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Sunday, June 23, 2024

On Korea's Jigsaw, Urban Footprint, and Urban Replanning

If you're a frequent flyer on my Korean errlines, you've had your fill of rants about recurring blunders in urban planning, the persistence of obsolete visions of urbanism, or (re)development equations that totally ignore plummeting demographics.

Well criticizing is easy. Urban harmony is like life or democracy: a very delicate, dynamic balance of power, a complex, evolutive system of checks and balances. No one will ever achieve perfection, and that's the beauty of it.

Besides, I see some glimmers of hope. Korea has eventually started worrying seriously about its shrinking population, seeking more inter-regional solidarity and cooperation, thinking about reviving ailing city centers in smarter ways... 

Korea is starting to realize that the real estate paradigm it's been addicted to for decades has become a Ponzi scheme, a sub-zero sum game where eventually everybody loses, even the wealthy ones who won't be able to resell their 'luxury condos' with a profit after paying much more for them than they would have for the most outrageous Manhattan penthouses.

Korea is starting to realize that it can't afford 'affordable housing' if that means building apartment blocks in greenbelt areas, that when a 'new town' succeeds somewhere, it means that somewhere else, an older town in depleting.

Korea is starting to realize that it can't keep adding new non-matching pieces to an ever growing jigsaw puzzle on an ever shrinking table, that these absurd urban footprint dynamics can't be sustained any longer.

The 5th Comprehensive National Territorial Plan, which covers the most critical 2020-2040 period, already mentions sustainability and other sound principles, but all is not set in marble and a lot has happened since it was released 5 years ago: rural desertification and fertility rate diminution accelerated dramatically, the GTX and other projects reshuffled whole decks... So a revised version is expected next year, for the 2026-2040 period.

Improving inter-regional solidarity and cooperation remains a key goal, particularly where they prove already challenging at the intra-regional level because of political divisions or fierce city rivalries. 

In addition to their autonomy, such special self-governing provinces as Jeollabuk-do or the recently upgraded 'Gangwon State' don't have to deal with special cities punching holes in their maps. In comparison, Gyeonggi-do must cope not only with giant neighbors nesting in its midst (Seoul and Incheon*), but also with a complex history of city creation explaining odd administrative shapes, or new towns stretching over different cities (e.g. Dongtan).

Granting a special status to a local government was generally done without much concern for the impacts around, which prevented all parties from reaching their full potential.

Wherever you stand on the fierce political fight over the creation of Sejong City (the left wanted to move the capital city to a new, central location to balance development across South Korea - the right refused to undermine Seoul and maintained part of the government there), you have to admit that from an urbanism point of view, things could have been done a bit better.

We're not talking Brasilia or Nusantara, a new capital erected far away from existing hubs: Sejong City seats right* next to the metropolitan city of Daejeon, South Korea's 5th largest cit, its central hub, and already the seat of several  central administrations, and right next to Cheongju, Chungcheongnam-do's capital.

Daejeon lies less than one hour away from Seoul via KTX but no, Sejong City must not enjoy express connectivity with the 'old' capital because then civil servants would commute instead of moving to Sejong**. And no, Daejeon's subway shouldn't come all the way to Sejong's vital parts. At its inception, it's almost as if Sejong City was designed as a local competitor instead of a national facilitator.

17 years after its creation, Sejong claims 400k souls, Daejeon remains around 1.5M, and Cheongju inched up from 650 to 720k. Common sense would have led to something more  rational, even simply two cities instead of three: the regional capital Cheongju and a-name-it-whatever-you-fancy-as-long-as-you-spare-local-susceptibilities national capital bis. If arranged harmoniously, I bet the latter would be today a thriving 2.5-3M strong metropolis.

Mind you, both Daejeon and Sejong are faring relatively well nowadays, but I'm not surprised to see the Sejong City - Daejeon - Chungnam - Chungbuk ensemble included in the potential revisions to Korea's 5th CNTP. Some consistency would clearly make the meta-region more competitive internationally - with the caveat that it wouldn't present an official one-stop front. 

Same with 'sudogwon', the capital region (Seoul-Incheon-Gyeonggi-do): unlike say the Ile de France region that encompasses Paris and its surroundings, it doesn't really exist as an official entity with representatives. It does make sense for the national government to be directly involved in an area representing half the nation's population and GDP, but the World's 4th metropolitan bloc can't fully leverage its potential. Of course, adding another administrative layer and the tensions that go with them, particularly with dwindling resources, may not necessarily be the panacea. Some even envision Daejeon + Sejong + Chungnam + Chungbuk as an 'ultra-wide megacity' - at least that would avoid the ego problem of who gets to be granted the regional capital status...

The debates promise to be complex and animated, but it's important to get every stakeholder involved, to identify all the impacts of each option, to learn from past mistakes, to minimize / optimize the urban footprint, to think urbanism beyond cities, towns, and other labels, wherever humans decided to settle or to build (be it a road, a remote factory, a farm, or even a field), and not to build for builders' sake.

Seoul Village 2024
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* If the cities are administratively continuous, there's no actual urban continuum... but then again, few cities in Korea excel at urban continuity.

** Likewise, I still can't stomach the fact that the railway from Seoul to Incheon Airport was deliberately delayed until a few years after inauguration because that would have hurt taxi businesses. Or that Songdo didn't have a subway from day one (hello? a ginormous polder built from scratch?). At least nowadays, if new big fat greenfield 'new towns' keep popping up, most of them include a railway connection.

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