Sunday, November 11, 2012

From urban mirages to urban decay

The KRIHS (Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements - 국토연구원 - delivered last week a grim portrait of Korean rust belts: of the 144 industrialized zones it surveyed, 23 would show early signs of urban decay, and 44 would be seriously emptying themselves. Some counties have never recovered from the collapse of the textile industry, but I'm more interested in the stories of urban centers.

Over the past few days, the Korean press buzzed about the findings, and I'm not surprised to see the Korean JoongAng Daily focus today* on the example of Incheon's Nam-gu, and the failures of short sighted urban development. I precisely took downtown Incheon as the textbook case of downtown sacrificed by Korea's suicidal urban planning in a recent focus ("Wet eyes for wetlands and urban mirages"), from which I reproduce here the 'About New Towns and the laws of gravitation' part:

"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 (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...).

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

In the US, downtown Pittsburgh somehow manages to bounce back after lost decades, but only after land value dived to the point whole parts could be redrawn with a sounder environmental approach. Downtown Incheon remains far from that stage, and will need to find its own model for revival.

The KRIHS found similar patterns in most cities, but I note a clear difference between Seoul and all others. If you take Incheon, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, or Daejeon, cities are hit in their historic centers, generally in their "Jung-Buk-Nam-Dong-Seo-gu" (Center, N-S-E-W districts). In Seoul, it's more in the periphery, with Eunpyeong-gu, Nowon-gu, and Gwanak-gu in the 'early decaying' stage, and Gangbuk-gu and Jungnang-gu in the 'hollowing out' stage.

Of course, it's not that simple. The survey is based on demographic trends and proportions of old buildings which could also become opportunities, and situations may differ spectacularly at the micro level. Eunpyeong-gu, for instance, exposes spectacular disparities between its new town areas, the Tongil-ro axis, and more withdrawn neighborhoods. Some projects are already under way: Gangbuk might bet a needed boost from the future Ui-Sincheol LRT (Light Rail Transit) line, Nowon from the renovations around its center (see "Nowon confirmed as Seoul's northeast hub"), and Seoul can play on more levers than other cities... but the lack of strategic vision remains embarrassing.

Even with their significant cultural assets, it's hard to tell how Gwanak or Jungnang are defining themselves, let alone where they're heading for. Excluded from major projects, they are more considered as transitional spaces than well defined urban entities, and the only literature I can find about them recycles the usual cliches. Both have the opportunity to build themselves a more balanced future than their neighbors, but for that to happen, they need to solve their own identity crisis, and to stand for something.

And of course, Seoul has the mission to make sure no one is left behind, that each and every one belongs, and at the same time to respect and nurture the originality and diversity that make metropolises sustainable. It's like a soccer team: it's not just about star power, and you can tell the strongest ones by their weakest points.

Seoul Village 2012
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* "Old downtowns in Korea’s cities are hollowing out" (20121112 Korea JoongAng Daily)

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