I was recently invited to Seoul as part of a research project on liveability in urban areas which we undertook for the Korean Research Institute for Human Settlements. The Korean Government, it seems, are very concerned that the West are now focussing on issues of quality, and that if they don’t follow suit, they will be left behind.
Not being one to pass up an opportunity to visit a part of the world where I have not been before, I flew out expecting to find a city with much to learn from what we are doing in the UK. The reality could not have been further from the truth, and as is often the case, I ended up learning more from my hosts, than I am sure they did from me.
The reality is that Seoul is already a liveable city. It is a city that boasts high quality public transport, excellent well used parks, a vibrant mix of uses (and little problem building new mixed use development), clean and (relatively) crime free streets, no anti-social behaviour (at least none I could see), no graffiti anywhere!, animated streets (not least from their numerous street markets), and very little (obvious) poverty.
This is not to say that the city has no problems at all. The first, in a liveability sense, is the climate, which through much of July and August is unbearably hot and humid. Of course there is not much that can be done about that one, and many Seoul residents leave the city for their summer holidays during this time.
Another problem is that the rapid growth of Seoul has left a modernist legacy of regimented tower blocks that provides much of the housing stock. In Korea, it seems, Le Corbusier’s city of towers really did come to pass. But, despite the ugliness of much of this housing stock (something my Korean hosts were quick to decry), these environments seem to work. Each features high quality parkland that is heavily used, especially by children, and each departs from the modernist model with vibrant, ‘traditional’, mixed use town centres forming the heart of the community.
In common with much of East Asia, Seoul also suffers from major problems of traffic growth, and from streets that are choked with traffic, and their associated fumes, for much of the time. In this they have much on common with the West. Unfortunately, despite the modern efficient underground system, the aspiration is still for individuals to own their own cars, and to battle for space on the ever more crowded roads.
On this front, a dramatic initiative by the city’s Mayor has at least addressed a small part of the problem. The initiative revolves around the Chunggae Waterfront. This historic stream ran through the heart of the ancient city, and on its banks much commercial life flourished. However, in a particularly crass piece of city planning, in order to bring vehicles into the city centre, the stream was covered over and an elevated motorway was constructed along its length.
Recently the city Mayor campaigned on the basis that he would remove this eyesore and once again uncover the stream, in so doing placing urban design at the heart of his political platform (something almost unheard of in the West). The result is nothing short of miraculous, turning a problem into a much loved linear park.
Although an impeccable source tells me that this is not entirely sustainable as a good part of the water has to be pumped to ensure a continuous flow, this is nevertheless a space that the city inhabitants engage with in huge numbers (night and day), and which provides a real escape from the busy streets around. At night, couples promenade along the length of the steam, enjoy the lighting effects, sit on the banks, and generally enjoy the cooling effect of the flowing water. During the day, hordes of children splash through the water, play on the bridges and stepping-stones, and complete the educational trails that run along its length.
For me, coming from the West, this scheme is even more remarkable for the fact that, despite sitting in a continuous trench below the street level, there is no graffiti or signs of vandalism along its length. Also, that the designers have been able to design the whole scheme, without the need for the continuous railings and hand-rails that would surely be required in the West to stop the hordes of people who would otherwise (obviously) fall in a drown themselves! (or more correctly to protect the responsible authorities from their own fear of being sued in the very unlikely case that something did happen).
Another remarkable feature of Seoul, positive in some senses if not in others, is the approach to parking. Although one might argue that new parking facilities should be discouraged to prevent people from using their cars, if you accept that some parking will always be required, then one solution seemed to me to be little short of ingenious.
The view from my hotel window was dominated by a car park. Sounds rather unattractive, you may think, but this was no ordinary garage. Instead, this was a vertical garage 25 stories high, with a capacity of 100 cars in four 25 car stacks. In this solution, cars drive in at the base, and lifts take them up and stack them one on top of the other. The result is a car park that has a plan depth of one car and a width of six cars parked parallel to each other (a car, a car lift, two cars, a car lift and a car).
Architecturally unobtrusive, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a technology that could beneficially replace surface level parking all over the world. Of course the costs of providing parking in this way may in many cases would be prohibitive, but in city centre locations, this solution merits further investigation, not least to prevent the disruptive parking lot syndrome that dominates so many Western cities.
So, I left Seoul impressed. I also left with the distinct impression that the Government in Korea is serious about liveability, and if the famous Korean work ethic is anything to go by, that they will not pursue this agenda in anything less than a fully determined manner. Moreover, if Korea is considering such concerns now, other East Asian countries will soon follow. To me, therefore, the boot seemed to be firmly on the other foot. If we are not to be left behind, we need to sit up and take notice, now.
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL