Suwon City’s mayor Yeom Tae-Young has the guts. The kind required to successfully turn a neighbourhood of 4,300 people into a pedestrian zone for a month. Some 1,500 cars and motorbikes are temporarily relocated to outside of Haenggung-dong for the month of September, giving its residents and visitors an opportunity to live in a car-free environment. The construction of new shared streets, public spaces, building facades, signage and landscaping took about a year, leading up to Sep 1st opening of Suwon Ecomobility Festival. During the construction period, project implementation was often hindered by residents resisting change. Fair enough, suddenly being unable to park one’s car right outside the front door may have seemed unreasonable. Unless it could be illustrated to them that new benefits counterbalance such inconvenience: like clean air; safe environment for the vulnerable; quiet streets; more public space where one can engage with neighbours and nature; an urban environment that encourages an active healthy lifestyle; pleasant walking and cycling experience without congestion. On the first few days of the festival there is a different kind of energy in Haenggung-dong. It is not from fast moving cars, sound of growling engines and flickering traffic lights. People look happy, relaxed and they are outside. They are watching a performance, watching other people walk by, cycling, eating outdoors, sitting on a bench, talking to strangers, teaching their kids how to rollerblade, and playing badminton.
Hee is a female resident in her 70’s who has lived in the neighbourhood for over 20 years. She says she likes how she can walk around without worrying about getting hit by a car, but worries about where her son would park his car to take her to the hospital. Walking is an enjoyable but sometimes a painful exercise for her.
Ree and Tae are residents of Ingye-dong, out and about in Haenggung-dong for a night out. They walked for about 10 minutes from their home through busy roads to hang out in the car-free neighbourhood and watch free performances. They are delighted they don’t have to give up their cars, but still can enjoy all that Haenggung-dong has to offer.
Pil owns a restaurant on one of the newly pedestrianised streets. He is happy the festival has brought a lot of customers, but worries sales may go down after September.
When the festival is over, the Haenggung-dong community will have to decide how they want to live. They may decide socioeconomic, environmental and health benefits of Ecomobility experience is insufficient for them to give up their parking space. But at least, the festival is reminding Koreans there is an alternative, healthier way of living. We just need more mayors to take the lead.
(c) 2014 Julia Suh
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