Making a ‘soft city’

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Making a ‘soft city’

New cities are springing up, but those who are looking for skyscrapers and fancy shopping malls won’t see them. New flames are ignited in the ruins of modernization, such as abandoned breweries, warehouses and printing shops. The new flames embrace the gaps between tradition and contemporary, arts and technology and even the class difference between the haves and have-nots. They are young and creative.

Have you been to Taipei recently? In the 1980s, Taiwan was one of the four dragons in Asia, synonymous with rapid economic development. But with the rise of China, Taiwan fell off the radar for many people. Made in Taiwan products have been replaced with Made in China. I was fortunate enough to witness Taipei’s rebirth from the outdated skyscrapers of the 80s as I was invited to Maker Faire Taipei.

A century-old distillery covered with ivy was transformed into one of the most attractive spaces in Taipei. It was part of the Taiwanese government’s creative city strategy, most notably its Culture and Creative Parks project. It is an application of so-called “soft urbanism,” renovating places with historical significance as creative hubs to create communities and build new cultural centers. Respecting social and cultural interactions is the key to the “softness.”

Huashan 1914, the site of Maker Faire Taipei, was crowded with visitors. In addition to the young people who frequent arts theaters, design shops and galleries, families with children and students attended the faire. Students with handmade robots lined up to participate in robot boxing or racing competitions. The Maker Faire was a great success. With a strong tradition of manufacturing, the Taiwanese people seem to take pride in making things with their hands.

The man who was sitting next to me at the Maker Faire Conference was the current commissioner of the Culture and Creative Parks in Taipei, including Huashan 1914. Dr. Chung-Chieh Lin introduced himself as an architect. The purpose of the creative parks was to establish a creative milieu by bringing creative minds and organizations together. After all, a more creative economy is the core idea, and it began by attracting creative people and organizations.

What kind of environment do creative people prefer? The following is the stereotype in my head: they are environmentally conscious and prefer walking or biking. Rather than skyscrapers, they want to work and play in old factories or historic structures. An isolated modern life with no communication with neighbors does not suit them. They value interaction with local people and want to use their creative energy for the sake of a community.

The government should mind the sensibilities of creative minds and provide financial and policy assistance accordingly. Before technology and money, people should come as the central element. A liberal atmosphere is a must, and excessive regulation is taboo. The “soft city” is where you run into acquaintances and have a cup of coffee, where a cafe hosts community events and where individuals can contribute to the formation of the city. It is the horizontal city emerging in the digital era.

Dr. Lin recommended visiting Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, another creative hub. The futuristic Eslite Spectrum shopping mall welcomed visitors. Instead of shelves displaying products, various workshops filled the space. Customers were making instead of buying, immersed in glass, wood, metal and paper crafts and cooking. The top floor housed the biggest bookstore in Taipei, and a reading of a well-known poet was in session. Outside the department store is a design center in a former school building from the Japanese colonial era, and an open square was used for a flea market where people could sell their handcrafts.

Seoul has made similar attempts, most notably the Cheonggyecheon project. Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak was elected president for creating a park for the people by demolishing an overpass and restoring Cheonggyecheon. Mayor Oh Se-hoon focused on embellishment of the city under the banner of “Beautiful Seoul,” and started the Han River Renaissance and Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Incumbent mayor Park Won-soon stresses sustainability and changes from the bottom up. He respects local characteristics of neighborhoods and historical significances and actively engages with civic groups on municipal affairs. What’s regrettable is the government-driven tendency. The moment a potential “soft city” turns into the legacy of a certain mayor, the charm disappears.

Soft cities may be the cities of the future pursuing sustainability. In a people-oriented city built on creativity, tradition and technology, the rich and poor may walk, work and create together. Arts will bloom. Would it be really necessary to build a new city on Mars? Instead, all the time and effort can be used to care for the neighbors and be more considerate to each other. Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

*The author is the director of the Art Center Nabi.

by Roh Soh-yeong

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