Field Notes: Tom goes to Seoul

On a recent trip to Seoul, South Korea I couldn’t help but frame my experience in the fast-moving metropolis through the lens of someone accustomed to life in a comparatively calm Midwestern city. With more than 13x the population of Northeast Ohio, Seoul suffers from near-constant gridlock but benefits from a vibrance and, with it, the commensurate resources Cleveland hasn’t seen for nearly 100 years.

Like Cleveland, Seoul experienced rapid industrialization, urbanization, and subsequent suburbanization. As the city sprawled after the Korean War, so too did its infrastructure. Over a mere decade, urban and industrial infrastructure was choking the last vestiges of nature out of the core of the city- particularly in the dense and flat CBD.

Hoping to spur economic growth by providing new recreation options to residents and solve the city’s chronic runoff problems, officials decided to do something bold. They made the controversial decision to remove a massive arterial highway and replace it with a long, meandering park and stormwater mitigation system.

(Image- Donghwan-Kim)

(Image- Donghwan-Kim)

After 3 and a half years of work, Cheonggyecheon, has become one of the most popular green spaces in the city. One would be hard-pressed to identify the location of the idyllic watershed in photographs from just 15 years ago when the stream was culverted by a double-decker 8 lane expressway. What was once chocked from sunlight by layers of concrete infrastructure is now a healthy watershed replete with dragonflies, pelicans, and innumerable native plant species (marking an increase in overall biodiversity of 639%) and teeming with schools of fish.

View of pedestrian bridge across Cheonggyecheon

View of pedestrian bridge across Cheonggyecheon

Stones allow visitors to cross the stream from within the park

Stones allow visitors to cross the stream from within the park

Before

Before

Tourist map of Cheonggyecheon

Tourist map of Cheonggyecheon

While the park is only 7 miles long and 50’ wide, the economic, social, and ecological impact on the city has been astronomical. Summer temperatures around the perimeter of the park dropped 11 degrees and particulate air pollution by 35%. With more than 64,000 daily visitors- thousands of which are out of town or foreign- the surrounding owner-occupied buildings along the banks of the stream have found newfound success and increased economic stability thanks to the throngs of visitors.

Like Cleveland’s own public square, Cheonggyecheon is a perfect example of how re-evaluating public spaces and civic infrastructure can be fundamental to remaking a city. Similarly ambitious projects are in the works along Lake Erie, but I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds of culverted watersheds and highway-bisected neighborhoods that dot Northeast Ohio. What transformative potential could projects like this-big and small- hold for Cleveland? What would happen if we continued to re-evaluate our public infrastructure? And what kind of agency do we have as citizen-designers to push Cleveland towards a more sustainable, healthy future?