20. Learning the lessons: New town planning in Korea

In the UK we are planning a series of Eco-towns to be built across the country as exemplars (the Government’s promises) of well designed, sustainable, mixed communities.  Half way around the world, and despite a declining population, Korea is building new settlements like there is no tomorrow.  What lessons does their experience have for us?  As I found out on a recent trip to critique the proposed new ‘creative capital’ of Chungnam in Central (South) Korea, there are some important lessons to learn.

Korea is a country in a hurry.  This brings tremendous opportunities for those lucky enough to be involved in designing and planning the country’s built environment.  It also brings huge responsibilities.  The patterns of development laid down now will still be with them (and us) in 1,000 years time.  It is vital therefore that adequate time is taken during the critical design phases of the project to ensure that the design in right.  Unfortunately, the breathtaking speed of the development is not allowing this to happen.  For Chungnam, the planning and design period is just 18 months from start to finish, followed by a year to compile all the land and compensate its current owners, after which the project will begin on site for completion by 2020.

Myself and others at a recently convened International Symposium to critique the proposals were somewhat concerned that this undue speed could all too easily lead to a poorly designed, unsustainable city; economically, socially and environmentally.  Some of our recommendations may be relevant to the design of the proposed new eco-towns in England.

1. Allow for growth

The Korean’s wish this and others like it to become engines for growth in their respective regions.  However, a small city of 100,000 people (as the new capital is planned to be) is unlikely to be a major engine for growth beyond the impact of its initial construction.  Nevertheless, if the design is right, the city will continue to develop and expand for generations to come and eventually could perform a vital economic role within the region.  A flexible plan is required that can grow and adapt as needs arise, rather than an end-state solution which will restrict final growth.

2. Good design adds value

Great design adds value, attracts people, which leads to job creation and a virtuous cycle of innovation, investment and growth.  Increasingly the knowledge driven companies are searching for environments that will enable them to attract foot-loose creative workers in a globalised market.  As currently conceived, Chungnam New Town will not be such a place.

To reverse this will depend on the quality of life that the new Town can offer its residents, which will in turn depend in how distinctive it is and what qualities it has that sets it apart from other cities in the region.  Excellent environment and design quality should be the city’s USP.  This may take a little longer to achieve at the start of the development process, but the extra investment will be repaid many times over.

3. Consider the landscape

The greatest asset of the proposed New Town is the landscape in which it will sit, and around which it will be surrounded.  The landscape form is very distinctive, but also subtle, with mountains providing a backdrop to the new town, and an undulating landscape forming the site for the development.  As conceived the radial plan relates well to its mountain setting, with key routes focussing on this dramatic terrain.  However, it relates very poorly to its underlying landform which (if the sections through the New Town are to be believed) is to be totally flattened.

UDM20-the landscape, the new Town's greates asset.jpg
The landscape, the new Town’s greatest asset

This will be a great mistake, removing one of the key opportunities to make the town and (more importantly) its constituent neighbourhoods, distinctive.  A careful study of underlying landscape form is required for any development on this scale, and a modified and more sympathetic (less regimented) plan should be developed in order to take advantage of this asset.  This does not mean abandoning the radial plan form, simply modifying it to reflect and take advantage of the varied landscape.

4. Take an urban design-led approach

The Chungnam plan has been developed as a largely technical engineering-led exercise.  As a result the city was not considered from the perspective of the experience it would offer to people on the ground.  The danger of such an approach is that decisions made early on will no longer be open to change as the detailed phases of the design are carried out, and that infrastructure, rather than high quality public space will come to dominate the plan.  It is now vital that the city is designed three dimensionally from the perspective of users in the city and its public spaces.  This needs an urban design-led approach, and a flexibility to change earlier decisions if it looks like they will compromise the final built quality.

The masterplan

5. Mix up the uses

As well as being overly dominated by infrastructure, the New Town as proposed is highly zoned into separate land uses.  This will undermine any attempts to establish the sort of diversity and vitality that traditional cities possess and that are so prized by residents.  This requires a process of mixing up the city, and is something that new settlements struggle to deliver.  Functions should not be separated unless there are very good reasons for doing so, with (if possible) a rule of thumb that every block should house at least two, and preferably three of more distinct land use functions.

This process should extend to mixing in the hi-tech and knowledge-based industries that in the proposals are zoned to the edge of the town.  These type of industries are clean and often very good neighbours to other functions, although they are best thought of as ‘knowledge businesses’ to avoid the negative associations of the word ‘industry’.  The process should involve selling a lifestyle of a harmonious work/life balance, allowing people to walk from their home to work, and at lunchtime to shop, exercise or simply enjoy the public spaces of the city.  Such a lifestyle requires proximity of functions to work.

6. Streets not roads

A by-product will be a major reduction of road usage and an opportunity to scale down the proposed road infrastructure and instead to create a truly urban environment where real living streets and spaces (rather than roads) dominate the built form.  This will require:

  • buildings that face onto and enclose the street spaces
  • less domination of undefined green buffers along roads and communal green space between buildings
  • roads designed for slower traffic speeds (20mph) in the urban core and residential areas
  • major roads designed as tree lined boulevards with green landscape in the middle and service roads along their edge to serve functions that should open directly onto and line these spaces

7. Experiment with housing forms

Building a New Town is an excellent opportunity to experiment with new forms of housing.  Design competitions and regulatory incentives can be used for this purpose, and will help in the drive to establish a truly distinctive new settlement.

As proposed, the housing of Chungnam is uniform and regimented in its layout with housing forms that do not relate to the complex land forms.  This will result in a bland monotonous environment, and little opportunity for distinctiveness, or for residents to identify with their neighbourhoods.  As proposed the housing is either very low rise, low density housing (mainly around the city edge) or high-rise,

high density.  But other forms of housing can create more liveable urban space at equally high densities.  This includes the possibility of medium rise perimeter-block housing defining private space and communal courtyard space, or housing that flows with the landscape.

8. Use design codes

As well as design competitions, the opportunity should be taken to explore the latest tools that can help to deliver quality and distinctiveness in the city.  Design codes in particular are increasingly being used for this purpose, and can be valuable tools to establish the ‘must-have’ urbanistic rules for the city as a whole, and its different neighbourhoods.

9. Research resident preferences

Participation of local communities in the design process will inevitably be limited in the initial years of the city’s development as no significant local population exists on the site.  However, time should again be taken to properly research what typical future residents might aspire to, not least by researching what residents in neighbouring settlements do and do not like about their existing housing.  This information will be invaluable in establishing a more informed design process.

In Korea (as in the UK) a major opportunity might lie in building a zero-carbon city that is genuinely sustainable as an exemplar in the country.  This will make the city unique in Korea and will help to attract new residents, particularly the creative young that the city will need in order to achieve its mission to be a creative capital for the region.  The aim should be to establish a mixed, diverse and concentrated built form, with excellent public transport facilities to reduce the need to use private cars.  An attractive by-product will be less need for expensive underground car parking, and potentially more space for high quality public and private open space.

10. A partnership is required

All of the above will require a partnership of built environment professionals, with a team that includes specialist urban designers, as well as architects, engineers, planners, and open space to people and liveability.  The right balance of skills is required in the team to achieve this.

Proposed urban form, a mix of low and high rise

This is undoubtedly the most significant urban project in this region of Korea for many generations.  To succeed it needs to be distinctive, high quality and sustainable.  It must avoid being simply a clone of the forms of development found elsewhere in Korea.  Strong political and professional leadership is required to make this happen.  It requires an immediate and courageous decision to re-think the design and a determination to do very much better.

All this echoes strongly what is required in the UK.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


October 2008