Green spaces are overrated

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Green spaces are overrated

The city of Seoul announced it will turn the old 938-meter, two-lane overpass at Seoul Station into a public green space and pedestrian pathway instead of demolishing it. Some welcome the idea, which is modeled after the High Line, an elevated park in New York, and the Promenade Plantee in Paris. But shopkeepers in the commercial neighborhood worry about traffic issues and the damage it may cause their business. Some also say installing an artificial green space in a heavily congested area will be more of a showcase than a public resting space for citizens.

“Remember this last look at the Ahyeon overpass. From now on, Seoul’s streets will primarily serve pedestrians and people, not cars. This marks the end of the symbolic structure of vehicle-oriented development,” said Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon in a speech before leading a crowd of citizens across the overpass one last time before it was demolished.

Elevated expressways were a symbolic part of the super-fast, top-down urbanization and modernization drive under long-term leader Park Chung Hee. The kilometer-long Ahyeon Overpass was among the first to go up in the late 1960s. But now, Seoul city has announced a new extravagant plan to turn the overpass near Seoul Station into a public park. The city’s mayors have been demolishing elevated roads since 2002. The old flyovers ruined the overall skyline and helped little to ease traffic. Doing away with them is in line with the Seoul campaign to become greener and more people-friendly. The Cheonggye overpass demolition and renovation project has been a good example. The transformation added a natural setting to the downtown area without worsening traffic. A total of 17 overpasses have been demolished so far. Seoul Station’s elevated park was originally planned for last year.

But with that been said, we must study the practical and economic reasons to transform the overpass into a green space. Cities around the world put up roads and structures in the air and underground with various new technologies and tools in the last century. Sewoon Square in downtown Seoul was also built on an ambitious design. Under the original plan, a tree-planted pathway would connect Jongmyo and Namsan Tower. But we know what became of it. Few used the elevated pathway and the homeless dominate it now. The bridges have been taken down, but the road remains shadowy and dangerous. The designers were naive about people wanting to walk in the middle of the downtown area.

Seoul dramatically changed bus lanes to cut through the center of the roads a decade ago, modeled after Curtiba in Brazil. The city is famous for its solutions to ecological and human problems, opting for bus, pedestrian and bike lanes instead of subways. Park Yong-nam, head of the Sustainable Urban Planning Research Center, who introduced the concept to Korea, said Curtiba’s design was based on the general idea that human movement is one-dimensional. A pedestrian-friendly city needs to be flat rather than multi-dimensional, he said. People jaywalk despite the potential danger even when a flyover is nearby because humans normally do not like to go up and down.

Not all people are drawn to greenery in the city. People like to walk for window-shopping, to watch passerby and to zigzag through labyrinths of small alleys. Green spaces filled with flowers and trees in urban areas are usually quiet, while the streets and walkways in Samcheong-dong near the Blue House, Itaewon-dong in central Seoul, and Sinsa-song in southern Seoul, peppered with shops, cafes and restaurants, are always crowded.

The failure of Sewoon Square is living proof that public green spaces are not entirely appealing to pedestrians. The so-called sky garden project at Seoul Station could become another white elephant. The New York High Line, after which Seoul city’s plan has been modeled, is a different case. The elevated roads were built along buildings and therefore exits and entrances were already in place with no need for auxiliary construction. The path did not demand enormous work and spending on new tree-planting and landscape designing. Decks and benches were installed in a natural setting to minimize extensive architectural and landscaping costs. It ended up as a structure that naturally blended into the urban setting.

Seoul’s idea of turning the skyway into artificial greenery packed anew with soil and trees is entirely different. As the mayor said, the demolition of elevated roads is opening a new chapter in the capital’s design as a livable instead of industrial city. We should embark on the redesigning project with a long-term outline to transform the city’s living structure and make the downtown space friendlier to the people.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

The author is a professor of architecture at Kookmin University.

by Lee Kyung-hoon

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