‘Greening’ Seoul ― bit by bitWedged between the Seoul Center Building and the JEI Building in downtown Seoul, only a few steps from one of the nation’s busiest traffic intersections, there is a small piece of nature.
At just 813 square meters, or about one-fifth of an acre, Wongudan Plaza is easy to miss. Even its trees aren’t that big. But to the office workers in this neck of the City Hall district, the value of this rectangular plot cannot be measured.
After a hearty lunch in the bunsikjeom of a nearby alley or an underground arcade, they saunter here in groups of twos and threes to smoke, sip coffee and relax to the sound of a rushing waterfall.
Yes, a waterfall. It’s artificial, but the water is real.
“It’s a good place to go for a break,” says Jesper Drejer, who works at a tourism office in the nearby President Hotel. “You don’t get to breathe, working all day long.”
Wongudan Plaza is one tiny part of a long-term, multifaceted effort to green some of Seoul’s concrete canyons, bleak roadways, blank walls and drab neighborhoods, in downtown and beyond.
The city’s “Ten Million Trees” project of 1998-2002 set the stage for this mammoth effort. Armed with 2.2 billion won ($1.9 million), including 800 million won from private sources, the city sought to begin remaking its image by “planting one tree for every resident.” Although only 1.6 million trees were actually planted in that period of time, progress was counted in other ways.
Besides downtown rest areas, the city added scores of maeul madang, or pocket parks, to thickly settled urban areas. With their terraces, step gardens and totem poles, they’re an effort to remake the community gathering spot of old. Seoul also has overhauled many older parks and created sizeable swaths where nature reigns along the Han River. Soothing waterscapes, such as the fantastic cascade wall outside Yeouinaru subway station on Yeouido island, also have appeared, and bare concrete walls have grown creeping vines. The city has encouraged more greenery around public buildings.
Lee Sang-ho, a 40-year-old Samsung employee, likes the tiny park outside his downtown office so much he visits it for ten minutes every two hours. He’s not alone, it seems: a platoon of the shirt-and-tie crowd occupied most of the stools and ledges on a recent lunch hour.
The greening has also extended to walkways, which have been spruced up with more benches, wider sidewalks and more trees. One such gem runs for half a kilometer along the west wall of Deoksu Palace. Shaded by gingkos and cherry trees, it’s one of downtown’s most delightful walks, though it’s mere spitting distance from groaning buses and neon-lit business clubs. Whereas people and cars jostle for a single lane in many business areas, here a distinct sidewalk exists.
“I believe they need more space like this in Seoul,” says Yoo Young-tae, a young man on a leisurely walk with a female friend.
Mr. Yoo’s sentiments are echoed by City Hall officials, environmental groups and business leaders. A consortium of these parties founded the Green Trust this summer.
By corralling both private and public funds and support, the Trust aims to make up for what it calls “a serious lack of greenery available to citizens in their everyday lives” faster than City Hall could alone, in hopes of improving the likelihood that a person will encounter green space on a given day from its current rate of 8.5 in 100.
Looking to 2006, the latest “green plan” touted by Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak aims to enlarge usable green space through the Green Trust and other means, with such goals as creating “one maeul in one dong,” or one small park for each neighborhood, and green bridges between larger park areas.
“It’s hard to buy land, basically, so the Green Trust movement, probably working with private organizations, is an option right now,” says Chang Jong-ryang, an official with Seoul’s parks division.
Yu Sang-oh, of the Korea Institute for Sustainable Society, contends that the city must focus on the big picture: creating large green zones by preserving and linking big chunks of protected land.
“Making a concept, an axis, is more important than small things like a greening of a roof [see story below] and a small park,” Mr. Yu says. “Those things can be done by gu [district] and dong offices.”
Seoul’s green space has declined during its headlong growth spurt in recent decades, due to new housing development and the construction of 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Olympics facilities. Today, parkland totals 158 square kilometers (61 square miles), down from 174 in 1980.
“Until 1997, the Korean people and politicians didn’t think land and open space were important,” Mr. Chang says. “They focused on developing the country and the cities.”
Technically, the capital’s parkland per capita ― 10.5 square meters ― is comparable to that of, for example, Paris. But measured as the amount of land available to people in their everyday lives ― which excludes nearly half of Seoul’s green space, locked up in mountainous terrain ― that figure nosedives to a sparse 4.58 square meters per person. By comparison, Toronto offers 29 square meters per capita, and New York City, 14. (Seoul does outgreen Tokyo, which comes in at 2.94.)
The strategies proposed for greening Seoul are myriad, but limited to some extent by a 206-billion-won ($176 million) parks budget. They include tearing down walls and replacing them with “tree walls”; planting trees along abandoned railroad beds, parking lots and rooftops, and even turning sewage treatment plants into ― you guessed it ― parks.
