[Viewpoint]For a truly green Seoul, curb air pollutionWhen I returned to Seoul 13 years ago, the city looked gray and dingy. Construction and concrete dust were everywhere and the massive concrete jungle dwarfed the massive clumps of the hardy yellow forsythias. I love the city’s history, but was disappointed that modern Seoul was not a city conducive to walking.
Where could you walk? Where could you sit to experience what Confucius said, “One joy dispels a hundred cares.” To experience green space, Seoulites had to travel long distances.
But over the years, Seoul has been transformed from a concrete jungle to a more livable place. A new ethos has blossomed along with the greenery. With sufficient care, a lost legacy has been recovered. New green areas, large and small, have sprouted up all over the city. Lush trees line many streets and aesthetically pleasing mini parks can be found in the most convenient places for citizens to rest their weary legs and escape for a few precious moments to experience what Aristotle meant when he said, “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”
It has not been easy to reserve green areas in a city where land is gold and it is considered wasteful if a pricey building doesn’t occupy the available space.
But the government has realized that a greener landscape enriches the lives of the people, helps build communities and enhances city life. Yeouido Plaza was constructed amid strong public protests. A friend who lives there recalled, “Many people thought it was an inefficient use of space. But now, people flock there by the hundreds with their families to walk, run and play.”
The revival of the ancient stream Cheonggye, paved over during Korea’s rapid industrialization, also met with initial public protests. However, this splendid living stream is now not only a landmark and a haven for Seoulites, but also a natural habitat for butterflies, dragonflies and other species reborn into the community.
Seoul Forest Park, once a golf course, is another green oasis where people can gather to relax, ride bicycles and volunteer to help maintain the park.
It can be said that Seoul has become an evolving green city, but unfortunately the haze and smog engulfing the city has not evolved. Not that Seoulites need me to point this out. They just have to walk out of their houses on a spectacularly sunny day and see the haze obscuring the sun and the view.
But the impact of air pollution isn’t just the obstructed views. Everyone’s health is severely threatened by the increasing pollution levels. “May is the preferred month in Korea,” a friend told me. “But the smog spoils the mood. Seoul is a city smothered in pollution. It’s even worse on the yellow sand days.” She is referring to the sandstorm phenomenon in the months of April and May, when transboundary air pollution combines with the sand storms from the deserts of northern China and Mongolia.
The government has yet to come up with an inspiring and strict policy to eradicate air pollution. Granted, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has enacted many policies and enforcement strategies to curb air pollution. According to the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities, a joint program of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, Seoul gets high marks for air quality management, such as data quality and the monitoring of pollution. But Seoul’s air does not fall within the safety limits for each of the major pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and dangerous levels of suspended particulate matter emitted from vehicles, which lodge deep in the lungs.
The culprit? Cars. There are nearly 3 million cars on the city streets. In addition, buses and trucks that use diesel fuel, a known carcinogen, spew out approximately 49 percent of the toxic emissions. “The government must restrict traffic and stand up to the big company polluters. It’s no good urging people to leave their cars at home,” my neighbor told me.
The government should enforce stricter pollution controls as part of its air quality management plans. Banning the use of cars for two days each week by using the license plate number system would be a good start. In addition, all buses and trucks should be powered by cleaner liquid petroleum gas, and all vehicles should meet strict fuel efficiency standards to reduce toxic emissions.
Granted, it will be a tough policy to enforce. It will be fought over, as all environmental battles are. But as Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” You cannot come close to the heart of a city unless conservation is secured and toxic pollution is stopped in its tracks.
Seoul must serve people, not cars. The transformation is underway, even though it will take many years to solve the most pressing environmental problems. It is easier to add green than it is to extract gray. But Seoul’s green sensibility will prevail.
*The writer is a professor in the English program at Ewha Womans University.
by Susan Oak