Friday, January 29, 2010

Ari, Arirang, Ari, Ariul City

Seoul Village 2010 - Korea loves urban planning from scratch : obliterating a whole chunk of an old city to make room for an anonymous new town, building an orwellian international city on the sea (see Songdo ubiquitous city), or even planting a new capital in the middle of nowhere (see the Sejong City telenovela)... now combine all this with the ecotourism fad and you get "Ariul".

The latest avatar of the Saemangeum Embankment project, a local drama I've been following ever since I set foot for the first time in the peninsula in 1991*, Ariul (아리울) was presented yesterday by the Office of the Prime Minister.

By 2020, this "waterfront city" is supposed to attract flocks of eco-tourists and international business travelers to a polder to be created along the Saemangeum Seawall, a 33 km-long dyke built at the mouth of the Mangyeong River (between Gunsan and Buan, with a halfway stop in the former island of Sinsido).

That pharaonic embankment had already caused major uproars in environmental circles, and one can expect similar reactions for this KRW 21 trillion, dubaiesque project covering the equivalent of two thirds of Seoul city.

At least, it won't be a bridge to nowhere anymore.

What strikes most in the new master plan is the circular road around the city center... a body of water surrounded by thematic blocks : international business, industry, residential, ecology / environment / media (?), scientific research, renewable energy, agriculture, leisure / tourism. That last cluster will be modeled after Venice and Amsterdam, and this lovely utopia will be connected to the real world by new or improved highways, plus a new Saemangeum-Gunsan railway.

At this pace, by the end of year 2050, "eco-tourists" will be able to drive from Gwanghwa-do to Jeju-do as seamlessly as along the Florida keys...

If you wonder what a new port, complete with industries, and all this real estate frenzy have to do with "eco-tourism", welcome on board. If you wonder why this polluted spot was selected for a water tourism utopia, learn that one seventh of the budget is devoted to improve the quality of water to make the said utopia relevant. If you wonder why 20% of the land is devoted to agriculture, it's simply because city planners thought that that poorly located cluster wouldn't attract investors (this heresy shouldn't last if the program proves to be a success). And if you wonder how this zillionth "Eastern Asian Ubiquitous Well Being Green Hubopia" will position itself against its countless national rivals already under construction, go figure.

Who will pay ? The next president, the next generations of taxpayers, and the next generations of people condemned to live in an artificial environment.

To whom do we owe this brilliant mess ? Lee Myung-bak is only following the pledge of Kim Young-sam, who promised it to Jeolla-do voters during his 1992 campaign. The "bulldozer" president couln't decently pull the plug on that one just weeks after abandoning his pledge to Chungcheong-do voters, made during his own 2007 campaign : keeping Sejong City (and Roh Moo-hyun promises) alive. But Lee hasn't given up his own fabled Four river project... The day presidential candidates stop destroying their country with insane promises, Korea will probably feel better.

To me, Ariul sounds like the nth regional version of the old folk song Arirang. Only this time the subject would be that other eternal love of Koreans : real estate.

S.M.


* in Gimpo airport of course (from Paris via Tokyo because you couldn't fly to Korea over Russia). But land had already been claimed from the sea for Incheon airport : when I first visited Yongyu-do, it was already connected with Yeongjong-do, even if you had to take a ferry from Wolmido.

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