Saturday, June 6, 2009

A silver lining over Seoul mountains

Seoul is rediscovering its streams and that's a wonderful thing. If only it did more to protect its beautiful mountains...

Few cities can boast such assets. They play a considerable role in Seoul's regulation from visual as well as environmental or cultural points of view. Granted, they create lots of congested bottlenecks, but they also provide fresh air you cannot find anywhere else, and give to the city its unique skyline. Skylines and landmarks do not necessarily consist of skyscrapers, remember ?

Mountains are a defining feature in Seoul's identity. The city should protect them and particularily their elevated forests, lungs of great esthetic value and key to Seoul's differenciation from other Capitals.

From where I'm writing, I enjoy everyday beautiful sunrises and sunsets on natural elevations, but still, bits of blocks of "appateus" spoil the view, emerging from behind the fortress.

Now most elevation points are artificial. Twenty years ago, every little hill had already its red neon cross at its top but at least, you could tell the shape of the land under the buildings. In too many parts of the city, I saw charming hills flattened, mountain tops chainsaw-massacred, forests of wood replaced by forests of concrete... This frenzy goes much too far beyond the normal "domestication" of a rather challenging landscape.

Natural mountain should be protected as natural treasures, and they are priceless for a city that intends to become an international touristic hub. No construction should be allowed beyond a certain point, and many atrocities should be removed. It was done on Namsan**, but less prestigious elevations are of the same importance for Seoulites.

I'm pleased to notice that recent real estate projects involving towers at mountain tops were turned down, the city recommending low rise constructions. This was only in order to enhance the visibility of the city fortress, and it won't deter all speculators (luxury positioning will further exclude former inhabitants), but that's a positive start.

Over the past few months, a few regulations brought some hope for the future :
- dividing a lot will not necessarily multiply the number of rights owners : this easy way of gaining a status of former resident will disappear, seriously curbing speculation
- associations of owners pooling for a redevelopment will have to be approved by the city : we may no more see competition between rival factions, and transparency should gain (some) ground over corruption
- obligation of devoting a significant proportion of low rise villa areas to public gardens : Seoul is literally suffocating in large areas completely covered with such compact buildings
- protection of certain areas with a high proportion of hanoks (traditional houses) : this stopped a few projects, like in Gahoe-dong
- ...

Prices did go down last year, as a combination of the worldwide crisis and measures taken by late President ROH Moo-hyun. But the bulk of the housing bubble remains, and its expansion seems to be even resuming.

As the housing market almost stalled last winter, President LEE Myung-bak tried to revive it by loosening regulations : reducting vital green belts, allowing higher constructions, lower proportion of green spaces... But now and at last, he seems to understand the necessity of cooling it down and prevent a massive and brutal collapse. During his mandate only, of course : it seems a little bit too late now. You cannot find any place in Seoul unspoiled by new town or renovation speculation fueled under his tenure.

As a Seoul Mayor, LEE did initiate some major projects with overall positive environmental impacts (Cheonggyecheon, Seoul Forest, bus corridors...), but he also unleashed too many private developments with tragic and long-lasting consequences.

Mayor OH Se-hoon doesn't have as many opportunities to shine as his predecessor, but he seems to follow a more impressionist path, multiplying small local projects, bringing change at a more human level.

Seoul is breathing a little bit better when overpasses are removed or about to be removed (ie Hyehwa-dong Rotary, Hoehyeon-dong Sagori, Seodaemun Station...), when car lanes are replaced by tree and bike lanes plus wider sidewalks (ie Bongcheon-ro in Gwanak-gu), when kids can play and cool down in water spring fountains everywhere, even if they can't afford overcrowded pools (which I dub "Salamtang").

Yes, water spring fountains are not necessarily environmental friendly (what to say about the latest Banpo Bridge extravaganza !).

Yes, sometimes the "Wellbeing" fad goes grotesque (ie these days : miniature rice paddies frying in their flower pots in front of Gyeongbokgung).

Yes, building a "green park" often deviates into replacing big old trees with pine trees that don't pump much CO², covering large patches of soil with a concrete plaza and disgracious metal sculptures.

But that's the way Seoul breathes, embracing change at an amazing pace, redoing things before they are even completed. And we've been waiting for this positive if clumsy trend for too long.

Let's hope that in the process, collateral damage will not prove too great and irreversible.

* a pair of old green appartments for foreigners was destroyed. Too bad they turned the tower in a color-shifting squid (the new and improved N-Tower should be called the 오징어 Tower).

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