Sunday, July 01, 2007

Good for the 'Seoul' and mind

I was in Seoul for the past three days. This was my second visit to Seoul. And it’s nice to be back. Although this time it was too brief a visit and not enough time to walk around and experience the city as planners would often like to do.

My visit this time was to give a talk and share the planning and development experience of Putrajaya with the Koreans are building their very own brand new administrative centre soon.

Seoul is one of the largest capital cities of the world, with a population of around 10 million. This figure accounts for about a quarter of the total national population within an area of 605 square kilometers, or 0.6% of the entire country. This makes Seoul one of the world's most densely populated major cities.

Seoul became the capital of the nation in 1394 and since then its population has grown 110 times, turning it into the primate city for Korea dominating over other regions in terms of economic, social and cultural development.

The city has eight subway lines that connect every district of the city with one another and with the surrounding area. The system is used by some 8 million passengers a day! But is said to be already bursting at the seams due to rising demand for travelling, no doubt. Traffic congestions are quite bad, as I found out first hand.

It was partly in response to these issues that the Koreans are anxious to disperse development to other parts of Korea through promotion of growth of hinterland cities. One of these shall be the soon to be developed Multifunctional Administrative City located some two hours drive out of Seoul.

Although the proceedings of the symposium was quite hectic, there was one place which I was very determined to visit and have a look. So it was with a little bit of persistence on my part, and loads of Korean hospitality, that I managed to visit (after 9.30 p.m.) one of Seoul Metropolitan Government’s major urban beautification and river revitalization project in the form of Cheonggyeccheon (pronouned: Cheong-gek-cheon).

Cheonggyecheon is an old stream which flows through Seoul city centre. For many years, the stream had been covered by concrete, and later a highway built running over it. For all intents and purposes, it was regarded like another sewage line. That was until the authorities dismantled the elevated expressway and the road over the stream. I was told there was a lot of opposition to it in the initial stages, especially from business communities affected by the project.

But today, it is an asset which Seoulites are proud of. It has introduced a natural ecosystem at the heart of an urban metropolis, a green linear corridor with clean water running through it.

On the night of my visit to the place, there must have been hundreds of people along the stream having picnics, resting, taking a stroll, or watching small fishes in the stream. I was told by Dr. Im Seung Bin, Professor of Landscape from the Seoul National University, that the project has even managed to reduce the average urban temperature in the vicinity of the project by about 3 degrees Celsius. With the world facing rising temperature, this means a lot for the comfort of Seoul urban dwellers.

I hope those in charge of up-keeping our rivers will take a leaf out of this Seoul experience. Enough talk of channeling rivers or building over them.

The benchmark is to open them up and turn them into amenities for all to enjoy. “Jalan biar ke depan” dan”Jangan Pandang Belakang” for goodness sake!

Photo notes: From top - Seoul skyline; downtown Seoul; daytime at Cheonggyeccheon (photo from internet); night time at Cheonggyecheon - people dipping their feet into cool clear water (photo from my visit).

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