The case of Seoul
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul C. Villarete (The Freeman) - July 24, 2018 - 12:00am

Part 3

pe•des•tri•an (/pe'destreen/)

Our last two articles on this topic elicited questions from a few friends, on what we really want when we insist on “planning for people and not cars.” Do we discard cars now and use all streets for people? I don’t think that is even possible by a far stretch. It took over a hundred years for us to come to this state, and it will take much more than a decade or two to reverse the engrained societal norm.

But this is not about eliminating cars. It is more of redefining a city from being vehicle-oriented to being pedestrian-friendly. And Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is an excellent example of this. It does include creation of car-free streets, though. Over a span of two decades, Seoul has redesigned 18 kilometers of 24 car-free streets. For example, no one visits Seoul nowadays without a stroll at Myeongdong. It’s a street…but for pedestrians.

And the best area to experience their pedestrianization policy is Seoul City Hall Plaza. If you visited city hall before 2004, you would remember large intersections and broad driveways in front of it, with all the streets around it constantly in traffic jams, with no consideration for the disabled or the elderly, too. Now it’s a huge park, purely pedestrian, where cultural and community events are held. It’s a place where people meet and enjoy. Surprisingly, traffic flow has been greatly improved after the redesign too!

Maybe, Seoul’s more notable success is the removal of elevated roads and pedestrian overpasses, the number of which reportedly was reduced from 206 (in 2007) to 165 (2013). The most famous, of course, is Cheonggyecheon River. It was originally an 8.4-km creek through downtown Seoul, which was covered up with concrete starting in the late 1950’s and ultimately built over with a wide, 5.6-km elevated highway by 1976. The entire behemoth monolith was however totally demolished by then Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak in 2004, restoring the stream, making it a center for cultural and economic activities, where people can walk! Again, when finished, the project surprisingly sped up traffic around the city.

The newest attraction is Seoullo 7017, also known as the Seoul Skypark or Skygarden. This time, instead of demolishing a former highway overpass which cuts across Seoul Station, and which was closed in 2015, they renovated it and designed an elevated, linear park, about one kilometer in length and lined with 24,000 plants, “with about 228 species of trees, shrubs and flowers found in and outside Korea.” The park includes gardens, terraces, and exhibitions, and is patronized by citizens especially since it improves walking times around the city’s Central Station.

It took determination, but Seoul has plenty of it. They simply want to have a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, something which all of us should want amidst the chaos of a vehicle-dominated city. At the end of the day, we need to remind ourselves that a city is not a place, an area, a jungle of concrete structures and streets, but a bunch of people, living together, with the same aspirations, in the pursuit of happiness.

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