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Friday, January 16, 2015

Diagonal crossings, High Lines, and Business Verticals (how pedestrians and businesses remodel Seoul... and vice-versa)

Seoul keeps at the same time looking for more sustainable urban planning approaches, and doing more mistakes, because as usual in this city we tend to try a lot of things, but seldom after serious impact surveys. At least that's far less boring than my other hometown Paris, where we tend to make decade-long impact surveys, but seldom do something else. As you well know, a Seoulite born in Paris, I tend to pile up useless bits on an ever changing cityscape. Here's a batch on recent evolutions for Seoul pedestrians and neighborhoods, with the Seoul High Line project as a natural bridge in-between.

Opening up the city to its citizens (not burying them!)

At the micro level, I really appreciate the recent multiplication of Ginza-style diagonal pedestrian crossings, which make life much more simple and safer for everybody. They de facto create temporary no-drive zones that can change a neighborhood without going all the way to car-free streets (e.g. Yonsei-ro). Pedestrians feel that they own the space, even if that's not all the time; there are even permanent tattoos on the macadam to prove they do:

With diagonal pedestrian crossings, you don't need to have a double PhD in statistics and physics to calculate the optimal path to reach point B alive

I am much less convinced by the project to create a vast underground pedestrian network connecting major Jongno-gu landmarks. That would signal a return to a car-centric past when pedestrians where parasites that had to move underground, like ants or termites, across downtown Seoul. I suspect this project to have something to do with the one I mentioned last fall, which would move Gwanghwamun Square sideways, and re-transform Sejongdae-ro into a highway (see "Gwanghwamun, Donhwamun, and the Tale of two Royal Roads"). In other words, back to square one, or rather back to Zero Gwanghawmun Square.

In the dowtown Seoul I discovered in the early 90s, pedestrians had to either use tunnels or aerial walkways to cross the major roads. And the Seoul High Line would somehow revive the latter.

Named after New York's High Line Park, itself inspired by the Promenade Plantee of Paris, the idea gained momentum in April last year, partly because the city needed to compensate for the planned destruction of an old walkway that Seoulites had deserted because winos had claimed it most of the time.

Leaving a landmark in the capital is very good PR, and a tradition for French presidents in Paris: Pompidou and Beaubourg, Mitterrand and the Pyramide du Louvre, Chirac and the Musee du Quai Branly... Note that Giscard missed the opportunity and tried later to claim the Musee d'Orsay as his work, and that Sarkozy didn't understand that he would have only one mandate (and that one building is easier to complete than a Grand Paris - Le Havre vision).

Leaving a landmark has also become a must for Seoul mayors eyeing a higher office: LEE Myung-bak had Cheonggyecheon (even if his greatest achievement was the creation of bus lanes), OH Se-hoon had Gwanghwamun Plaza (even if his greatest achievement was the revival of Sadaemun and the rebalancing of Gangbuk vs Gangnam, starting with the redistribution of taxes from the rich to the poor districts), and PARK Won-soon seems to be betting on the Seoul High Line.

Last month, Seoul citizens were invited to walk the line on a sunny Sunday afternoon - in other words: to vote with their feet in favor of the project.

PARK Chung-hee on the Seoul Station overpass (1970). But what fascinates me most is the background, Malli-dong and Kim Gi-chan's beloved Jungnim-dong.

Clearly, this walkway looks much better without cars. It is at the same time more scenic and less integrated to its surroundings than its NYC or Paris counterparts.

Covering the railways over a wide stretch would cost much more, but also provide a greater urban continuity. One thing is sure: if the taxi and bus corridors in front of the new Seoul Station have allowed the return of pedestrians at street level, the Toegye-ro - Tongil-ro - Sejongdae-ro - Hangangdae-ro intersection remains an utter mess, and with or without the High Line, it will require a complete and sustainable overhaul.

After its High Line, will benchmark-frenzy Seoul try to copy NYC's Low Line underground park project? ( - remind's me of OH Se-hoon's underground utopia (see "Seoul Goes Underground")

Reviving neighborhoods (not destroying them!)

As we've seen countless times New Town out, Redevelopment in, back to the Urban Jungle", "Inhuman, all too human Seoul", the Gyonam-dong saga...), Seoul has not completely given up its old, disfiguring 'New Town' model.

Another Seoul neighborhood destroyed in a 'New Town' project: in Hongeun-dong, Seodaemun-gu - (BTW: join my 800+ followers on Twitter!)
Speculators still pretty much run the show. The Yongsan IBD is cancelled and the US base relocation postponed, but money can't wait for a new big vision. Eight high rise buildings (over 50 floors) have been authorized on both sides of the base, and the front row of buildings circling it will be allowed to go up to 20 floors, guaranteeing a fat return and a privatized view on the future park to a happy few investors, letting the rest of the district out of the loop. Even North of the Han River, Gangnam Style rules...

Yet officially, the trend remains to revive neighborhoods instead of annihilating them. After the 'Human Town' / 'Old Town' approach, a concept based on communities (e.g. "Yeonnam-dong, a new Human Town or a new Old Town, but mercifully not that old New Town"), the next buzzword could be 'industrial convergence', a concept based on business verticals or mini-clusters.

