By invitation only: Songdo’s smart city promise for the selected few

Walking along the streets around Seoul’s City Hall, I am taken back to my childhood in Seoul. Every school day, without fail, vendors would flock to the school gate in time for persuadable kids to burst out of their classes – and have yet another look at brown sugar lollies in star shapes, cotton candies and tiny toys. How those men and women made each day interesting – they had all kinds of stuff, constantly changing but also consistently there. I never really had money to buy anything, but they certainly added excitement to an otherwise ordinary day and livened up the banal public realm.

 

All kinds of entrepreneurs

On the streets of Seoul, its informal economy is still well visible. A group of men and women have taken over a parking space as a temporary outdoor dining spot. Too busy engaged in a lively conversation over large pots of soup, they have no idea they are participating what some may call ’Parking Day’. Further down, an old man is handing over layers of flattened cardboard boxes for little cash. I don’t realise how difficult it would have been to earn that money until I see a different old man wearily pulling a cart packed with cardboard boxes along a 10-lane road. I pass neatly arranged pairs of men’s shoes at a shoe shine stall, which just fits one man and his toolbox in an area smaller than 1m x 1m. Then I bump into a chestnut roaster with a sign that says 5,000 won for 30 or 3,000 won for 15. I am good at grabbing a bargain and I ask the old woman for 30. She lifts her dark wrinkly face, but not quite high enough to make an eye contact, and starts counting. As I am getting out 5,000 won plus a bit more, thinking she could use it more than me, she finishes putting chestnuts into the white paper bag and mumbles “I put in 3 extra ones ok? Come again”. I feel embarrassed by my presumptuousness and walk away with a bag full of 33 freshly roasted chestnuts. To call her less of a business woman than I am, because I am supposedly more educated and wealthier, would be unfounded.

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I am reminded of my brief but memorable conversation with the Nobel prize laureate Muhammad Yunus. He believes that everybody is a natural entrepreneur – it is not our tradition to send job applications. In the 70s his radical microfinancing strategy fostered entrepreneurship in poverty-stricken places where no woman was known to do much else than domestic work. Today his program continues to give the poor – mostly women – microcredit to encourage their natural entrepreneurship to flourish.

Entrepreneurship is such a buzz word now, and unfortunately many associate the term with start-ups and educated professionals, when it should be an accessible and open term for everybody.

 

Songdo’s smart city promise

Songdo is a city made from scratch, about an hour’s drive from Seoul – a city built on land reclaimed from the sea; a city with motion sensors, emergency communication buttons on the streets and monitors for stolen cars. Songdo promises a great lifestyle for professionals in the high-tech, logistics and medical/bio industries; and great education in five foreign universities; all in the convenient location within International Free Economic Zone and supported by the latest smart city infrastructure. At the New Cities Summit held there, I got to stand behind a large pane of glass and get a glimpse of the city’s ‘brain’ where all the data comes together to fill one massive screen for the city to respond in real time. It isn’t all clear how that data ultimately contributes to people’s wellbeing – but the screens looked pretty impressive.

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And from my hotel room on the 9th floor, I got a glimpse of the life of the city, the bit that I am more interested in. Sterile, soulless, uniform, faceless. Those were some of the descriptions I read prior to getting there. They are all true. Uniform and anonymous high rises are difficult to tell apart. An array of national flags stands proudly towering over the 8-10 lane main road. Apart from Central Park, the city looks and feels private, like a massive gated community where an uninvited guest would be swiftly recognised, questioned and removed. After all the city has been described as  “the largest private real estate development in history”. The private sector ‘founders’ of Songdo (Gale International, KPF, Arup) explained at the Summit, that Songdo’s Central Park is a replica of New York City’s Central Park, and was named after it. It boggles my mind why the Korean government, any government, would ever agree to that. Whatever happened to meaningful places? What happened to authentic experiences? (See London School of Economics’ associate professor Hyun Bang Shin’s new chapter on ‘the fallacy of Songdo (Smart) City‘)

I am not sure if it is because the ‘founders’ didn’t understand the local context or simply didn’t care – but in Songdo, ‘culture’ is a replica of a thousand-year-old palace or Tri-bowl, a culture and art centre. (By definition, culture is “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time”.) In contrast, in the old town of Incheon next door, domestic and international artists-in-residence have created something remarkable. Incheon Art Platform supports artistic talent – both professional and amateur – to engage and develop their skills. Their impact goes beyond the boundaries of the Platform, as former artists-in-residence set up their own studios in the neighbourhood and build on the unique character of the city. New cafes have popped up thanks to the new creative industry.

When you look at Songdo’s public domain carefully you start to see what’s missing – rather, who’s missing: it’s the creatives, older folks dining out in a parking space, women selling roasted chestnuts and men pulling carts with cardboard boxes. Brand new concert halls, high-end hotels and apartments make up Songdo, a city that is livable for the selected few; inaccessible for the rest.

