[OUTLOOK]This city is for the birds

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[OUTLOOK]This city is for the birds

The Olympic Expressway in Apgujeong, southern Seoul, has a wonderful soundproof wall along one side. The wall is ugly but is covered with beautiful Wisteria vines and ivy. The greeneries give it a fresh atmosphere.
However, this was prohibited by law until 2000. Decorating soundproof walls and embankments was prohibited, so that cracks and dangerous signs could be discovered with ease.
This was only for the convenience of the civil workers who supervise the facilities. Once citizens protested, demanding greenery instead of grey concrete, however, the regulations were lifted.
If civil workers put up with a little bit more inconvenience, Seoul could have a lot friendlier and brighter atmosphere. Trees alongside roads are trimmed of any branches below 2 meters from the ground (6 feet, 6 inches). Why? Because people can easily cut branches under 2 meters.
In France, for example, the rule is to cut branches from 2.5 to 3 meters down. That might be an inconvenient chore for civil workers because they need to use ladders and move them from one tree to another.
However, these 50 centimeters make a big difference in terms of the atmosphere of the cities. Sidewalks in Paris look far wider than those in Seoul and fewer complaints are made in Paris about branches hiding signs of shops.
These days, skyscrapers are being built throughout central Seoul. This is the result of a temporary measure which allowed the floor area ratio for reconstruction work in Seoul to go up to 1,100 percent of the size of the construction site as a way to boost the construction business right after the 1998 financial crisis erupted.
However, these new buildings feel stuffy. The buildings feel packed because they are built right next to each other in small areas. Some buildings are built too close to sidewalks. It looks like there is too little space in the city.
The more unpleasant a building is, the more beautiful the bird’s-eye-view painting of that building will be. In this view, the building is surrounded by a wide meadow and people are taking leisurely strolls around it. Yet this is only a bird’s eye view and not what we see.
A tall apartment building complex in Gwangjin district, Seoul, has the same type of aerial view. A busy bus terminal just in front of the complex is not seen at all on the painting. The winding Han River runs smoothly in front of the apartment complex, which is beautifully situated in the middle of a green meadow. This should be a beautiful landscape painting.
However, the result turned out to be the exact opposite. The residents of the complex complain about noise and pollution more than residents inother regions do.
To get permission to build a house bigger than a certain size, a painting of the bird’s-eye-view must be submitted. There is even a niche market for these paintings.
But an aerial view, which is totally different from the actual building and its surroundings, does nothing but fool people’s eyes. A perspective drawing from the perspective of a person’s eyes, 160 centimeters, must be used when issuing construction permits.
There is a story about this:
An application to build a skyscraper in front of a park in Seoul was submitted.
One of the judges asked for a photo that might be taken at the height of the eyes of a person who was taking a walk around the park.
The owner of the building was stunned to see the image. The building was like a monster standing right in front of the park. The owner voluntarily decided to build the house six floors lower and then reapplied for the permit.
Nine out of 10 Koreans live in cities. When many people live in crowded urban areas, concern for others and good manners are desperately needed. If the owners of buildings present great aerial views to profit from them, people cannot help but feel more stressed.
The city of Yongin, Gyeonggi province, introduced a new regulation that owners of skyscrapers must let residents know about construction for a certain period before it is approved by the authorities. This measure is to prevent conflicts between building owners and residents from occurring. This local regulation has changed the way people look at their city ― with human eyes, and not those of birds.
The shareholders of a city are not civil workers, nor are they birds. They are the ordinary people who live in it. I wish old-fashioned regulations intended to make civil workers’ lives more convenient and useless bird’s-eye-view drawings of buildings were a thing of the past.
This wish still feels hopeless, though. The president and the government have stepped up and presented a fancy drawing of its plan for its “Vision 2030.” They must still think of citizens as birds.

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

by Lee Chul-ho
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