[Outlook]Guarding our greenbelt

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[Outlook]Guarding our greenbelt

The greenbelt designation has both positive and negative elements. The upside is that it blocks uncontrolled and unorganized urban sprawl and maintains some open spaces.

The downside, on the other hand, is that it reduces the amount of available land in big cities, causing housing prices to shoot up and increasing the distance between homes and jobs, which in turn pushes up social costs. These conflicting factors are why the greenbelt issue is one of the most controversial among the country’s land policies, along with regulations in metropolitan areas and Innovation Cities.

The recently announced government measure is aimed at lifting some of the greenbelt-designated regions that are not worth preserving, in order to minimize the negative effects of maintaining such zones. The land will be transformed into residential and industrial areas, which have more literal value.

In reality, the government’s argument makes sense to some extent. There is no good reason to maintain greenbelt that is already covered with unsightly warehouses and greenhouses, nor those huge areas around seaside cities such as Busan where the usable land is in short supply anyway because of the topography.

However, most people are not persuaded by the government’s decision to remove the greenbelt. They wonder “Why now?” and “Why in this fashion?”

With housing prices plummeting and newly built apartments sitting unsold, the government’s argument doesn’t sound persuasive.

In 2001, the administration decided to lift some greenbelts. After extensive public debate, a social consensus was reached on the total size of the designated greenbelt to be lifted by 2020.

It’s hard to understand why the government suddenly decided on a threefold increase of the greenbelt to be lifted. It is also hard to understand why the government didn’t name the areas that will have their designation changed, only announcing the total area. While such a move is bound to increase land prices, the government said it wouldn’t lift some greenbelt areas, even if they were needed, if the land prices are too high. That only adds to the confusion.

The excuses the government has recited for removing the designations are nothing new. The same problems have been pointed out constantly over the past 40 or so years, ever since the greenbelt was first designated. If we think only about the problems, the greenbelt should have been removed much earlier. But we have maintained it because there was a social consensus that it should be preserved. Like it or not, greenbelt is precious property that our society has protected for the past 40-odd years, despite a range of controversies.

Therefore, any changes to the policy should be made by public consensus reached through a legitimate procedure, even though it may take a long time. The government must not simply decide to remove greenbelt and then inform the people of the decision, as if it were conducting a military operation. The government must reveal basic guidelines for maintaining and using land from a long-term perspective, and present concrete plans about how much greenbelt will be lifted by when, how to prevent side effects and how to preserve the remaining areas. After that, it must humbly wait for the people’s agreement.

Greenbelt is not a sacred sanctuary. A new policy can be pursued if it is necessary for the country and if most of the people agree on it. However, the authorities must be aware that the people have a strong affection for greenbelt that is unlike their sentiment toward other government policies. Therefore, our greenbelt must be handled with care.

*The writer is a professor of urban planning at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Hur Jae-wan
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