 

A thriving city?

Over the past week, I have been thinking about what it means to be a thriving city: The theme of the New Cities Summit.

Songdo is not the city of tomorrow. It is a missed opportunity. It could have brought a cultural shift and created the most walkable and cyclable city in South Korea, not just LEED certification. It could have shared with the rest of the country what a participatory planning process looks like using smart technology. It could have been a city for all kinds of entrepreneurs to work with dignity instead of legitimising the exclusion of certain demographic groups.

A thriving city doesn’t just attract skilled entrepreneurs, it attracts unskilled ones too and give THEM an opportunity to upskill and contribute to the economy and their well-being.

Its citizens shouldn’t have to remain as passive consumers of the supplied ‘culture’. They should become active participants who contribute to the evolution of the place.

 

Humanising our cities

So is there hope for a place like Songdo? Absolutely.

On my last day in Songdo, I ventured out to where people live. Korean apartment complexes tend to be gated forming ‘danji’, so the feeling of being uninvited intensified as I walked through them.

Zigzagging through several danjis, I found myself in the middle of an open space. What looked like an abandoned land from afar, turned out to be vast cultivated fields of vegetables. Who’s tending these vegetables and whose land is it, I asked one of the cultivators on the field. “We are just local residents. This land was supposed to be developed into high rise apartments, but nothing has happened in the last two years. So we work the land, socialise while we look after our vegetables”, said a middle-aged woman I approached, “sure, I had some lettuce taken, but generally no one trashes our work”.

Walking around further, I saw several women working. In front of each plot: Signage that reads ‘Do not cultivate. Private land. Restore the land by 31.12.2016 or face legal consequences’. I am not sure what the red diagonal lines across the panel mean but I hope they were the result of a win-win negotiation.

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What I learned from Songdo and what I continue to see time and time again in so many places all over the world is this: People will always find ways to appropriate their public realm if they see the opportunity.

To the naysayers who argue Koreans don’t like to have a say, because it is not part of their culture – they are looking at citizens that impeached a president through 7 months of candlelight protests. At a time where 1-2 year rental contract is common and building a sense of community is critical — We need to ensure genuine opportunities for people to be engaged and empowered exist.

Surely humanising our cities and empowering citizens to improve their lives comes before getting 5G ready.

 

 

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My Westpac Social Change Fellowship journey: An Inquiry into the Right to the City

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I spent my childhood in the Olympic Village that was built for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics to house the international press and athletes. When the Olympics was over, the village became available for public residence. As there was no existing community, when a new one moved into the apartments – some rising up to 24 stories – everybody was new and brought with them different values and aspirations for how they wanted to live. In a city where dense urban living is the norm and in a culture where conforming to the majority matters, some of those values were realised, most were not. Ultimately there was little sense of ownership or individualisation of the shared public spaces.

While quite different in scale, Australia’s cities are growing at an unprecedented speed. Our new neighbourhoods are tall, dense, and often character-less and our social connection is declining. We don’t have a holistic policy in place that guides the development of the whole of the neighbourhood with the ultimate aim of promoting our wellbeing. In particular, those who suffer the most from the poverty of opportunity – the homeless, elderly, children, youth, gender/ethnic minorities, people with disability and other economically excluded groups – don’t have equal access to our cities. Our shared spaces are often places of exclusion, designed to serve interests of a dominant class.

Advocating marginalised communities’ right to the city is at the heart of Urban Toolbox and my Westpac Social Change Fellowship journey. I am particularly excited to start the journey with a visit to Seoul/Incheon for the New Cities Summit, a city that triggered my childhood curiosity about people and places. In my rather somber application essay to Yale University 13 years ago, I questioned the social impact of the places, neighborhoods and cities we were creating, citing Seoul as an example of a city losing character and community cohesion. I am looking forward to meeting young and established social entrepreneurs who are reshaping the communities bottom-up.

From June to October 2017 I will be speaking, training, visiting places and meeting thought leaders in Seoul, Singapore, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Detroit, New Orleans, Calgary, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland and Melbourne.

I hope to share along the way my learnings on practical approaches to social inclusion and community cohesion through placemaking and urban design. I would appreciate your input on people that I should meet and exemplary projects that I should see – please get in touch!

Why Seoul must scale down

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.

While recycling is well practiced in Seoul, 996 kg of waste is produced per person annually¹. Individually packaged food is considered hygienic and high-end.
While recycling is well practiced in Seoul, 996 kg of waste is produced per person annually¹. Individually packaged food is considered hygienic and high-end.
This official rubbish bag costs 35 cents at a local supermarket. Heavy fine applies if other types of bags are used.
Seoul City’s official rubbish bag costs 35 cents at a local supermarket. Fine applies if other types of bags are used.

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.”

