Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Seongnam and Hanam merge

The cities of Seongnam and Hanam (both in Gyeonggi-do) announced their intention to merge by 2014 in a new city which would border Southeast Seoul from Gangdong-gu to Gangnam-gu via Songpa-gu.

In such mergers, more ambitious and harmonious policies can be developped, and the new ensemble can forge a stronger identity, be more competitive at the national and international level. But the union has to be carefully and soundly planned, and it is essential to preserve the soul of each area of the newly formed city. Spotting and reviving key cultural assets should even be considered an essential mission. So I would strongly advise planners to make a lot of research back in time before starting anything irreversible. This is clearly a promise for the future and a new start, but certainly not from scratch, from a blank page.

And I hope this won't end up in more destruction of Seoul's vital greenbelts.


A FORESEEABLE TREND

A referendum involving Seongnam and Hanam citizens shall be held, but the final decision remain in the hands of the national government... which shouldn't oppose the move : LEE Myung-bak wants to regroup 246 administrative areas into 60 to 70 municipalities, a natural trend that Japan has been experiencing for years, and that Nicolas Sarkozy is also considering for Paris' "little belt".

Among other regroupments under discussion within Gyeonggi-do : Guri with Namyangju (an obvious team just booming, just North of Seongnam-Hanam, on the other side of the Han river), and Hwaseong with Suwon (a powerful economic - cultural combo south, which could counterbalance the impressive rise of nearby Incheon).

I don't see small and unpopulated cities like Gwacheon (35.9 km2 / 74,600 inh.) or Uiwang (53 / 142,000) remain much longer on their own : a merger with Anyang (58 / 618,000) could be a solution. Gimpo seems big enough, but not so dense (276.6 km2 / 203,000), but many areas are either booming or about to (ie near Incheon's Cheongna, Ganghwa-do). Bucheon or Gwangmyeong are populated (850,000 and 341,000) but small (53.4 and 38.5 km2). For this pair, joining forces with Siheung (441,000 / 131) and why not even Ansan (Southwards) would make sense... Combinations are countless.


GWANGJU OUT OF THE LOOP... FOR THE MOMENT

Seongnam-Hanam project started as an even more ambitious project : Gwangju (the Gyeonggi-do city not to be confused with South West Korea's metro city) was initally in the loop and eventually declined to join Seongnam and Hanam, which would have created a major and relevant powerhouse :

- Today, Seongnam claims 141.8 square kilometers and 1,023,000 inhabitants (including people about to move in Pangyo New Town). Hanam 93 and 128,000. The 235 km2 and 1,13 million inhabitants ensemble will claim the "Metropolitan City" status and can even beat Suwon (121 km2, 1,087,000 inhabitants) as Gyeonggi-do's most populated city, but Gwangju would add 431 km2 and 215,000 inhabitants, forming a 3-city bigger than Seoul itself (605 km2 - but over 10 M souls).

- From a geographical point of view, Seongnam-Hanam looks a bit crooked : only a tiny kilometer of common border (at Hanam's Hakam-dong) unites two otherwise distant blocks and furthermore, a mountain (Namhansan) prevents both urban centers from actually connecting. Gwangju is the obvious missing piece that would complete a puzzle as harmoniously* shaped as the capital Seoul.

- Precisely, Gwangju used to be a capital, and the 3-city-merger would have made perfect sense at the historical level. The young city of Hanam (established on January 1st, 1989) owes its name to the former capital of Baekjae Kingdom, and used to belong to Gwangju-gun. Besides, the Gwangju corner that fills the puzzle, the fortress of Namhansanseong, would be the trio's perfect pivotal landmark.

Joining the duo later may prove more difficult...


A STIMULATING URBAN CHALLENGE

This administrative measure will necessarily have more or less telluric effects. Typically, the old core of Seongnam city, sidelined by Bundang and Pangyo, appears now central and is very much likely to experience some kind of revival.

Today, Seongnam-Hanam looks as unbalanced as Incheon, with very various landscapes, from the Southwestern New Towns to the Northeastern nature (Hangang, Geomdansan). And each block is disfigured by a major highway hub : Pangyo InterChange (Highway 1 to Busan / Circular 100) for Seongnam, Hanam Junction for Hanam (100 with Highway 35 to Daejeon).

Bundang lost some of its luster but remains a success story. Yet competition is raging with cities further south. Cities which don't have as many natural obstacles to development.

I'm sure city planners are full of ideas. But I hope destroying Namhansan is not one of them. Seoul green belts are definitely in real danger these days.

Seoul Village 2009

* from a distance at least, because each city lies in a different valley and connecting the centers would somehow mean replacing mountains with concrete.

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