[Viewpoint] Elections color greenbelt policies

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[Viewpoint] Elections color greenbelt policies

A “greenbelt” - an area near a metropolis that is designated as a development-free zone - is often said to go by three names. In ordinary times, when environmentalists raise their voices, it is called an environmental belt. When discussions grow fierce over how to effectively use land, it is a development belt.

Although their ends conflict, these two belts are tolerable. The third, however, is unbearable. It is the political belt. About 1 million people and entities own land inside the greenbelts, and that means several million votes may depend on greenbelt policies. That’s enough to decide an election. And when the political belt is ascendant, demands grow to remove all development restrictions from the greenbelts.

In the political arena, lifting the greenbelt policy has a long, popular history. Kim Dae-jung was the first to make a campaign pledge of it.

After he won the presidential election, Kim decided to lift development bans on 29.2 percent of the greenbelt zones, or 1,577 square kilometers (608 square miles) of land, by 2020. Without development blueprints or an environmental preservation plan, Kim simply set up a ceiling and allowed local autonomous governments to work out the rest.

Once the dam broke, there was no turning back. By the end of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, about 90 percent of the promised lands were free of restrictions. Kim said the lands would be released over 20 years, but it took less than half that time.

The Lee Myung-bak administration also supports lifting the greenbelt restrictions. As Seoul mayor, Lee lifted the ban and allowed housing projects, such as Eunpyeong New Town, to be built. On the other hand, he opposed Songpa New Town, arguing that a large apartment complex in the Gangnam area was against the spirit of balanced development in Seoul.

After Lee won the presidency, the administration rapidly moved toward lifting the development bans. In February 2009, Lee said, “The greenbelt areas in the outskirts of Seoul are full of polycarbonate greenhouses. Such places are better developed.” Then his administration presented what it called a groundbreaking housing policy for the middle class - building massive public housing projects inside the greenbelt areas. The public housing was provided at prices up to 40 percent lower than market value and largely stabilized the market, which is not bad.

But a few days ago, the Seoul Metropolitan Government joined the trend. The city presented a comprehensive management plan for the greenbelt. The plan calls for an investigation of the 154 square kilometers of greenbelt areas, which stretch through 19 districts of Seoul and comprise a quarter of the city’s total area, to be followed by development and preservation plans.

The survey would be the first taken since the greenbelt policy was adopted 40 years ago. The intention is appropriate, but other aspects of the plan are bothersome.

First, the timing is suspicious. The announcement came two months before the local elections on June 2. The survey is scheduled to begin in May. A good policy must be presented at the right time. When the timing is bad, the most excellent plan will be ineffective.

The way the proposal came into being was also strange. It’s fine that the Seoul Metropolitan Government took the initiative, but it should have consulted with the Land Ministry, at least. If the ministry rejects it, the project won’t be able to move on.

A senior ministry official said there was no special discussion with the city about the plan.

“The greenbelt restrictions have actually been lifted way too much, and that is a national problem,” he said. “It is now time to save them for the future of the nation.”

It’s also bothersome that the city only focuses on “lifting” the bans. It already has a plan to lift bans on small greenbelt zones that are less than 10,000 square meters, and lands that are less than 1,000 square meters and bisected by the boundaries of the greenbelts.

Of course, the city insists that the survey is not for development only. It said damaged lands will be restored and turned into parks. Yet there would be no need to carry out such a large-scale survey if the only purpose were preservation. The lands could just be left alone. There is no better policy of preservation than keeping the greenbelt restrictions in place.

The management of the greenbelt areas is a question for the next century. Because so many parties are involved, it is a complex matter. That’s why a transparent procedure and public discussion are absolutely necessary. If the Seoul Metropolitan Government must carry out the survey and planning, it must do so after the elections, and with the help of civilian experts.

Critics have called the greenbelts the tattered belts. If the city’s timing is wrong, the tatters may be reduced to nothing at all.

*The writer is the economy and industrial news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Yi Jung-jae
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