seoul, and Seoul has this or that.'"

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." That choice can be made in part because the Korean economy is increasingly high tech and high glamour. Newer industries like telecom and film generate far less pollution than the heavy manufacturing that once defined South Korea. To capitalize on the country's edge in information technology, Seoul is developing the $2 billion Digital Media City (DMC), a next-generation office park built on a reclaimed toxic landfill. Lured by cheap land and eco-friendly surroundings like the World Cup Park, Korean IT companies including LG Telecom and Pantech are currently building research-and-development centers in the DMC, which is set to launch by 2010. The project will also feature Digital Media Street, a playground for tech companies to try out their latest gadgets, such as smart streetlights that brighten as people approach them. It all sounds suspiciously like a high-tech white elephant in the making—think of Hong Kong's expensive failure Cyberport. But the DMC only needs to give a sharp boost to South Korea's already thriving IT sector, not create it from scratch, which takes some of the pressure off. "Once it launches, we think the DMC will function as planned without interference by the city government," says Kang Chon, a city official who works on the office park. "After all, we don't want to act like communists."

Perish the thought, but it's doubtful that Seoul would have become so green without an activist government—and nowhere is that more evident than in its new transit system. With nearly 2.8 million automobiles in the city (compared to fewer than 600,000 in Hong Kong), Seoul traffic can be sclerotic. Lee made getting passenger cars off the roads a priority, but expanding the city's impressive subway system wasn't possible—adding a single kilometer of subway track can cost $100 million. So officials turned to the city's decaying buses, drawing up a plan to rationalize and expand routes, add 74 km of rapid bus-only median lanes on arterial streets, synchronize schedules with the subway and improve overall service. Buses would be equipped with gps sensors that would allow traffic officers working from a high-tech control room to track their movements throughout the city and adjust routes automatically for maximum efficiency. It was a big change, and the government decided to implement the entire revamp overnight on July 1, 2004.

The initial result was pandemonium. The new smart fare card malfunctioned, passengers couldn't understand the changes and some bus drivers didn't know the new routes. "It was like hell," says Eum Sung Jik, head of the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation. The public revolted and the mayor was forced to apologize three days later, but the reforms stayed. "I was convinced that it was the right way to go," says Lee. The glitches were worked out, and within three months public opinion had turned in favor of the new system; bus ridership reversed a historic decline and began rising. Thousands of buses running on low-polluting compressed natural gas have been added to the fleet, and last year the U.S. green groups Environmental Defense and the Transport Research Board honored Lee with the Sustainable Transport Award for his reforms.

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." Insadong's pedestrian-friendly streets, narrow alleyways and traditional tea shops offer a more natural atmosphere than the heavily landscaped Cheonggyecheon, she maintains.

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." Hong Kong, Beijing—are you listening?