Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wet eyes for wetlands and urban mirages

Another heated debate on KBC*, this time over the environmental impact of Songdo (the new town has been mostly claimed over wetlands). My position on the issues remain unchanged:

... About Songdo:

I've already spilled more than a few comments about that monumental aerotropolis (see previous posts about Songdo), and I sincerely wish the best for the project. But clearly, this is not my idea of a dream city, and I think that when you have the chance to start from scratch, you must come up with truly original and sustainable concepts and vision. And in many ways, the masterplan remains typical of 1990s Korea. Furthermore, the ultimate network society utopia could have started in a much more stimulating way, had the approach not been exclusively "top down".

That said, Songdo is already up and running, with the potential of a great success.

I have considerably more doubts regarding another pharaonic projects on Korean shores: Saemangeum, from the beginning an economic and environmental nonsense**. Well... faith and money can move mountains, but even in Korea, they don't come in unlimited supply.

... About wetlands and sanctuaries in Korea:

Swamps and marshes have been systematically obliterated over past centuries. They're not glamour and often a nuisance, but we've realized only recently how crucial they are to the global ecosystem, not just for fauna or flora diversity, but also in the cycle of water depollution.

Even Korea caught the message, following a major conference about wetlands in Changwon (Ramsar Convention 2008 - already three years ago, how time flies). It even triggered programs for preservation and eco-tourism at the national and regional levels.

But all natural assets remain at risk because of the country's pervasive real estate speculation: the other day I discovered disheartening projects of marinas and villas along pristine seashores, and two years ago we could see how even sanctuarized greenbelts could be sacrificed to the gods of concrete and steel***.

... About New Towns and the laws of gravitation:

New cities must always be conceived with a long term vision that encompasses the past as well as the future. And one of the great tragedies in Korean urbanism is the fact that developpers prefer to build from scratch a new city instead of improving existing ones, even if it means the eventual failure of both. I understand the short term economics, but that's simply not sustainable.

That's true for both "Urban New Towns" and "Greenfield New Towns". The first expression may sound like a tautology, but that's how I define New Towns replacing partly or totally an already urbanized area. I often lament about how, in Seoul, New Towns tend to obliterate all reference to the past. There's a quantum leap between improving a city and negating it, and that's exactly what happened when whole neighborhoods vanished, replaced by over-sanitized and over-standardized blocks of tombstone "apateu". If the spirit of Seoul villages could somewhat survive in certain complexes, the city may face new challenges as the generation that ignited the baby boom passes away.

Moving on to "Greenfield New Towns", now. If you want to evaluate their impacts, don't just consider their direct environment. Take Incheon, for instance: even if you remain within Incheon territory, Songdo is only part of a gigantic scheme that involves other greenfield projects (eg Cheongna), and partial redevelopments of existing neighborhoods. But at the heart of the city, many places have regressed over the past decade, surviving in some kind of limbo. In other countries they would have been priorities for improvement, but they don't stand a chance when money talks first in urban planning. What may seem good for business in the short term may prove to be socially, politically, and economically counter-productive in the medium to long term.

In countless places across the country, some cities are already schizophrenic entities with brand new districts totally disconnected from former city centers stuck in the wrong side of the eighties, and if authorities don't invest now to fix the balance, the mess will only get worse****.

If you can try to pass the buck to the next administration, you simply can't escape demographics.

Seoul Village 2012
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*see comments following the article "Korea Business Central Exclusive Interview - Dick Warmington, "Uncovering Korean Potential at Chadwick School in Korea's New City of Songdo""
** see "Ari, Arirang, Ari, Ariul City"
*** see "Tighten your greenbelt"
**** Note that the winners of today may not be the winners of tomorrow considering the end of the universal "apateu" model, the relatively low cost of land downtown...

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