Cheonggyecheon, Dongdaemun Gentrification: Artist’s Note

Eun-Seon Park (Listen to the City)

We need to rediscover and document the long-neglected history of ordinary people and reconsider the diverse urban cultures that have been erased by developmentalism.

New Town Kids and DDP

Seoul suffers from memory loss. It erases its memories, not only in the sense that its common spaces are gone but also in the sense that it denies the once existence of such spaces altogether. Most people in their twenties are not aware that Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) was once Dongdaemun Stadium. Nor do they know the fact that Cheonggyecheon used to be an elevated highway, or that Hangang was a swimmable river with clean water and a beach. But at the same time, not many people see the stream and river being covered in concrete as an inconvenience either. To a generation born in concrete buildings and whose nature consists of landscapes attached to apartment complexes, remembering the city’s past and its natural elements might not be much of a priority. After all, we cannot memorize all of the city’s 600 years of history. Perhaps there is no need for the current or next generation to remember what Dongdaemun Stadium and Cheonggyecheon once were.

However, what we do need to do is question why the city administrators and citizens made the decision to build DDP, and whether that decision was sustainable. In addition, we need to discuss what we and the city have omitted from official records and turned a blind eye from. We must address around whom the history of the city is narrated. Cheonggyecheon and Dongdaemun were developed hastily, without giving the deserved attention and public discourse to the street vendors or to the restoration of the stream; the official history does not recount the minorities’ opinions and struggles. This led to our interest in mapping the gentrification of street vendors, as well as touring Cheonggyecheon and making a disaster map. Especially, we wanted to understand how civil engineering-based development became Seoul’s paradigm, and develop a culture that can turn the current system into a more sustainable one.

Listen to The City’s Seoul Tours is an ongoing program that engages with the reality of the city. The image above shows the touring path for Cheonggyecheon.

The year 2003 marked a significant turning point for Seoul; the New Town Project came into full orbit. By 2005, less than 3% of buildings built before the Korean War in 1950 remained (Gelézeau 2007). During the 3 years between 2002 and 2005, 23.16㎢ or 7.5% of Seoul’s total residential area of 305.74㎢ was designated as redevelopment- and reconstruction-improvement zones (장남종 et al. 2010). As old parts of the city were replaced by apartment complexes, the few parts that escaped such fate — Itaewon, Mangwon-dong, Seochon, Ihwa-dong, Ikseon-dong — became hot places for coffee shops to open, thanks to the aesthetics of old places.

While the term gentrification is increasingly being used out of context in order to refer to the above phenomenon, we need to point out that the New Town project, the increase in real estate prices, and commercial leases are all connected — we cannot simply separate residential redevelopment and commercial lease problems. The Korean case of city-wide large-scale complete demolition followed by new residential buildings is rather unique; neither the notion of gentrification as originated from Anglophone countries nor the notion of redevelopment as introduced from Japan does fit exactly to the Korean phenomenon. (All-out redevelopments in such scale almost never happened in Europe after Haussmann’s renovation of Paris that started in 1853.) For example, while the Yongsan disaster was a redevelopment project, most evictees were commercial tenants. Duriban and Cafe Mari were also cases of redevelopment under the Act On The Maintenance And Improvement Of Urban Areas And Dwelling Conditions For Residents (Urban Improvement Act) but the protests that were held in those places were struggles by commercial tenants for their rights.

In a country where exploitation through real estate is so common, it seems more appropriate to rely on the notion of first-, second-, and third-wave gentrifications by Jason Hackworth and Neil Smith. All three waves of gentrification can be observed at the same time in Korean cities. Hackworth and Smith’s distinction among the three types of gentrification goes as follows. First-wave refers to the phenomenon “mainly isolated in small neighbourhoods;” second-wave refers to one that occurs in connection with residential areas, such as the capital invasion into SoHo and Lower East Side that turned them into commercial areas. Third-wave involves large capital, which means “developers rework entire neighbourhoods, often with state support.” (Hackworth and Smith, 2001)

The Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project (CGC Project, 2003–2005) and DDP (2007–2014) correspond to the third-wave gentrification model. These two projects were not just about developing the places in question; they were closely related to the surrounding real estate as well. It should be noted that the projects were designed by the same politicians who wrote and led the Special Act on New Town, and started at the height of a social atmosphere supportive to real estate development projects. Between 2004 and 2008, Seoul’s citywide land value rose 7.6% in average while that of New Town districts jumped at least 48% and even 258% in the most extreme case. Then was New Town really a simple replacement of old houses by new ones?

