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Friday, November 15, 2013

Songdo, DMC: sequence is of the essence (Part III)

I realize that I've completely forgotten the 3rd part of my series on Songdo and the DMC (see "Songdo, DMC: sequence is of the essence (Part I)" and "Songdo, DMC: sequence is of the essence (Part II)"). I thought I published it last June, and recently found out that it was still stuck in the blog's draft folder. I'll lazily post it almost as it is. The good news is that now I can include a recent development... and spare you, as well as my lazy self, an additional post on the topic.

Reminder: Part I covered sections 0 and 1 of the 'master plan' below, and Part II delivered lot # 2. This Part III wraps it up with bloc 3:
0) City, Interrupted. Puzzle, Ongoing. Landmarks and Landscars
1) Purpose and Identity, Citizens and Citizones, Projects and Projections
2) Connectivity, Continuity and Consistence
3) Longing and Belonging - Sequence is of the Essence

But let me first talk about the piece of news that got me digging into my own junkyard.


NB: again, Songdo and the DMC cannot be compared (e.g. scale, timelines, stakes, relative importance for local authorities...), and they don't compete directly. This is not a comparison but a parallel update, with random thoughts about the evolution of ambitious urban projects. See useful links at the end of this post.

UPDATE: download the whole focus in PDF format here.

(Addendum-Update) A solution to the Great DMC-Susaek Rift?

So what's the above-mentioned 'recent development'? Seoul city announced the other week new ambitions for Northeast Seoul: the campaigning mayor wants to develop a northeast Seoul business hub around the Digital Media City by covering part of the railways between the DMC and Susaek, and - hopefully - by convincing Korail to invest there instead of in the failed Yongsan IBD project* (NB: in a low-rise version of the Seoul Lite aerotropolis dystopia?).

If Korail owns the land, that bruised institution will probably think twice - and ask for more guarantees - before embracing this new embryo of a concept. At least it does address one of the DMC's key issues, one that - again - I highlighted in the previous part of this focus:

"To the North, a disgracious urban separator prevents the DMC from dialoguing with Susaek-dong and Eunpyeong-gu: the Gyeongui Line. Seoul city considers burying it, but it will take time and here, it's as wide as around Seoul Station. And it's doubled with yet another major entry point to Western Seoul: a 6-to-8-lane axis that goes straight from Gwanghwamun to the heart of Goyang and Ilsan, first as Sajik-ro, then as Songsan-ro, here as Susaek-ro, and through Gyeonggi-do as Jungang-ro. Overall, if you include the thin layer of buildings sandwiched between the railways and the road, that's a 300 m - wide band, almost as thick as the bar of the "T". The Digital Media City Station (AREX, Gyeongui Line, Subway Line 6) does connect both sides, but the whole area will boom the day a Gwanghwamun Square-like revolution helps pedestrians claim that bandwidth, critical for seamless communications."

Not very inspiring, the first sketches remind me not only of countless similar projects (of course, this one includes a hotel, a convention center, and a Time Square - style mall), but also of Paris La Defense's "Great Slab", or the initial Beaugrenelle mess - not exactly the epitome of sustainable, seamless urban continuity:

The projected DMC-Susaek hub covering the Gyeongui Line near Susaek / DMC Station

In concrete terms (and obviously in concrete, period), Gyeongui Line shall be covered around Susaek - Digital Media City Station, between Gayang-daero and Jeungsan-ro (East-West, along what I called the bar of the DMC's "T"), and between Susaek-ro and Seongam-ro (North-South). Under the giant slab, the "T"'s vertical axis (Sangamsan-ro / Maebongsan-ro) shall prolong Eunpyeongteoneol-ro: the city will probably have to beef up that street parallel to Jeungsan-ro (it crosses Susaek-dong and Sinsa-dong, and becomes Galhyeon-ro after the Eunpyeong Tunnel, under Bongsan). 

Needless to remind you that:

  • at this stage, this is just yet another multi-trillion-won, voter-friendly item on a mayor's fast-growing wish list ahead of next year's elections,
  • Seoul needs a global, long term vision that doesn't just sweep Yongsan under the rug, and
  • this neighborhood deserves a more sustainable concept
  • ...
That said, a vast reflection is needed to help Northwest Seoul fulfill its great potential, and along with the Seobu Line**, the DMC-Susaek connection remains a key missing piece in the puzzle.

Now once more, the Gyeongui Line problem should have been at the core of the reflection in the initial DMC project, and it's not only a matter of urban continuity, but of sequence.

All things considered, this case was the perfect transition between my second and third parts! As if I had waited for that precise moment to hide my laziness behind an apparent stroke of genial foresight.

