After several years, I travelled to two cities – Incheon & Seoul in South Korea. Both cities have surprised me with their development over the years and the innovative practices that they have adopted.
Seoul is a city of more than six hundred years history. It hosted the Olympics and final of World Cup Soccer while Incheon beat New Delhi to host 2014 Asian Games. Geographically, Seoul is an extraordinary example of good location, as mountains, rivers and urban spaces all combine to produce a picture-perfect city, the kind that normally exists in Europe.
The Seoul that we see today is not the Seoul of forty years ago, when it was a swampy slum, with polluted rivers and garbage. In the 70s, the Korean government seriously took a decision to make Seoul a world class city by opening its doors to world. The city was chosen at the 84th General Meeting of the International Olympic Committee in 1981 to host the biggest international sports festival – the 1988 Summer Olympics. The city again stole the limelight worldwide in June 2002, when it jointly hosted the World Cup Soccer finals and in 2007, Seoul was named the “World Design Capital 2010” by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design of UNESCO. This period is described as “miracle of the Han River”. What South Korea achieved in 30 to 40 years is the kind of industrialization that took most advanced countries over a century.
One of the few interesting things that inspires about Seoul in the field of modern urban planning is its restoration of Cheonggyecheon River. As many Seoulites say
“…More than 50 years ago, the Cheonggyecheon was a wide but shallow seasonal stream that traditionally divided the city between the rich in the north and the poor in the south. It was where people went to wash clothes and kids to play, but as Seoul grew from being semi-rural to a vast, smog-bound East Asian metropolis, the Cheonggyecheon became little more than a sewer.
Then cars took over the city and the river bed was turned into a road, and then an elevated six-lane motorway was built above. It was one of the most comprehensive obliterations of the natural environment perpetrated.
But in a revolutionary act of ecological restoration that is now being examined around the world, the city of Seoul, under the leadership of the then mayor, Lee Myung Bak, pledged in 2002 to restore the river, tear down the motorway and create a 8km-long, 800m-wide, 400ha lateral park snaking through the city where the river once ran.”
The stream was opened to the public in September 2005 and was lauded as a major success in urban renewal and beautification. Creating the environment with clean water and natural habitats was the most significant achievement of the project. Species of fish, birds, and insects have increased significantly as a result of the stream excavation. The stream helps to cool down the temperature on the nearby areas by 3.6 °C on average versus other parts of Seoul. The number of vehicles entering downtown Seoul has shown a decrease of 2.3%, with an increasing number of users of buses (by 1.4%) and subways (by 4.3% – daily average of 430,000 people) as a result of the demolition of the two heavily-used roads.
The area became an example of successful industrialization and modernization of South Korea and today Lee Myung Bak is President of South Korea. Many Indian Movies are now shot at these river streams and public plazas. I wonder why we cannot replicate this with our rivers in India.
Many lessons need to be learned from Seoul. Not just river restoration but also how to promote a city as part of the country’s brand image. Today cities that are hosting Olympics, Asian Games and World Cup etc are becoming popular all over the world.
India may not win the Formula One but certainly the whole world’s eyes will be on India for the two hour event. Imagine if we host similar large international events covering two weeks, it too will create a Brand value of India.
(Dr.Piyush Ranjan Rout is an Urban Management Practitioner in Emerging Economy)