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Sunday, January 16, 2022

From Human Town to Gather Town

Interesting to draw a parallel between OH Se-hoon's last two urban concepts: 'Human Town', which he didn't have time to fully roll out and scale up before the abrupt end of his previous mandate (see " OH Se-hoon launches the "Seoul Human Town" concept"), and 'Gather Town' ('Moa Town'), which has just been announced, less than a year after his return to office.

Both concepts rely on a common goal: revitalizing neighborhoods without destroying them with the usual 'New Town' model, offering community services usually found in big projects while preserving a nuclear, lower rise structure.

Seoul notes that 87% of low-rise neighborhoods don't meet requirements for redevelopment, often because they are not derelict or old enough. Yet many are poorly maintained because they stretch without a common purpose, and their dwellers already struggle to maintain shared spaces within their own buildings.

Where Human Town proposed a smart and light cosmetic revamping, Gather Town hybrid formula includes partial redevelopment to replace shared houses and 'villas' with low-to-mid-rise apartments, while preserving the street structure. Key regulations will be eased, for example the threshold for the proportion of deteriorated units, the type of buildings included. Where big projects cover over 100k square meters and take 8 to 10 years to complete, Moa Towns will start from 1,500m2 and only require 2 to 4 years. Seoul aims at 20 projects every year, and 2,404 units by 2025.

So unlike with Human Town, where individual units keep evolving at their own pace, it won't really the same neighborhood. But shared infrastructures can go much further, for instance a big underground parking that will fully liberate street level, and allow the removal of all these ugly ground floors on pilotis in favor of actual life spaces (shops, terraces, plants and parks, community services like libraries or day care centers...). 

Provided the design is up to the ambition, lively pockets can emerge in the middle of forsaken neighborhoods, and radiate across them.

I like the notion that pragmatism allows the combination of several techniques (certain sections can be redeveloped, other maintained, see schema below), but I wouldn't want it to become just a shortcut to build quickly something that lacks consistence and soul. You want a village where citizens breathe and enjoy walking.

If this rendering of a street (below) doesn't seem very exotic to Western eyes, 80s zoning sure beats the 50s Grands Ensembles that have kept popping up across Seoul ever since the sixties. And this looks much more welcoming than dense, tree-less 'villa' clusters. Provided of course these mid-rise sections conveniently hidden in the background remain a tiny part of the program. Note the post-covid architecture with individual balconies and on the second floor a shared outdoor space running along what must be community services or shops.

The first two projects mentioned on January 13th are Myeonmok-dong, Jungnang-gu, a vast low-rise neighborhood at the feet of Achasan, and Beon-dong in Gangbuk-gu, around Dream Forest and Odong Park, between Suyu-dong, Mia-dong, and Chang-dong, close to the Ssangmun-dong of Seong Gi-hun and Cho Sang-woo (both fictional characters sharing a lot with their author HWANG Dong-hyuk, a true local*).

The Beon-dong project is not small at all (50,000 m2), and the one in Myeonmok-dong is almost twice bigger (97,000 m2). Sorry, but to me, this looks much more like a mini-New Town that to an improved old-town:

Beon-dong's 'Gather Town'

Obviously, 'Gather Town'  is less human centric than 'Human Town'. More top down than bottom up, with a top that rises a bit too high above 'low rise' levels... 

Seoul Village 2022
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* BTW ICYMI I was mentioned in Charlie Usher's article on not so glamorous Seoul neighborhoods ("The heart of Seoul – the working-class neighbourhoods captured by Squid Game and Parasite"). Of course, less glamorous doesn't mean less valuable, to the contrary. And if you haven't watched it yet, go binge "Squid Game - an addictive slap in the face".

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Seoul Village Season XVI

Happy New Year of the Tiger! Let's see how this young cub grows and roars.

And let's hope the pandemic will spare us another scary sequel...

As we've known from the start (see "Kudos to Korea's 4 Ts, but please no complacency"), we can never let our guard down while riding such roller coasters. This year, as expected, after failing to secure vaccines as early as other wealthy nations, Korea caught up very quickly once they arrived. But a populist decision to ease restrictions at the worst moment (during a surge and before year end festivities - not to mention an unexpected new variant) led to record cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Fortunately, the population started to react and the government to backpedal, so the last couple of weeks have seen a steady decline in the number of cases. Keep safe and carry on.

This year, barring more surprises (and we've had our share of those lately), the presidential election could be the most defining moment for a country where the balance of powers has been dramatically altered over the past few years.

LEE Jae-myung is now leading in the polls, with the help of YOON Seok-youl (definitely not a seasoned politician), and of course MOON Jae-in. Interesting contrast: while LEE remains totally protected from any investigation around the Daejang-dong scandal, the controversial CIO has been spying the phones of campaigning opposition members in a local version of the Watergate...

In a brilliant lame duck move, MOON pardoned PARK Geun-hye, the equivalent to throwing an elephant into the opposition's already unstable porcelain store before the elections: now YOON, who investigated the scandals surrounding the former president and CHOI Soon-sil, will have an even tougher time getting votes from hardcore PARK supporters... 

That LEE Jae-myung could envision the White House in spite of his sulfurous reputation and the ruling party's unpopularity speaks volumes about the opposition's ineptitude. Character-wise, LEE is clearly closer to Donald TRUMP than to KIM Dae-jung - but at least, unlike the former POTUS, he's working very hard to change his image during the campaign.

Beyond securing the elections, MOON is focusing his final months on an intense lobbying to formally end the Korean War, which requires an agreement from other stakeholders. But unless Trump returns to power, the US will demand significant concessions from KIM Jong-un, and that is precisely what MOON wants to avoid.

MOON Jae-in's goal is to remove pressure on the North Korean regime and US troops from the Peninsula. South Korea's recent displays of weaponry and hikes in military budgets are supposed to prove that the nation can defend itself (should of course its leaders actually decide to defend it). Needless to say, both China and Russia would also love to see Yankees go home. 

Soft-power-wise, at least, Seoul can count on its Weapons of Mass Distraction, even if topping 2021 will be very hard for 'k-content' providers.

We'll need some cheering up to cope with real life drama (and at the macro level household debt, inflation, rising rates, overdue bubble bursts across the globe...).

Maybe we don't want that tiger to roar, after all. A cute yawn could be a welcome break.

Please be safe, but remain wild and playful. Have a great, full, and happy 2022.

Seoul Village 2022
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