In the eyes of South Koreans that lived through the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953), the country’s economic success is deeply rooted in their work ethic and relentless fight for democracy and freedom. “Young people nowadays, they just don’t know. They don’t know how we survived- collecting scraps and eating anything digestible. What are they thinking, driving fancy cars they can’t afford and carrying Louis Vuitton handbags to show off. Me? I don’t even have a car! Biking is not possible, it is too dangerous here, but buses are great,” says Jai, a retiree in his mid-sixties. Born to farmer parents, getting out of poverty wasn’t easy for him and his 6 siblings, but he now lives in a modern apartment in Seoul Capital Area with his wife and enjoys mountain views from their living room. His son and daughter-in-law recently moved to an apartment seven stories below, to seek help raising their young kids. For young Seoulites, putting food on the table and having a roof over head is not enough. They like to enjoy luxuries that their parents and grandparents could not: view of city lights from a high rise, latest sedans, Samsung flat-screens, trips overseas, dining out, individually packaged food and elegantly decorated cafes and bars are some of their aspirations. Unfortunately, most people spend a lot of time, money and effort trying to look wealthier than they are. “If you don’t look rich, people don’t treat you nicely. They don’t respect you. So I know why people go out of their ways to buy things they can’t afford. There are even new terms for such people- Dwenjangnyuh (female) and Dwenjangnam (male). What’s funny is that they end up marrying each other!” Jai laughs.
South Korea’s sudden wealth and success arrived with side effects. People want to protect their social status and disassociate with those ‘below’ them. Gated, fenced and semi-closed to non-residents, Seoul’s most common housing typology, Danji, manifests such trend. Danji was initially Korean government’s response to the rapidly increasing housing demand following the war. It is a series of apartments, typically 10-20 stories and almost identical, developed based on a single masterplan per neighbourbood. Depending on existing amenities, it may include new retail, basement/ground level parking, schools and offices. Physical barriers between neighbourhoods, like 8-lane roads and 3-9 meters tall sound barriers, ensure there is no interaction between different communities, perhaps unintentionally. Although there have been recent efforts to improve major public spaces including Cheonggyecheon stream and Gwanghwamun square, little consideration is given to the role of smaller shared spaces in each neighbourhood. Apartment towers stand tall much like Corbusier’s vision of Towers in a Park, except there is no park, only a parking lot. Tom is a 6th grader who is always busy with after school activities. During his study breaks, he likes to kick a ball around in the ground level parking lot of his apartment, although it doesn’t allow much freedom or safety. He says “It is OK, I just have to be careful not to hit any cars or get hit by cars. There is nowhere else to go close by.”
The name of your apartment may represent your socioeconomic status and also put your kids in a better school. Finding the right school with a strong reputation is a critical issue for Koreans that take education seriously. “My husband and I decided to have only one child because we both work, and we want to make sure we can give her all the support she needs. So recently we moved to Gangnam- it is an expensive area but has great high schools and private academies. The move means my commute to work is longer but that is what I have to do,” says Myung, a professional in music business. When Myung’s daughter graduates from high school, she will probably continue to live with her parents until she gets married, like most other young Koreans, regardless of how far her university or work is. The lack of affordable housing near work, coupled with tight-knit family structure means some of her family members will most likely be sitting still in a car or public transport for over an hour ten times a week. “Bike to school? It sounds hard! Even my 10-min walk to the subway station is tiring,” says Hyun, a 2nd year university student. While Koreans are aware being active has health benefits, physical exercise is not valued as much in Korea as it is in the west (perhaps because it is undervalued in school in the shadow of core subjects like maths, science and English). Instead people of all ages especially women, from high school students to senior citizens, tend to go on various diets and avoid any strenuous ‘labour’. Opportunities for Korean adults to participate in sports are rare, partly due to the lack of accessible neighbourhood parks and poor outdoor air quality. Seoul’s automobiles are responsible for 3/4 of nitrogen dioxide emissions, a toxic pollutant that affect human respiratory system.
While Seoul’s dependence on automobile, lack of diversity in housing typology and waste generation are urgent problems to solve, its high population density supports the city’s safety, efficiency and convenience. Seoul Capital Area is home to 25.6 million people, about half of South Korea’s total population, while occupying only 12% of the country’s land.
The network of buses and subways with integrated ticketing system transports 11.9 million commuters everyday. The subway runs every 2-3 minutes at peak hours through well-maintained stations, equipped with escalators, lifts, toilets, clear information boards and signage and glass barriers on platforms. Trains offer phone reception, TV screens and internet. By 2020, 9 more lines over 136km will be added in Gyeongi Province². The subway system is so reliable that a new business called Subway Quick Helper popped up recently – its service is to hand-deliver packages via subway, delivery time guaranteed. Buses run less frequently, but tech-savvy Korean use apps like Seoul Bus App to check instantly where the bus is and how long it will take. Just missed the one? The app will also say when the next one will arrive. Public transport essentially gives people the opportunity to look into other people’s lives, learn to respect diversity and share their environment.
High density also offers passive surveillance in public spaces. It is not unusual for an 8-year old to walk to school alone, or for a high school student to take the bus or walk between private academies before heading home around midnight. Restaurants serving hungry students and late night workers illuminate the street until late night. In a city where delivery services from food to dry cleaning are quick and reliable, Seoulites’ high car ownership rate makes no sense.
Seoul’s urban fabric is based on one lifestyle for all – big towers in big parking lots with massive roads and parking disregard South Korea’s aging population and low birth rate. The current policy does not favour smaller, human scale, energy saving forms of mobility, housing and lifestyle: automobile owners should be responsible for air pollution, parking space, road space and accidents; shared car and bike systems must be an economically viable and convenient alternative to ownership; biking should be safe, hip and easy; walking should be pleasant, relaxing and interesting; medium rises with shared roof gardens should be promoted; car-less neighbourhoods should be rewarded with more community space. Only then, people like Jai and Tom will have dignified access to their city.
¹Economist Intelligence Unit. (2011). Asian Green City Index. Munich: Siemens AG.
(c) 2014 Julia Suh
Urbia by Julia Suh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://juliasuh.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at firstname.lastname@example.org.