Seoul tears down motorway builds park with river instead

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Seoul tears down motorway builds park with river instead

A wonderful example on how to return a city to the people. Two years ago several million people headed to a park in the centre of Seoul, the capital of South Korea and seventh largest city in the world. They didn't go for a rock festival, a football match or a political gathering, but mostly to just marvel at the surroundings, to get some fresh air and to paddle in the river that runs through it.

But this was no ordinary park or river. The very old people of Seoul still remember how, more than 50 years ago, the river 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 where kids went to play, but as Seoul grew from being semi-rural to a vast, smog-bound east Asian metropolis, the Cheonggyecheon - which means "clear valley stream" - became little more than a sewer.

By 1970, the riverside had become slums, and the water progressively more polluted, having been first canalised and then concreted over. As cars took over the city, the river bed was turned into a road, and then an elevated six-lane motorway was built above it. It was one of the most comprehensive obliterations of the natural environment ever 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 five-mile long, 800-yard wide, 1,000-acre lateral park snaking through the city where the river once ran.

The vision was ordinary enough: to create a focal point of both historical significance and aesthetic appeal, with the Cheonggyecheon triggering long-term economic growth, attracting tourists and investors alike, but it meant thinking the culturally impossible. The road carried 160,000 cars a day and was perpetually jammed, but was still considered indispensible for the city's economy.

If the fate of the river has reflected Seoul's urban development in the last century, the motorway was seen as a proud but decaying symbol of South Korea's emergence from a rural to an industrial economy, and of the investment of the lives that had been sacrificed to achieve it.

So to tear it down was "above all, a symbolic act", says Kee Yeon Hwang, a professor in the department of urban planning and design at Hongik University and who was involved in the project from the start. He led the feasibility work in the late 1990s, and was the principal author of the masterplan.

... Quote:
The idea was sown in 1999. We had experienced a strange thing. We had three tunnels in the city and one needed to be shut down. Bizarrely, we found that that car volumes dropped. I thought this was odd. We discovered it was a case of 'Braess paradox', which says that by taking away space in an urban area you can actually increase the flow of traffic, and, by implication, by adding extra capacity to a road network you can reduce overall performance.
He and his team asked thousands of people what they thought was the most important thing in the city, and they all said the environment and water. The research team spent six months investigating what would happen to the traffic and developing a forecasting model which said it would slightly improve the traffic overall. It was put to the electorate that the motorway should be removed, and mayor Lee was elected partly on the environment ticket. "There were worries about the traffic,"says Hwang, "but we explained what would happen, and that there would be alternatives, and they began to understand"

Work started in July 2003. It had taken 20 years to build the roads and to obliterate the river, but it took contractors just two years to pull them down and restore it. It cost $380m (201m) and required 620,000 tonnes of concrete and asphalt to be removed and recycled. Twenty-two new bridges were built, and the water in the river was restored, albeit mainly from groundwater. There was fierce opposition and protests to begin with from nearby traders, who feared that cars would no longer be able to get there, and thousands of hawkers and other people who used the space below the motorway were forced to leave. They were eventually relocated.

But other opposition came, unexpectedly from urban planners. "They did not like it," says Hwang. "They always want to build more roads to survive.
... Quote:
To start with, I felt very alone. Nobody wanted to talk to me. But I was very confident about our traffic forecasting model. Ordinary people were a bit sceptical to start with, but then when they saw the river reappear, they got very excited.

The tearing down of the motorway has had both intended and unexpected effects. As soon as we destroyed the road, the cars just disappeared and drivers changed their habits. A lot of people just gave up their cars. Others found a different way of driving. In some cases, they kept using their cars but changed their routes.

The city had beefed up its bus service and given people options to avoid the motorway, and the effect on the environment was remarkable. Hwang says: "We found that surface temperatures in summer along the restored river were an average 3.6 degrees Centigrade lower than places 400 metres away. The river is now a natural air conditioner, cooling the capital during its long hot summers. Average wind speeds in June this year were 50% higher than the same period last year. It was extraordinary. Also, many birds came back, plus fish, insects and plants. The variety of wildlife has vastly increased since we tore up the road."

The scheme has had a ripple effect, Hwang says. A new mayor has come to office and he is now getting to work on the Han river, an important river that is not at all pedestrian-friendly. He is going to shrink the road space for cars and replace it with pedestrian walkways.

Many more pictures

road-to-park-seoul.jpg - 65.31kb
By netchicken: posted on 14-7-2009

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