A River Runs Through It
Business Traveler|April 2017

A foresighted and serene urban renewal project keeps downtown Seoul’s connection to nature alive

Jeremy Tredinnick

Seoul’s recent history has been marked by rapid modernization, an eager acceptance of technological advances and urban growth on an impressive scale. Now a huge, sprawling conurbation, many of its highest-profile developments can be found south of Hangang (Han River): the 123-story Lotte World Tower is the highest building in Korea at 1824 feet, and there are expansion plans for the COEX district too, where Hyundai has purchased a huge plot of land opposite the enormous convention and shopping center, and plans to build hotels, more events and retail space, etc.

However, in the city’s CBD, located within the historic city walls of Seoul north of the Han, plenty of growth is happening too – albeit in a less grandiose fashion. By using a relatively recent – and now much appreciated – addition to the city’s impressive collection of parks, it’s possible to bisect the busy, skyscraper-filled downtown area, and get a sense of Seoul’s multi-faceted appeal.

Historical Source

In Korea’s pre-industrial era, when Seoul was a fraction of its current size, a stream meandered through its center. Its name was Cheonggyecheon – today it is commonly referred to simply as “the Stream.”

After the Korean War, however, things changed: the Stream became lined with shantytowns and increasingly polluted and dirty. In 1958 a road was built over it, followed by an elevated freeway in 1976. The once iconic Stream was gradually forgotten in the rush towards an industrialized future, and the whole area became something of an eyesore.

At the turn of the millennium Lee Myung-bak, whose construction company had actually built the freeway, made restoring the Stream a major part of his campaign to become Seoul’s mayor. (Lee went on to become the country’s president.) In 2003, as city mayor, he gave the green light for the $360 million reclamation project to begin: the freeway was torn down, the surface road ripped up, and pumping stations installed to bring 30 million gallons of water from the Han River, ensuring a regular flow that the original stream never had.

Cheonggyecheon reopened to the public in 2005 as a linear parkway that stretches from Cheonggye Plaza all the way through central Seoul to Dongdaemun and beyond. Set below street level, more than 20 bridges span the Stream’s total length; its walking paths and walls are concrete or stone – though trees have been planted in many stretches to offset this apparent “green space” contradiction.

Initial reaction to the park was mixed – but worries about traffic problems were addressed by extensive rerouting schemes, dedicated bus lanes and improvements to public transport. When it became clear the revitalization project had improved air pollution, had a genuine cooling effect on the CBD in summer, and boosted biodiversity, everyone was won over.

“Cheonggyecheon is one of our biggest success stories. We realized the city did have a lot of concrete and the time had come to revitalize it,” says Maureen O’Crowley, executive director of tourism and MICE division, Seoul Convention Bureau (SCB).

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