In blog planning, luck is of the essence. (on @theseoulvillage, 20131107)


3) Longing and Belonging - Sequence is of the Essence

Even if I'm not a fan of "urban storytelling" and "overscripted cities", I like to read good scenarii and to follow interesting storylines when cities decide to launch big scale projects. So why do I keep returning to Songdo and Seoul Digital Media City, places where, typically, citizens are not given much room to grow the city by themselves, places where, typically, you often feel the "it could have been so much better if only" / "if you're going to invest that much, you might as well" kind of frustrations? Because, precisely, I'm curious to see how humans - citizens and urban planners alike - evolve in this kind of environments, how they fit in and/or try to alter them.

What do Songdo and the DMC belong to, and what will their citizens belong to?

And why did pioneer residents long for these 'new towns' in the first place?

As a 'greenfield' new town, Songdo had few inherited residents to deal with (the first residential blocks do seem to belong to a different era than the rest), and the usual promises of capital gain / premium education did the trick, with a heady international flavor. The concept required elites to move in to feed the buzz, and Songdo First World set the tone at the residential level, with its 60 floor totems and vast penthouses: leave Seoul for true space and status at a - relatively - reasonable price. But the business and education ecosystems needing more time to move in, some decided to wait a bit.

For the DMC as well, business was the main focus. But at the residential level, the equation was different, and the terra not completely incognita for many first movers, who furthermore and unlike Songdoans, enjoyed subway stations from day one. Overall, less a migration, more a transition between two generations of urban hardware and software. It required less "pioneer spirit" than Songdo where, as we saw, people were more longing to join a success story and a sure capital gain than an innovative community. If Seoulites have been used to move in unfinished new towns, they're less and less ready to sacrifice quality of life, and the real estate crisis made them more cautious: they want to join tested neighborhoods, otherwise promoters have to multiply incentives and freebies - and even that is not enough nowadays.

In Korea, master plans tend to stop at the new town borders, and projects tend to be treated as "stand alone"objects. Fundamentally, impact assessment remains optional, and you seldom see all stakeholders taken into account. Here, go/no-go for major projects seem to follow vaudeville rules instead of urban planning standards. Elements of human integration seem to be limited to functional check lists: do we have schools? check. a mall? check. sports center? check. a cultural center? check. contents to fill it? nature abhors a vacuum, build it and they will come. No wonder residents tend to belong to a 'grand ensemble' before belonging to a city continuum, when it should be the other way round.

Do Songdo and Digital Media City really belong to Incheon and Seoul? We've already partly answered the question, for instance when we raised urban continuity issues. The fact that IFEZ doesn't have the lead on Songdo may explain the limited synergies between Songdo and Cheongna or Yeongjongdo, let alone (literally!) downtown Incheon. Seoul Metropolitan Government manages directly the DMC project, but may be tempted to grant Korail as much autonomy as they wish in order to have them develop the DMC-Susaek connection I mentioned earlier, which may lead hinder the integration into both neighborhoods, an integration that - again - should have been a priority from the start.

And again, no green light should be given to any new town project lacking mass public transit solutions from day one, and adding more roads simply isn't sustainable, you need dynamic connectors, a vision for the future. Songdo should have been articulated around a subway backbone from day one, ideally connecting both ends of line 1 in a loop that would have included the old city: the stations could have been inaugurated step by step, as the city unfolds, and still the urban fabric would have stretched more efficiently, both pulled and pushed by new lots and organic growth. It would have both boosted the new district and revitalized Incheon downtown as well as such landmarks as the fish market, preventing urban decay (see "From urban mirages to urban decay") between the center and Songdo. On the other extreme, even if a big hole had to be dug in Seoul map to make room for Magok District, at least transit was ready there even before construction started (see January focus).

The only "alleywayish" element in the masterplan, Canal Walk, was delivered before neighborhoods were developed to the west: instead of a central, lively street, it started in the suburbs as a one legged bridge, and unsurprisingly struggles to reach its full potential. A similar diagonal project has been conceived towards the Art Center, but this time promoters seem to have understood that a sounder timing was required. It's not just having the right bricks at the right time, but the right combinations, the right dynamics.

I'm curious to see how the Songdo and DMC 'brands' will reach across their natural borders. We're already seeing new towns such as Gajaeul New Town marketed as extensions of the DMC, and let's not forget that the historic Songdo Resort was not located in today's IBD.

Earlier, I came up with the "Songdoan" denomyn. I guess it would be interesting to invent a specific one for the DMC - to develop a sense of belonging for projects where humans came after functionalities; why not "DMCitizen"? More pleasant and creative suggestions are welcome.


The End... And of course, to be continued

See Part I
See Part II
Download the whole focus in PDF format here. 

See also posts related to Songdo and the DMC, in particular:

- ...

See also posts related to urbanism and new towns, including:
- "Sudogwon New Town Blues" (March 2013)
- ...

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