Can Seoul become ‘culture-first’?

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Can Seoul become ‘culture-first’?

With some friends, I recently helped show a German businessman and political thinker around Seoul. We spent the afternoon walking around Bukchon, Seocheon, Dongdaemun, City Hall and Gwangjang Market on Jongno Street. Our guest was curious about absolutely everything - architecture, how the Seoul Metro works and where we supposed strangers passing by on the street were going.

It was a real test of our knowledge of the capital.

Since I’ve lived here in Seoul for a while now, I sometimes wonder if my so-called third party or outsider eye has changed. I, of course, have certain perceptions of this city, and ideas of how it could be made better. But I do like to compare thoughts with those who just stepped off the plane - particularly with those who are much smarter and well traveled.

I have to admit that I didn’t quite share our guest’s enthusiasm for Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza. I asked him, “If you had the power to change the appearance of Seoul, what would be the first thing you would do?” His immediate response was “have more parks.” I’m sure this is probably something we can all agree on. Seoul does actually have huge space dedicated to parks, but unfortunately, almost all of that space is mountainous. It is hard not to lament the lack of open, green space in this city.

The urban parks that do exist are often simply covered in concrete. Any green areas are cordoned and have signs saying “keep off the grass” I’m sure this makes things easier to manage, but it does negate the purpose of having a park at all.

Nature and aesthetics are core ingredients of a happy life. If we are serious about improving the psychological well-being of Korean society, would it really hurt to make a small parcel of land in each area “off bounds” to gigantic construction projects, and plant some trees? Would it be so “inefficient” to forgo one or two apartment projects for some green space where kids could play? Near where I live, we seem to be in a constant state of “under construction.” I sometimes wonder, does all this development have an end target?

The recent helicopter crash ignited a debate about the wisdom of erecting a 123-storey building so close to an airfield. The Air Force certainly has every right to question it. But is it unreasonable to question the necessity of having such a building anywhere in the city, lording it over the skyline? The population of Seoul has peaked, and apartments don’t sell like they used to. Demand for prestigious office developments is weak in Yeouido and other areas.

As we walked by Dongdaemun that day, we passed a mobile phone shop, which was - of course! - blaring unbelievably loud (and bad) music. The speakers were in the street. Another member of the group, a Seoul-based architect, muttered, “Why do they have to be so noisy?” Again, I have to agree. I love loud music, but only when I have a choice about it. Does it really help their business so much? And if so, does that benefit outweigh the irritation inflicted on the thousands of people who pass by every day?

Gigantic orange inflatable signs are also deemed necessary by shop owners, even in the most charming areas. I find it amazing that begging was banned on the grounds of it being a public nuisance, while the real creators of visual and aural pollution are still allowed to do whatever they please. I used to love Insa-dong, but whenever I walk down there now, I’m accosted by salespeople who clap at me, and (admittedly well-meaning) red-jacketed guides who shout “tourist information!” (Apparently it isn’t possible that I might actually live here.) And don’t get me started about the cosmetics shops at the end of the street.

The topic of pedestrian-friendly areas also came up on our walk. Why not consider it in a few places - Hongdae parking lot alley, for instance? Why not block it off to traffic, plant trees through the middle, and encourage cafe and bar owners to bring tables outside?

Instead of having makeshift tent stalls, we could have attractive wooden ones, and regular street market days. Stall-holders could sell anything, as long as they didn’t shout in the street and use inflatable signs. Economic activity in the area might actually increase.

People often want to know how to make Seoul a more attractive city, and how it might be improved as a tourist destination. I think at least part of the answer involves intervention, since there seems to be no natural way to preserve the city’s livability, dignity and history in the face of developmental thinking - a philosophy better suited to 20th-century Seoul. Can 21st-century Seoul give up “development-first” and become “culture-first”?

*The author is former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor

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