Fresh approaches to urban design in the metropolitan Seoul

Seoul is one of the world’s most dense cities. While the city is internationally known for the rapid economic growth and massive urban development in the past, it is largely overlooked that fresh approaches to urban development, which differ from the earlier period, are taking place in the metropolitan Seoul. One approach is related to metropolitan scale urban design projects, which are expected to boost the economic competitiveness and global appeal of Seoul, while the other approach is related to local scale urban design projects and is focused on the improvements in the quality of everyday life the city.

Recent social, political and institutional changes in South Korea challenged once prevailing unrestricted economic growth and urban development. In order to deal with the emerging global pressures and opportunities the metropolitan government commenced on an increasingly competitive urban policy during the past decade. The urban development hence gradually shifted towards what used to be promoted as a “balanced urban development of global Seoul.” Yet in reality the intensive neoliberal economic restructuring resulted in speculative urban redevelopment, which brought questionable benefits to the citizens and dissatisfaction with the everyday life in the city. At the same time the improved material conditions led to cultural changes in the South Korean society, such as the importance of environment, social equity, local history and culture or civic participation in decision-making.

The new metropolitan government is now moving away from “a clean and attractive global city” towards what they call “a hopeful Seoul” as “village community”. Yet the changing attitude towards urban development is not only a consequence of political changes, but also reflects a growing involvement of the civic society in urban development. A comparison of the urban design for Gwanghwamun Plaza and Bupyeong Culture Street in terms of how it address local history and culture, quality of everyday life, economic competitiveness, public use, and civic participation in decision-making illustrates well the changing approaches to urban development and urban design in the metropolitan Seoul.

Several traditional markets developed around Bupyeong in the past. Expansion of the new shopping centres and the economic crisis during the nineties resulted in their decline. Local merchants and street vendors, some of them having worked there for more than thirty years, faced a danger of loosing their business. In order to revive the local market and protect their jobs the Bupyeong Market Merchants Cooperative presented the local government a petition in 1998, to reconstruct the market into what they called “pedestrian and cultural street.” However, after the opening the merchants ran into maintenance problems as well as into conflicts with illegal street vendors. The merchants established a committee to independently manage the street and direct its future use. They also achieved a mutual agreement with the street vendors on a joint use and management of the street, which opened the way for its future transformation.

Working with the Urban Action Network, an NGO from Seoul with a long experience in community-based urban design, the merchants organised several workshops since 2005 and improved the urban design and management of the street. The most visible result of such participatory urban design process was the construction of the small pocket parks and improvements of the public space, which attracted a lot of attention. The reconstruction of the street successfully revived the local economy, created new civic culture and the Bupyeong Culture Street now attracts hundreds of citizens daily. Yet the urban design in this case should not be seen as a finished project but rather as an on-going process, where its elements are constantly adopted according to the changing needs of users.

Gwanghwamun Plaza is the most important public space in Seoul and is located in the historic centre of the city. The plaza has a long and turbulent history. The original name comes from the Gwanghwamun Gate, which connects the plaza with the nearby royal palace. During the Japanese occupation of Korea the colonial government built a large governmental building between the royal palace and plaza, destroying the traditional symbolic relation of the two. Later the South Korean government also built an administrative complex right next to the plaza. The plaza was therefore always an important place, where the state institutions were located and their power was represented. Yet the plaza is also a place where citizens contested the state power. Several historic events took place on the plaza, which is sometimes called the “prototype public space in Korea.” The history of the Gwanghwamun Plaza therefore not only represents the state but also the South Korean civic society.

Yet decades of rapid urbanisation turned the Gwanghwamun Plaza into a large expressway rather than public plaza. The urban design competition aimed to reconstruct the plaza was organized in 2007 and the new plaza was opened to the public in 2009. Its urban design refers to different Korean historic events and personalities and allows flexibility in terms of adopting the plaza to the changing requirements in the future. The metropolitan government actually selected the basic urban design through a popular voting, which favoured a reconstruction of the plaza with two roads on its both sides. The new plaza hence faces the five-lane road sections on its sides, which prevents a direct access for pedestrians from the surrounding area.

The Bupyeong Culture Street and Gwanghwamun Plaza were aimed to reconstruct the existing street into pedestrian public space, integrating the local history and culture as an important part of the urban design. Yet the restoration of the Gwanghwamun Plaza lacks a meaningful relation to the local history and culture. It superficially resembles a theme park for tourists rather than the most important public space in Seoul. Its careful historic restoration seem to have come second to the construction of new tourist attraction and marketing of global Seoul. The Gwanghwamun Plaza is namely expected to attract new international events and tourists and affect the economic competitiveness and global appeal of Seoul. By providing new public facilities the new plaza also improves the quality of everyday life in the city, yet not everyone seems to benefit equally from such approach. On the contrary the Bupyeong Culture Street improves social amenities, creates new opportunities for social interaction and strengthens the sense of neighbourhood and community attachment.

The Bupyeong Culture Street is a successful example of community-based urban design, where the citizens were involved in the decision-making from the beginning on. The resulting urban design reflects the interests and values that the local merchants, street vendors, residents and visitors attach to the place. On the other hand the metropolitan government took most of the decisions unilaterally in the case of Gwanghwamun Plaza, mainly to complete the project in the shortest time possible. Public concerns about the restoration and symbolic meaning of the place had little effect on the urban design. While Bupyeong Culture Street has become one of the main public spaces in the city, the metropolitan government banned public gatherings from the Gwanghwamun plaza and the riot police still guards the plaza, which questions its meaning as the main public space in Seoul.

Urban development in the metropolitan Seoul used to be characterised by massive urbanization, which paid little attention to the environmental and social consequences or the preservation of local history and culture. Unrestricted economic growth and speculative urban development were instrumentalised in order to strengthen the national power. The civic society was denied participation in decision-making. Comparison of the recent urban design in Seoul therefore shows fresh approach to urban development in terms of the local history and culture, quality of everyday life, economic competitiveness, public use, and civic participation in decision-making as compared to the prevailing approach in the past. At the same time there is an important difference between the recent metropolitan scale urban design projects, which aim to promote the economic competitiveness and global appeal of the city, and the community-based urban design, focused on the quality of everyday life in the city.

The urban design for the Gwanghwamun Plaza, seem to have more in common with the urban development of Seoul in the past. The local scale projects, such as the Bupyeong Culture Street, are on contrary more concerned with preserving the local history and culture, strengthening the social cohesion in the city, creating places of intense social interaction, and fostering civic participation in decision-making. They may in this way provide a departure from the established approaches to urban development and urban design and offer successful examples of community-based urban design for the future in the metropolitan Seoul.

The article was first published on the Asian Urban Epicenters blog.

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