Typical pedestrian entry to a Danji (apartment complex). Cars and perimeter fencing are predominant features of a Danji.
A pedestrian entry to a Danji (apartment complex). Parking spaces and fences are predominant features of a Danji.
Around Danji are lots and lots of stores on the ground level selling everything from food and clothes to books and glasses. Upper levels are typically taken up by offices and private academies.
Around Danji are lots and lots of stores on the ground level selling everything from food and clothes to books and glasses. Upper levels are typically taken up by offices and private academies.
Signage.
Signage regulations have only recently kicked in. Most building facades are still a mess.
Mokdong Hyperion is a mixed use apartment development that includes lower level stores and offices.
Mokdong Hyperion is a mixed use apartment development that includes lower level stores and offices.
Car parking is provided in 3 basement levels, freeing up the ground level for pedestrians.
In Mokdong Hyperion car parking is provided in 3 basement levels, freeing up the ground level for pedestrians.
Most apartments provide automatic parking system. If not included in the rent, one spot costs about $40/month.
Most apartments in the city centre provide parking. If not included in the rent, automated parking system like this one costs about $40/month.
Gwanghwamun (광화문) sits between two significant public spaces: Gyeongbokgung Palace (behind the gate) and the newly opened Gwanghwamun Square(광화문광장). Unfortunately the square is more like an island with 6-lane roads surrounding it.
Gwanghwamun (광화문) sits between two significant public spaces: Gyeongbokgung Palace (behind the gate) and the newly opened Gwanghwamun Square (광화문광장). Unfortunately the square is more of an island than a square, with 6-lane roads surrounding it.
Sejong Center for the Performing Arts (세종문화회관) set up a small outdoor stage. The music however cannot win over traffic noise behind it.
Sejong Center for the Performing Arts
(세종문화회관) sets up a small outdoor stage facing Gwanghwamun Square. The music however cannot win over traffic noise behind it.
On special occasions, cars are banned from entering the square perimeter. But not for today's event.
On special occasions, cars are banned from entering the square perimeter. But not for today’s event.
Cheonggyecheon (청계천) restoration project initiated by Lee Myung-bak in 2003 (later the 10th President of South Korea) provides a much needed break from the traffic and heat.
Cheonggyecheon (청계천) restoration project initiated by Mayor Lee Myung-bak in 2003 (later the 10th President of South Korea) provides a much needed break from the traffic and heat.

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.

Nine lines of Seoul Metropolitan Subway carry almost 7 million commuters everyday. With underground phone reception, wifi and TVs, you are never bored.
Nine lines of Seoul Metropolitan Subway carry almost 7 million commuters everyday. With underground phone reception, wifi and TVs, riders are never bored.

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.

Private institutions like this one (literal translation 'University Academy', ) take up kids' time till around midnight. High school students compete relentlessly to get accepted into Seoul's best universities.
Private institutions like this one (literal translation ‘University Academy’, ) take up kids’ time till around midnight. High school students compete relentlessly to get accepted into Seoel’s best universities.

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.

Traditional markets like this are hard to find. Super stores like E-mart are more popular with ample parking space.
Traditional markets like this are hard to find these days. Super stores like E-mart with ample parking space are more popular.
Restaurants line up a street in the heart of Seoul.
Restaurants line up a pedestrian-only street in the heart of Seoul.
Bokchon still maintains traditional forms of housing and neighbourhood. Seoul's population no longer supports single dwellings but Bokchon's scale is a lesson that alternative forms of housing are also possible.
Bokchon still maintains traditional forms of housing and neighbourhood. Seoul’s population no longer supports single dwellings but Bokchon’s scale is a lesson that alternative forms of housing are also possible.

¹Economist Intelligence Unit. (2011). Asian Green City Index. Munich: Siemens AG.
²http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/society/area/596354.html

Creative Commons License

(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 info@juliasuh.com.

Car-free in Suwon

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.

Hwaseong Haenggung Palace (화성행궁)
Hwaseong Haenggung Palace (화성행궁) is the heart of Hawseong Fortress, a UNESCO listed heritage site.
Residents turn their carless street into a badminton court with a piece of rope
Residents turn their car-free street into a badminton court with a piece of rope
Children
Children roam free in the new pedestrianised zone.
Watching performance
R and T take a break from their night stroll and sit down to watch a performance.
new public space
car parks and unoccupied buildings are converted to new public spaces
facade detail
Tiles painted by Suwon community make up the building facade.
Samulnori
Hwaryeong Jeon(화령전)’s main gate provides a spacious stage for Samulnori, traditional percussion music and dance.
Watching Samulnori
Residents and visitors gather to watch Samulnori.
occupy roads
At least for the month of September, kids can walk, rollerblade and cycle in Haenggung-dong without worrying about car accidents.
eating out
Eating outside is much more pleasant without polluting, honking, noisy cars zipping by.
transportation modes
We sometimes need a reminder that car is not the only mode of mobility.
new public space
A new public space is created with recycled materials.
protests
Some protests continue during the festival.

Creative Commons License

(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 info@juliasuh.com.