[VIEWPOINT]Trust urban planners’ advice

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[VIEWPOINT]Trust urban planners’ advice

As the prosecutors begin an investigation into the redevelopment of the Cheonggyecheon area, misunderstanding and distrust in urban planning are spreading.
People increasingly assume that a certain group of people benefits from loosened restrictions on building height or floor area ratio and that urban planners that determine the change in policies are corrupt. If this negative perception persists, all urban planning decisions that relax rules on height or floor area ratio are bound to look like suspicious favors, and there is a risk that Korean cities will become uniform and characterless.
In urban planning, the heights of buildings are regulated in order to preserve the scenery. However, the definition of pleasant scenery is objective, and each individual can have a different idea of what it is. Therefore, it is hard to establish an absolute standard on building heights.
The decision to build a wider, lower building under a strict height limit or a slim, taller building by loosening the regulations depends on how it harmonizes with the urban scene.
The government adjusts the building height regulations by consulting urban planning and architectural specialists for each region. If easing height limits itself is considered a favor, the specialist’s opinion becomes meaningless, and only low, wide buildings will be sprawling all over the city.
Controlling the size of a building with a floor area ratio is to prevent the overload in basic urban facilities such as roads and parks. When the basic facilities are lacking, the floor area ratio regulation is strengthened, and when the facilities are sufficient, the restriction is relaxed.
Accordingly, the city gives incentives to builders that provide a portion of land for public roads or a park by easing the floor area ratio. In urban planning, floor space limits are eased not unconditionally but in return for providing urban infrastructures corresponding to the benefit.
If the lifting of the restrictions is not done in conjunction with builders’ offering land for parks or public roads, then the change in the rules would ultimately discourage the development of additional roads and parks in areas that lack them.
In the downtown redevelopment zone, the buildings’ height and floor area ratio regulations can be altered for the same reasons. If an individual land owner builds his own building on his lot, it will not harmonize with the overall scenery, and it would be impossible to build or expand roads or create a park.
By zoning certain areas and developing them together, such problems can be solved. In this way, incentives are given to the downtown area that is being redeveloped according to urban planners.
Downtown Seoul, which is enclosed by the four gates, has almost been sacrificed for the successful development of Gangnam, south of the Han River, which began in the late 1960s. Compared to Gangnam and other districts in Seoul, the floor area ratio and height controls have been especially strict in the downtown area. Even schools were not allowed to relocate, and private after-school institutes were not allowed in the area.
As a result, Gangnam is filled with high-rises and boasts an excellent academic environment while the downtown area, which is supposed to thrive as the center of Gangbuk, north of the Han River, has become stagnant.
Urban planners have long been pointing to the need to ease the height and floor area ratio regulations downtown, and the restoration of Cheonggyecheon might be the catalyst to realize that policy change.
Each specialist might have a different opinion on the appropriate floor area ratio and height for the buildings around Cheonggyecheon, but they are based on expertise. If the effort to relax regulations is seen as evidence of corruption and currying favor in urban planning, the city’s future appearance won’t get any better.

* The writer is a professor of urban planning at Seoul National University. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Mack-joong
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