In 2015, while Seoul’s housing supply ratio was 97.5%, the average homeownership rate was a mere 42.1%. Homeownership rate actually decreased from 2005’s 44.6%. In other words, the New Town project increased the amount of housing, but the new homes mostly went to people who were already homeowners. Less than 10% of the original residents resettled after the project was completed (MoLIT 2016). While 70% of residents in the areas designated for redevelopment were tenants, only 17% of the newly constructed homes were public housing; in other words, there was a severe lack of planning for resident relocation (Lee 2016).

Much like New Town, the CGC Project and DDP were also large-scale development projects aimed at boosting real estate. Land prices around Cheonggyecheon rose steeply. For each meter closer to Cheonggyecheon, a premium of 280k to 360k KRW per ㎡ was added to the land price. Moreover, zone 1 — which is closest to City Hall — had 14 ~ 29% higher land price per unit area than zones 2 and 3 (장유경, 황기연 2013). Real estate price around Dongdaemun also rose. However, more than 60,000 merchants and 1,000 street vendors who have formed the commercial areas of Cheonggyecheon and Dongdaemun were pushed into surrounding areas or forced to migrate elsewhere. Many of them have not relocated at all.

Cheonggyecheon’s Unsustainable Development

The CGC Project was painted as an example of green growth and sustainable development. However, a dozen years later, it seems necessary to revisit whether the project was indeed what it claimed to be, and what it has accomplished. In doing so, Mileti’s six principles for sustainability, adapted by the Natural Hazards Center in University of Colorado Boulder, will provide a useful framework:

  • Maintain and, if possible, enhance, its residents’ quality of life.
  • Enhance local economic vitality.
  • Ensure social and intergenerational equity.
  • Maintain and, if possible, enhance, environmental quality.
  • Incorporate disaster resilience and mitigation.
  • Use a consensus-building, participatory process when making decisions. (Monday 2001)
Image: Seoul Institute (

The CGC Project started on July 1, 2003, and ended on September 30, 2005, during Lee Myung-bak’s term as mayor of Seoul. The construction work of two years and three months involved a total budget of 386.7 billion KRW and the labor of 694 thousand people. The key rationales that were proposed included: securing safety by demolishing the elevated highway, fostering an environment-friendly urban space, restoring historical and cultural contexts, achieving a balanced growth between the southern and northern part of the city, etc. In fact, after the project, the urban temperature decreased by 0.39℃ in average for every 100 meters closer to Cheonggyecheon. (Kim and Song 2015) Therefore the project had positive environmental effects in that it mitigated the urban heat island effect.

However, the project was conducted in a highly undemocratic process. Some scholars claim that lack of sustainability is a crisis of governance (Lange et al 2013). The city claims having met with merchants more than 1,000 times. But the negotiation was held with only one of the two representative groups, the one who was favorable to the city’s plans; moreover, there was no negotiation at all with street vendors (Inki Choi, interview with the author, 2017). Myung-Rae Cho points out that the undemocratic restoration process resulted in the dominance of the city’s preferred perspectives and the strict exclusion of alternative points of view proposed by the civil society (조명래, 배재호 2005). The city of Seoul promised a relocation to the Garden 5 shopping mall and later provided 6,097 merchants who showed the intent to relocate (among a total of sixty thousand) with special rights to lot purchase. However, the prices were much higher than the initial promise, and only 1,028 actually went through with the relocation; by 2015, only about one hundred of them remain in Garden 5.

