[FORUM]Crosswalks are just the beginning

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[FORUM]Crosswalks are just the beginning

With spring here, I feel like walking instead of driving whenever I have to go to Gwanghwamun or Jongno from my workplace downtown in Seosomun. Not long ago, walking wouldn’t have even crossed my mind, because it would have meant walking up and down several stairways and through underpasses.
Nowadays, when I walk past the grassy new Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall, it feels good to know that I can walk to Gwanghwamun without ever having to go underground. It’s possible now because of the pedestrian crossings that have been created in the past year.
But it will still take a lot of time before the streets of Seoul become truly pedestrian-friendly. The city’s streets, even its buildings, are still designed for cars.
Drivers want streets with good traffic flow, and buildings that are easily accessible by car. To pedestrians’ eyes, however, it is the facades of the buildings and the feel of the streets that have more direct appeal. A building’s look, its materials and the degree to which it’s open to the street are all noticeable at eye level, and pedestrians get to know those aspects of a building in great detail.
Many buildings along the main streets of downtown Seoul have their backs to the road. This phenomenon is more conspicuous among newly built highrises than among the older buildings. Jongno 1-ga and Jongno 2-ga make for an enlightening comparison here.
The southern part of Jongno 1-ga is dominated by large, relatively new buildings. The flow of pedestrians is broken up by cars entering and exiting parking garages. Most of the buildings seem to have big lobbies at street level, meaning that they’re oriented toward what’s going on inside them, not what’s happening on the street. Trees and unapproachable sculptures ring the buildings. All these details separate a building from the street.
But Jongno 2-ga, where many old buildings still stand, is a vibrant place. Cafes, bakeries and clothing shops face the streets, creating a sense of openness. At night, lights from these shops make passersby feel more comfortable than they would if they were walking past a big, unlit building. The newer area is more accommodating to cars, but the area that maintains the old-style scene is friendlier to people on foot.
Streets with lots of pedestrians are much safer. Oscar Newman, an American urban planner, has said that the public eye is an important factor in making an urban space safe. It’s less dangerous to be in a place where there are many eyes watching.
Pedestrian-friendly streets are also better for the businesses located there. In Boston in the early 1980s, a number of small shops on Washington Street downtown lost customers when a department store opened up on a nearby corner. The shop owners joined forces and got the city to control traffic flow into the street and widen the sidewalks. They planted trees and flowers, and installed benches and bright streetlamps. People came back to the district, and business improved.
La Festa Street in Ilsan, Gyeonggi province, is a similar example in Korea. In cooperation with a private enterprise, the city government of Goyang completely reshaped a 300-meter (900-foot) pedestrian street. Building facades along the street were beautifully decorated, and overpasses between buildings were constructed. A wide range of cultural events were held there, creating a festive mood. The project succeeded in attracting many people.
The Seoul city government, having built the lawn in front of City Hall last year, is now moving forward with a plan to build a plaza in front of Namdaemun, and to widen sidewalks downtown. This fall, the restoration of Cheonggyecheon stream will be completed. But to get Seoulites to actually walk the streets, new pavements and trees along the streets will not be enough.
The city should be thinking in great detail about urban and architectural design, from the forms of buildings to the relationships between those buildings and the streets. The city’s improvement projects should be accompanied by an industrial policy that can induce industries or businesses suitable for the buildings on a given street. Only with such efforts will Seoul have streets that are truly designed for pedestrians.

* The writer is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shin Hai-kyung
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