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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

OH Se-hoon launches the "Seoul Human Town" concept

The campaign for Seoul City Hall is definitely on : Mayor OH Se-hoon just revealed his latest urban concept, which at the same time synthetizes earlier proposals into one marketable package... and doesn't leave much room for rival HAN Myeong-sook to position herself*.

Full disclosure here : I don't know much about the programs of other candidates, but I strongly support OH for a second term. Even if he did a few mistakes during his first mandate, he literally saved Seoul from itself, limiting the impact of speculation at the most crucial moment, initiating key projects, and most importantly, proposing an ambitious yet sustainable long term vision for the capital. He is by far the best mayor I've had over my 20 years in Seoul, and I'm anxious to see him push even harder in the years to come.

His predecessor LEE Myung-bak did accomplish very important programs, and beyond his much advertised projects of Cheonggyecheon and Seoul Forest, I praise the way he revolutionized public transit by creating dedicated bus lanes. But "Bulldozer" also fueled speculation to the point not one single part of the city was spared (always a weak spot for his base of haves and have mores).

With his "Seoul Human Town" ("서울휴먼타운") concept, OH Se-hoon is precisely proposing an alternative to Seoul's tragic base case scenario : instead of letting a whole neighborhood grow old and derelict until it's ripe for redevelopment, then destroy everything, and finally plant a big "apateu" block, the idea is to improve a neighborhood, make it a better place for everyone, with a special care for young couples and silver heads... core targets in OH's 2010 campaign**.

Beyond politics, "Seoul Human Town" does seem a smart and simple solution to improve quality of life in many residential areas which have grown into congested zones packed with low-rise houses and "villas" (of course, not even one hanok to salvage). Don't expect any tree in those narrow and dark streets. People don't stay out at night - not necessarily because they feel insecure, but because there's no point walking there, nowhere to sit. When I visit this kind of neighborhoods I often have this confused feeling of hopelessness. This isn't the poor, shanty, dickensian Seoul, but if there's life, it's contained behind closed doors and windows. Typically, there's no business, except maybe for one miserable laundry shop. Small groceries are disappearing one by one, and the last survivors expose a few bottles, toilet paper rolls, or ramyeon packs on depressingly dusty shelves...

OK I guess you get the point : something definitely has to be done. And something better than the all too successful "apateu" concept, which generally doesn't score much higher on the "human" scale.

"Seoul Human Town" intends to combine the best of both worlds :
- from apartment blocks : joint management, economies of scale, maintenance, security, parking space, (some) green areas, a playground, consistence and sustainability
- from your friendly neighborhood : low-rise architecture, the human touch, the sense of belonging, the memory, the soul, the identity of Seoul villages.
- bonus : community services, senior and daycare centers. Ultimately, many parts of the city shall enjoy facilities more adapted to their population densities, but previously unaffordable.

The system also aims at preventing Seoul from becoming a hi-rise-only nightmare : after decades of redevelopment, low-rise still cover 20% of the land but 56% of households already live in apartment complexes.

Nice fairytale, uh ? But we're not talking about turning pumpkins into coaches with a magic wand : just helping people like their own neighborhood. Don't imagine a complete renovation, more a rehabilitation of the environment : the idea is to let the area breathe, to get rid of one building here and there, to convert another one into a community center, to make room for pavements and plants, to add lights and CCTVs, to bury those cable / electricity snake nests hanging up between buildings... Here were the two before / after examples exhibited earlier today*** :

Some will flinch at the CCTVs and the watchman (other imports from apartment complexes), but the watchman is first of all a human being, a part of the community, who helps visitors as well as residents.

That's the "Type 2" model of Seoul Human Towns, designed for single-family housing areas. More comprehensive redevelopments are planned for multi-family housing areas, in the 100,000 square meter range (Type 1), but that one is not a really new concept, and it rather looks like a "mini-new town" with low-rise buildings :

"Seoul Human Town" will first be implemented for 300 families in 3 pilot neighborhoods : Seongbuk-dong (Seongbuk-gu), Insu-dong (Gangbuk-gu), and Amsa-dong (Gangdong-gu), respectively 45,781, 43,475, and 31,043 sqm. Other sites : around 239-1 Yeonnam-dong and 93-104 Sangsu-dong (both in Mapo-gu), and around 38-148 Yongmun-dong in Yongsan-gu.

Back to "Type 2" then. Can it fly ? And how about the money ?

Seoul city will provide support at the organizational and financial levels : it's also a way or allocating existing ressources a more efficient way. Authorities won't force people to move or abandon their houses if they don't want to, but they will coerce developpers into reserving, inside each new complex, a few apartments for those who accept expropriation. It can work, but the whole system is based on concertation and most owners are hooked on the usual redevelopment dream, so a lot of patience and pedagogy will be needed.

Hopefully, OH Se-hoon already paved the way by implementing a clear framework for renovations, remodelings, and redevelopments : if most initiatives remain private, the city is now involved from the earliest stage, and many safeguards have been created to fight against rampant embezzlement and corruption.

Anyway it's worth trying. There will be deceptions, but also new ideas that will benefit the whole community. And at the end of the day, more Seoulites will learn to associate urbanism with common sense.
Seoul Village 2010

* see "
the mayoral race is on"
** Seoul Mayor focuses his attention on key moments in life which, to say the least, are not being well tackled in Korea, such as having kids and raising them, or growing older : typically, the country lacks infrastructures to sit babies for working couples, its education system has grown into an unfair and prohibitive monster, and its aging population can't always enjoy a full life after retirement.
*** "
서울시, 신개념 저층주거지 ‘서울휴먼타운’ 조성"

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