This long, narrow plot, adjacent to the Russian Embassy and J.P. Morgan Plaza in Seosomun, boasts two historical claims: it’s the site of Korea’s first Western school, founded by the missionary Henry Appenzeller in 1885, and the place where Nam Gong-eok, a pro-independence firebrand, once lived.
Persimmon and cherry trees are abundant here, nearly obscuring the construction cranes beyond, and the maples unfold their fiery red brilliance this time of year. Russian students and diplomats shuttle to and from the compound to the rear, but the park remains a sanctuary of tranquility amid the city’s bustle for much of the week.
“This is kind of surprising. Down in Pyeongtaek you don’t really see this a lot,” says Jonathan Versteeg, a U.S. soldier from Washington state visiting the Russian Embassy. “It reminds me of Seattle because Seattle’s got a lot of greenery. It’s really beautiful.”
A waterfall, some benches and even a handicapped-accessible bathroom are on the premises.
The waterfall remains the big draw at this City Hall retreat, where office workers swarm after lunch with their coffee cups to catch up on gossip or share a smoke.
Landscapers have even smoothed over the normally obtrusive coffee machines and phone booths with decorative shells reminiscent of European facades, and posted tiny signs (in Korean) with curious facts about the tree species.
Scoot up the stairs beside the cascade and pass through a seating area, and you’ll discover one of Seoul’s lesser-known historic structures: Hwangungu, a 114-year-old octagonal pavilion surrounded by thick, old trees. The setting is sublime, easily lending itself to a few moments of meditation. Hwangungu is all that remains of Wongudan, an altar where Joseon Dynasty emperors made sacrifices to heaven. It was destroyed in 1913 by the Japanese and replaced by what’s now the Chosun Hotel a year later.
The old-style walls, small lotus pond and step gardens add a traditional flair to this easy-to-overlook corner park just north of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Gwanghwamun, making it a pleasant refueling point for strollers heading to or from the palaces, Insadong and Jongno.
After passing rows of pillars, one reaches an open central yard, surrounded by low evergreens, that attracts dog owners and Frisbee players, not to mention local children who circle it on their inline skates. The main administrative buildings of the Joseon Dynasty were located here; the ancient sinmungo, drums that commoners would strike to air their grievances, have been wittily replaced with three phone booths with direct lines to City Hall. The yellow booth is for English speakers. The lines are officially open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.
This park, to the north and rear flanks of the Sejong Arts Center, boasts wisteria, persimmon and pine trees in abundance, along with a wide waterfall and an imposing monument commemorating Korea’s first telegraph communication, which took place here in 1885. On clear days, the views of Mount Inwang are unbeatable.
A piece of wilderness, 12 stories up
Faced with few options for new parkland on the street level, Seoul’s leaders have begun looking up.
Twelve stories above the clogged streets of Myeongdong is Seoul’s newest rooftop park, blanketing 190 pyeong (628 square meters) of the Korean National Commission for Unesco building with wetlands, shrubs, trees and a small vegetable garden.
Jakeun Nuri (“small biosphere”) serves as a miniature version of a biosphere reserve like Korea’s Mount Seorak National Park. “Wildlife can move through this route,” says Kim Seung-yoon, the Unesco specialist overseeing the six-month-old project.
The roof is a stopover point for insects and birds looking to pass through downtown’s concrete to the lusher space around the Blue House and Mount Bukhan to the north, or the Mount Namsan greensward to the south, Mr. Kim explains. Dragonflies, ladybugs, water striders and spiders have been spied up here, and the tadpoles placed here in the spring have matured into frogs. “Sparrows, so many sparrows come these days,” Mr. Kim adds.
Providing the foundation for the flora is a three-tiered soil system. On top is thin, organic soil, beneath which can be found a white artificial soil layer and, finally, a urethane-coated draining plate that recycles some of the water back into the system.
Keeping water flowing through the artificial wetland is the biggest challenge, Mr. Kim says. Solar energy generated from a rooftop panel provides the energy for a drip irrigation system, and some rainwater is recycled into the system through a large tank.
A key mission of the roof garden is education, and a small classroom area adorns the premises. Ten students at Namsan Elementary School are among the beneficiaries. “We surveyed how the plants grow and how they change, and how new plants come to the rooftop,” says Lee Byung-sung, the teacher in charge of the weekly field trip.
Jakeun Nuri is not Seoul’s only rooftop park. The Green Garden gracing the roof of City Hall’s annex in Seosomun is a symbol of the city’s fledgling roof-greening program, which provided Unesco with a 90-million-won ($76,600) grant for the undertaking.
After crossing a tiny wooden bridge from the core wetlands, and passing a gazebo, Mr. Kim points to a plant he says grew from wind-borne seeds from trees in the nearby Chinese Embassy compound.
Before heading indoors, he scans the neighboring rooftops. “If they can make rooftops like this,” he says, “so much more space can become green.”
Jakeun Nuri is open to the public from noon to 1 p.m. on weekdays. Call 02-755-1105~9 for details.
by Joel Levin
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