Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time to respect the real Seoul

Time to respect the real Seoul

At long last, Seoul is starting to claim the spot it deserves on the international stage. But if the Korean capital can leverage on unique assets and an amazing ability to make things happen, it must also find the courage to go even further in recent reforms, at maybe one of the most defining moments in its history. On this path, it must leverage on old and new blends of enthusiastic Seoulites from all horizons.

By the way : please don’t call me an ‘Alien’. I wasn’t beamed down here. And don’t call me a ‘Foreigner’ either : I’d feel at best an outsider, at worst some sort of lethal contaminant. ‘Expatriate’ ? I didn’t leave my country : I love Korea, that’s all. ‘Non-Korean’ ? You can’t define yourself with what you are not. ‘International Resident’ ? Better, but it almost sounds like a sticky and itchy kind of parasite… I’m just a Seoulite who happens to be French. And from Paris.

Apparently, the contrast couldn’t be sharper between a museum-city where time seems suspended, and a “Tombstone Apartment Dystopia” where instantaneous is not fast enough. But I love Seoul as much as Paris, and yes, I do consider them as equally beautiful. The beauty of Seoul is much more fragile and delicate than it seems : while postcard faves experience a revival, too many backstage wonders are on the verge of extinction.

Over the past few years, this city has been consistently improving as a major tourist and business destination, as well as a welcoming home for foreign residents. And even more recently, it has started to care about its own sustainability, to consider alternative dynamics, to embrace a long term vision. But reforms face resistance, and Seoul has yet to fine-tune its own delicate balance between its past, present, and future.

It’s high time to save and sublimate the city’s uniqueness, and the challenge is both urban and human.

First challenge : a cityscape respecting Seoul’s past and future

Ever the shapeshifter, Seoul survived massive destructions during the Korean War, and over the six following decades never stopped doing, undoing, and redoing parts of itself at an amazing pace. Cultural treasures keep being destroyed, but this insane “erase / rebuild” cycle is about to end : you simply cannot beat common sense and demographics forever.

Typically, dwellings cannot be anymore manufactured and marketed like consumer goods to be dumped and replaced by the next generation : for better or for worse, what’s being built now is here to last, and will define Seoul’s cityscape for centuries. So instead of following nowadays fads, the fateful “always taller” equation, and short term profits, planners must consider long term value, and contribute to a more consistent, sustainable future.

Money can buy eccentricity and fancy designs, but money is also destroying Seoul’s priceless landscape : the capital’s founders selected the location for good reasons, and no other World capital can boast as beautiful a mountain system. I’m glad some measures were taken to restore the fortress and its gates, or to protect certain mountain tops, but high rise buildings keep being allowed everywhere, obliterating mountains and depriving the city of its most valuable landmarks, lungs and assets, turning the Joseon capital into some anonymous megalopolis. I often say that Seoul has just one mountain too many : ‘Budongsan’ (‘real estate’ in Korean).

Seoul is not Bilbao, a city that relied on one landmark building to be put on the map. Seoul is not Dubai, a caprice born on the desert. And Seoul is not Beijing, a capital relatively spared by war destructions. But Seoul can learn from all : people can come once for a mirage, they only come back for the real thing, and they hate to see the real thing disappear in favor of more mirages. Western visitors to the 2008 Beijing Olympics voiced out their disappointment when they realized traditional Hutong houses had been massively destroyed to make room for soulless accommodations. In Seoul, the most vocal opponents to the Hanok genocide are Westerners living in traditional Korean houses. Long overdue, the time of preservation seems at last about to come : the municipality has pledged to prevent the destruction of cultural assets (expressing remorse for places like Pimatgol), and taken the first significant steps to protect certain clusters or to promote hanok stay. Even some Korean speculators are starting to understand the value of traditional houses. But only an immediate moratorium would stop the bleeding and pave the way for wiser decisions.

