[VIEWPOINT]A park for Koreans, by Koreans

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[VIEWPOINT]A park for Koreans, by Koreans

Satellite photos show that a railway track connecting Yongsan, Seoul, to Euijeongbu, Gyeonggi province slips out of Seobinggo-dong, crosses a main street and creeps into the U.S. military base. The track is a supply railroad. Many people trudge across the track every day. Seen from above, the railway crossing the main street looks like a deep wrinkle or a very old scar.
The military base located in the heart of Seoul has distorted Seoul’s urban planning for a long time. Among the many bridges over the Han River, Dongjak Bridge is the only one cut off from the street at its northern end, and subway line No. 4, which should have connected Seoul Station to Gwacheon via the Dongjak Bridge, instead detours around Ichon-dong.
Japan built a large military base in Yongsan during its occupation of Korea. Since then, the area has been a military space as well as foreign territory in the urban center for over a century.
There are plans to create, at this very location, a monumental park, such as Central Park in New York. A large park of this scale, located in an urban center, is almost impossible to build if not designed in the initial stages of urban planning. But such a park can be created when exceptional opportunities come along, as when facilities such as a huge railway station building, factories or military bases have to be relocated. We have come across that very opportunity.
A great city needs decent parks. Parks are essential landmarks of a city. A landmark in modern times does not necessarily call for an artificial building or structure. Rather, it is a symbolic space that helps give as identity to a city.
The park to be built on the Yongsan military camp site could become an impressive landmark that represents the weight of history that has shaped Seoul and bestows a fascinating character on the city. Furthermore, it can become a park up to international standards that stands for Korea as a whole.
Now, when the space that has so long been out of our hands is to be returned to us, the task of developing this space is simply momentous. This matter is all the more important when we think of the high price we have had to pay for the land.
First of all, we need to restore Yongsan to its state prior to becoming a military site. Yongsan, literally “dragon-mountain,” is named after the dragon-shaped bends of its hills.
Restoring the original geographical features of the site and the green network from the mountain of Namsan to the Han River should be the guiding principle in transforming the Yongsan military base into a park.
Artificial structures should be minimized. What our generation should do now is to empty out, not to fill in. Central Park in New York City was completed over a span of about two decades after the city purchased the site in 1856 and started its development.
Thus we need a plan that leaves most of the site to future generations, using minimal space for public facilities.
What is more important is the process of developing the park, rather than the shape of the park. It is even more so when the historical significance of Yongsan is taken into account. Yongsan should not contain history that government agencies alone will define.
The plan should be an open process in which people can widely participate.
Although various ways of civic participation have been sought, including naming the park through a public contest, the basic nature of the park should also be defined through gathering the public’s wishes.
It is not right for the government to define the nature of the park in advance, either as a “national park” or a “historical park.”
Rather than trying to complete the park in haste, the government should prepare a long-term plan in a manner that enables participation by the public.
It should also consider adopting a consultation system that includes people in the decision-making process ― by announcing the planning procedure to the public and encouraging them to participate in the process.
But the principles should be made clear. The plan should not have any loopholes through which the logic of economic interests can easily sneak in.
The age has passed when the government monopolized the compiling of history. The history of Yongsan’s development should be written by the common people. We should take the process of the development of Yongsan Park as a new opportunity to re-establish a system of rational national communication. Here lies the way to make the planning of the park development a process of true civic participation and to genuinely restore Yongsan as our territory.

* The writer is a senior research fellow at Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Hyun-sik
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