Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cheonggyecheon



Cheonggyecheon is a small stream that once flowed from a cirque of mountains that surround the historic center of Seoul into the Han River, 6 kilometers away.

In the years immediately following the Korean War, Cheonggyecheon was overrun by informal refugee camps, shantytowns, and sewage. The stream was soon paved over for a wide boulevard; in 1968, during Korea's own urban renewal fad, an elevated highway was stacked above the road. In spite of its historic and cultural significance to Korea, Cheonggyecheon spent over half a century in an underground culvert, choked with filth.

Then, in 2003, in an act of political will that seems miraculous to me, Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak began a project to remove 16 lanes of stacked expressway and restore the lost stream beneath. Two years later, a vibrant, wild park had replaced a traffic-choked freeway. Believe it or not, the two photos above show the same section of stream (the two buildings in the center-right of the top photo, taken sometime early in the 2000s, are the same two buildings on the left side of the bottom photo).

Tearing out a huge downtown freeway didn't create mass gridlock, as the project's opponents had promised: traffic actually moves faster and more smoothly today than it did when the freeway was there. In an interview with the Guardian two years ago, Kee Yeon Hwang, a professor of urban planning, said that "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." In other words, people aren't as stupid as traffic engineers think they are. Koreans gave the project a definitive seal of approval when they gave Lee Myung-bak, the project's primary political champion, a promotion to the presidency in 2007.



By replacing idling cars with a naturalized waterway, Seoul also lowered summer temperatures in the center of the city and improved air quality and circulation. The Cheonggyecheon isn't yet a functioning watershed: the water flowing from the "headwaters" in the center of Seoul is currently being pumped uphill from the Han, instead of trickling down from the mountains. But it's still attracting wildlife, including fish and herons, and there are more plans in the works to restore elements of the stream's natural hydrology.

Of all the parts of the park I've looked at, this one's my favorite: three remnant highway abutments standing in the middle of the stream like a utopian apocalypse scene - a glimmer of hope that the brutal regime of freeways and highway engineering is losing its grip on the world's cities. Credit for the photo goes to Flickr user Ben Harris-Roxas:

7 comments:

Turboglacier said...

Wow. That is astounding. I thought only Photoshop could accomplish that sort of thing.

The first time I visited Boston after the elevated I93 had been torn down, I almost cried it was so beautiful.

No doubt you have a similar vision for 295...

Corey Templeton said...

Very cool. I bet a lot of people's real estate gained value quickly after this was completed. Not only were they able to remove the freeway, they actually created a 'new' destination.

Jessica said...

I agree with Turbo, It is hard to believe the photos. Where did you find this?

Karyn said...

This makes me think that there is hope for US cities, particularly the I5 monstrosity on the east bank of the river in Portland. Talk about a change in quality of life!

Dan said...

that last picture: what a stunning aesthetic gesture. really moving. definitely ups the ante for planners everywhere.

ditto turboglacier's comment with respect to san francisco. the bayfront is actually appealing now, sans embarcadero freeway. i think the jury is in...

Anonymous said...

i can think of a few houston highways i'd like to give the cheonggyecheon treatment. complete with abutment tombstones.

Ben Harris-Roxas said...

@Turboglacier I can assure you the last photo is real and that I avoided any zealous use of Photoshop for allegorical purposes.

@Corey Templeton I think there has been an increase in property prices and when I went there I was told that as many as 1 million people use the area (which is very large - several kilometrees in length) every week during summer. There has also been a downside because many of the less glamorous commercial activities and residents who were in the area before have been forced into totally different areas.

One of the most interesting aspects of Cheonggyecheon has been the paradoxical effect it has had on traffic - by taking away a freeway they actually made traffic better. It's worth noting they increased public transport at the same time, but it's still remarkable to think that the area was a major freeway not so long ago.

The area is quite an inspiration and I recommend everyone who visits Seoul should check it out.