For the moment, this new umbrella for urban regeneration seems to cover too wide a spectrum, from actual industrial zones to more or less farfetched urban storytelling, with the Seoul High Line as its highlight.

The other day, as Seoul mayor met with Richard Plunz (Professor of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia's GSAPP, Director of the Urban Design Lab at the Earth Institute), 7 zones were announced:
The seven 'industrial convergence' hubs

Let's have a closer look at these 'magnificent seven':
  • Seoul Digital Media City (Mapo-gu): I already wrote quite a lot about Sangam DMC (see all posts). I'll just add that it's already a national cluster for media and IT, so this is less about 'urban regeneration' than about piggybacking on existing dynamics. Note that the arrival of MBC was one of the few recent changes that helped put the DMC on Seoul's popular culture map: they instantly used their outdoor space to stage events and concerts (from their inauguration to the new year party), integrating the neighborhood in their broadcastings, a bit like Fox News on NYC's Avenue of the Americas. 
  • Seoul Station (Yongsan-gu): the verticals selected are history and tourism, more symbolized by the old station turned into Culture Station 284 than by the future High Line. Seoul Station itself will be beefed up as a key entry point to the capital, and many redevelopments are already under way in its vicinity (e.g. along Hangangdae-ro, Malli-dong, Seosomun Park...). Again, the High Line cannot be the only way to solve the urban mess at ground level.
  • Yeongdonggwon (Gangnam-gu - Songpa-gu): that's around coex and Jamsil Sports Complex, plus of course Hyundai's future HQs. This area didn't need to be wrapped under the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions) banner.
  • Seun Sangga (Jongno-gu): inaugurated in 1967, KIM Swoo-geun's fascinating cruise ship forms a long bar between Jongmyo and Chungmuro. Its upper segment was destroyed a few years ago to make room for a small park on Jong-ro, but the reopening of Cheonggyecheon somewhat revived its crux. The whole neighborhood is a DYI paradise now roamed by more contemporary makers in search of odd parts and bits, and Seun Sangga's upper floor hosts the FabLab Seoul (got a project? need a 3D printer or a laser cutter? that's the place). Can this unique start-up hotspot avoid gentrification? Let's hope that at least, its safety will be improved - you don't want to be caught in a fire around here.

  • Seun Sangga's silicon belly - on FabLab's floor (BTW: you can also follow me on Vine!)

  • Chang-dong - Sanggye (Dobong-gu, Nowon-gu): back to Nowon's most coveted space: the Changdong train depot and the Dobong Driver's License Examination Center form a humongous site in Sanggye-dong*, a densely populated area full of apartment blocks divided in very small units. I've regularly posted about Nowon since my 2006 focus, often about subway projects, and always with this site in mind. Back in 2012, it was envisioned as a coex-style complex (see "Nowon confirmed as Seoul's northeast hub "). Last year, the four sections of the project were detailed: the train depot would become a 'Global Business Zone', the drivers center a 'Start-up Zone', and the two blocks on the other side of Jungnangcheon, in Chang-dong, a 'Global Life Zone' (leveraging on cultural and shopping venues built over the past decade). Now the focus is biotech. Whatever. Because of the real estate pressure, the only way here is up.
Changdong (Dobong-gu), Jungnangcheon, Sanggye (Nowon-gu). And more towers all over.

  • Mullae-dong - Yeongdeungpo (Yeongdeungpo-gu): a couple of blocks away from Seoul's Time Square, 'Ironworks alley' (철공소 골목) is not only a fantastic spot for post-industrial photo ops, but also a nest for young artists and designers. Or was, until recently: the usual curse of real estate speculation went even faster than for previous arty neighborhoods.
"Mullae Art Village, a Seoul village like no other (but aren't them all?)" (BTW: you can also follow me on Facebook!)
  • Janghanpyeong (Dongdaemun-gu): not exactly Seoul's most glamorous neighborhood (between Jangan-dong and Yongdap-dong, between the Naebu and the Dongbu expressways, West of the Cheonho Bridge knot and North of the water treatment plant), Janghanpyeong is known as a hub for used cars hunters, and that's the way the city wants it to remain. It could have some potential, though, once the water treatment is transformed into a more welcoming park.
All this is supposed to follow the model of a successful urban regeneration (!): Bukchon.
And all this is not supposed to bring confusion with the 5 zones presented last month. Seoul districts have been divided into five sectors: Seonamgwon (SW, project in Sangdo-dong, Dongjak-gu), Seobukgwon (NW, project in Sinchon), Dosimgwon (Center), Dongbukgwon (NE, projects in Seongsu-dong, Seondong-gu, and Jangwa-dong, Seongbuk-gu), Dongnamgwon (SE, project in Amsa-dong).


To be continued...

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* Yes, Chang-dong is in Dobong-gu, but Nowon split from Dobong in 1988, when the New Town was delivered (after a resistance narrated in Kim Dong-won's great documentary the Sanggye-dong Olympics). Note that Dobong, itself a spin-off from Seongbuk-gu (1973), was later split in two, spawning Gangbuk-gu in 1995.

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