Wiser decisions, when everybody claims to turn green, could be to diminish automobile domains instead of extending them : at the very moment Seoul was restoring Cheonggyecheon, it was also planting new elevated concrete monsters. New Towns should include from day one new subway stations, not new highways pouring more vehicles into existing bottlenecks. New motorways only add value when they actually alleviate traffic, like underground circular bypasses doubled with multimodal public transport hubs.

On the bright side, Seoul is changing for the better in countless fields. Dedicated bus lanes have totally revolutionized public transportation, and all public buses are progressively switching to natural gas, waiting for even cleaner fuels (ie Seoul can lead the pack if OLEV technology delivers the goods). Air pollution remains an issue but keeps decreasing steadily, and can be now monitored by every citizen through a transparent online information system. Concrete overpasses are being removed at major crossroads, public gardens planted in previously suffocating neighborhoods, streams revived, avenues lined up with trees, pedestrian streets created, bicycle lanes extended, modest though charming alleyways reconsidered as true Seoul cultural assets… The municipality is also trying a bit harder to curb speculation, and pragmatically searching for alternatives to the Apartment Blocks Curse (ie “Human Towns” concept).

And if you can argue for days over its architectural details, the new Gwanghwamun Square has been from day one a success from an urban point of view : it not only restored Seoul’s most beautiful perspective on Bukhansan, but also reunified city center around Sejongno (to the Square’s opponents who preferred Sejongno as a highway : THAT’s the high way), and furthermore put humans back into the landscape. At last, pedestrians don’t feel anymore like mere parasites in a car centric world, and tourists can discover Seoul on foot, not just from a taxi.

So I’m confident about the future, but reforms must be pushed all the way right now, and every district should start its own treasure hunt before it’s too late.

Second challenge : respecting all social dynamics and human capitals

Seoul is a modern megalopolis full of life and energy, but also a collection of small villages more or less trapped in charming time capsules. Everyone manages to evolve, but internal clocks are not all set on the same time : Seoulites have developed unique and contrasted evolutionary dynamics. On one hand, powerful innovation factories : swift decision making, almost instantaneous time to market and mass adoption, returns on experience richer and faster than anywhere else. On the other hand, informal social workshops : pockets of slow digestion of change, at the same time conservatories of Korean traditions and laboratories for new urban traditions. This incredible social mix makes Seoul truly unique and contributes to its attractiveness as both a business and a tourist destination.

Needless to say, the most endangered ecosystem is the latter. Partly because older generations are not very much involved in the big picture, when they are not simply ignored as haunting symbols from an embarrassingly underdeveloped past, neither in touch with the present, nor connected to the “ubiquitous city”. But to the contrary, it’s the rest of the population who often needs to reconnect, to keep in touch with reality, to belong to the city. Farmers who fed the capital before joining it during the massive post-war rural exodus are not only an essential component but the very cement on which Seoul holds : they create and maintain lively neighborhood relationships across compartmentalized complexes, they grow flowers and vegetables in sterile alleyways, they make market visits worthwhile for tourists as well as for their fellow citizens, they know the value of time and seasons, they remember all initiatives that were ever tried, failures as well as successes… They are the living memory and the very soul of Seoul, its most precious and most overlooked source of knowledge.

Here too, Seoul hidden treasures are under threat, and time is of the essence : Korea is ageing at a record pace, and its capital city must make sure its own citizens will grow not only older but also wiser. The Seoul Museum of History is doing an fantastic job collecting and sharing memories across generations of Seoulites, and Seoul authorities are timely starting to reach out for segments of populations that until now were not in the loop for urban planning : senior citizens, students, young couples… Bonus : bridging generational and cultural gaps between Seoulites could also train the city for further demographical / cultural challenges (ie coping with massive migrations from North Korea, anyone ?).

Seoul is preparing even more actively for another major evolution : by 2050, more than 10% of Korean residents will not be Korean nationals, and the proportion is likely to be much higher in the capital - already 2.4% today, that’s more than a quarter million souls, mostly ethnic Koreans and Asians but from increasingly diverse horizons, and scattered far beyond traditional clusters (the biggest international neighborhood is not Itaewon but Garibong, in Guro-gu).

Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen Seoul progressively evolve into a cosmopolitan capital, and recently, two major trends signal a decisive cultural shift.

First, the country’s most valuable natural resource, the energy of its own people, is now reaching far beyond Korean nationals or members of the Korean diaspora : whatever you name it (Koreanity ? Koreanitude ? Koreanhood ? Koreanism ?), a significant part of that spirit is now carried by people who, from all parts of the world, feel that positive spark inside, that sense of belonging. In Seoul, international residents, generally tempted to reproduce their own native environments, seem more often eager to contribute as normal citizens. And even if language is less a barrier now, more and more can speak Korean. Traditionally “specialized” in business expats for big multinationals or teachers, Korea is developing a promising international SME ecosystem which will probably be fueled by an increasing number of international students : the whole country targets 100,000 for 2010 compared to only 3,373 ten years ago and in 2009, Seoul National University and Yonsei alone claimed a combined 2,786 foreign undergraduates plus 1,535 graduates. Unsurprisingly, Seoul is also becoming a magnet for young entrepreneurs roaming Asia in search of opportunities.

The second trend is the energy with which the Seoul Metropolitan Government is reaching for all foreign residents. Not only to help them fully enjoy Seoul, but also to get their constant feedback and suggestions about how to improve everyday life for all citizens. The Seoul Global Center perfectly illustrates Seoul dynamics at their best : you spot a need, you put a team on it, you propose solutions, you get instant feed back, and you keep improving and adding services in a pragmatic, inclusive, ongoing, and evolutionary process : consultations about daily life or business issues in several languages, Korean lessons, a business start-up school program… The 2 year-old SGC operates 7 Global Village Centers across the capital, and recently opened a Seoul Global Business Support Center in COEX (a business gateway in a business center and a business district : Gangnam-gu boasts 2,000 foreign companies). It even organizes on site consultations to reach migrant workers who couldn’t enjoy the services otherwise. No other city designed such a comprehensive one-stop-service system for its foreign residents, and free of charge at that. The Seoul Global Center is now a subject of international benchmarking, and a model for other Korean cities (Ulsan launched its own Global Center last March).

Seoul claimed the 12th position in urban competitiveness in 2009, up from the 27th in 2006. To reach higher, it must involve more citizens in its own past, present, and future. Granted, “creative city governance” also caused a few overhyped projects, but you can’t get everything right when you try so many things.

A defining moment, a unique opportunity

Korea is paradoxically growing older and bolder : breaking all records for low birth rates, but also experiencing for the first time global recognition as a political, economical, and cultural power. Both phenomena stress the growing importance of multiculturalism in a country traditionally used to rely on its own dynamics, but also the need to reform and to adapt, and the need to reaffirm its identity without sinking into identitarianism, to preserve without embracing conservatism.
What will Seoul look like one hundred years from now ? We should get a pretty good picture much earlier than we think, so let’s not waste the years to come repeating past mistakes, and let’s work today for the city’s long term attractiveness. International benchmarking will help, but Seoul is not a me-too product and has a unique opportunity to become a model city. So Seoul must act as a leader and not a follower, respect fragile ecosystems and key elements of its own DNA, keep evolving without losing its soul. And keep the eye on the ball : it’s nice to promote Korean cuisine worldwide, but first make sure that every five-star hotel in Seoul has a Korean restaurant (only two do so right now).
What does it mean to be a Seoulite in this century ? It’s feeling that you are part of the city and the city is a part of you, even if you don’t live there. And like New York or Paris, Seoul has its own inclusive but original flavor, not the uniform world brew you can find everywhere. There again, a little bit like Korean food, maybe : tasty, diverse, intense.

Stephane MOT -
Seoul Village 2010

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