Street vendors, mostly operating around Cheonggye 7-ga and 8-ga, were not invited to the table to discuss the restoration plans at all. On November 30, 2003, the city deployed a minimum of 5,000 public forces and 3,000 people from its public workers and hired eviction services, forcefully evicting more than a thousand street vendors. Their resistance being unsuccessful, the vendors relocated to Dongdaemun Stadium’s parking lot area in January 2004 — only to be forced out and move again to what now is the Seoul Folk Flea Market (박경리, 2004).

The project has barely achieved any goals in terms of historical restoration either. The first and foremost goal of CGC Project was to return Supyogyo Bridge to its original place on Cheonggyecheon. Due to planning flaws, the current Cheonggyecheon is too narrow for Supyogyo, which is currently left alone in Jangchungdan Park. After more than ten years since project completion, no plans are in sight to restore the bridge to its original location. The late novelist Pak Kyongni, who initially was in great favor of the project, expressed her regrets about the rushed construction: “I lament the fact that I contributed, however little, to this situation. If we left Cheonggyecheon as it is, wiser people could have come up with a restoration worthy of its name, and the businesses could have gone on at least a few more years. I am sorry for the merchants.” (박경리, 2004)

The local resiliency against disasters also suffered. The current Cheonggyecheon’s impervious ratio exceeds 70%; it is less a natural stream than it is a giant fish tank maintained by city water. Under heavy rain, most sewage from surrounding areas as well as nonpoint source pollution infiltrate Cheonggyecheon. The result is an increased risk of flood, including a dozen accidents per year where a citizen is trapped by water, an E. coli contamination exceeding 50 times the safety standards, and occasional mass fish deaths.

DDP’s Unsustainable Development

In 2007, along with the Design Seoul Project, a plan to demolish Dongdaemun Stadium and build the Design Park was announced. Once again, the 894 or more street vendors who were forced to move to the stadium’s parking lot area due to the CGC Project were not invited in the decision-making process. “They did not see us as citizens. To the public workers, we are just ‘them.’ How could we have been invited to public hearings when we were treated as non-humans.” (Jongsook Woo, interview with the author, 2017) The civil society suggested that street vendors be left where they are, and proposed a remodeling of the stadium instead, to no avail. The street vendors were evicted during 2008 and 2009, despite protests such as lighting tower sit-ins in the stadium by Insu Yang and others. Most of them relocated to the flea market in Sungin-dong, which was not a significant commercial area, and as a result, many suffered from lack of business or closed down permanently.

Experts have argued for the designation of Dongdaemun Stadium as a cultural heritage. Built under Japanese rule, it is Korea’s first modern sports facility which since hosted countless national events. During the military regime after the Korean War, people flocked into the stadium to watch amateur baseball and football. Inhabitants with fond memories of the time also opposed the stadium’s demolition. But construction went underway regardless of concerns from the civil society or the street vendors who lost their livelihood yet again. Numerous remains of historical sites from Joseon Dynasty such as Hadogam (military training office) were discovered during excavation. Despite cultural heritage experts’ opinion that the site itself is worthy of becoming a national treasure, construction was eventually resumed; copies of the artifacts are now awkwardly displayed in the middle of the park.

Image: Seoul Metropolitan Government (

DDP has drawn criticism for relying on a foreign star architect, Zaha Hadid, and for its disharmony with its surrounding landscape. But a more crucial problem is that the giant building lacks public programming. Its construction budget amounted to 480 billion KRW, more than 1 trillion when including land purchase, but it does not seem to have resulted in a comparable economic effect. Management cost in 2014 alone exceeded 30 billion KRW. In order to recoup the investment, most exhibitions were rentals rather than developed in-house, and spaces were leased out to big corporates as well. The Design Market (3,523㎡) and Salimteo (2,959㎡) were respectively leased to GS Retail and Designhouse Inc. for three years. This is a problem that Hadid’s previous work, Guangzhou Opera House (GOH), shares as well. When I visited Guangzhou to research the building’s usage, I could observe that much like DDP, GOH suffered from too little public programming. They had leased the entire building to a private company, changed the official Chinese name from “Opera House” to “Grand Theater,” and were mostly staging children’s opera (Nellie Hanyuan Liu — program manager, Guangzhou Opera House, and Peng Yanhan — researcher, in discussion with the author, 2013). Moreover, the building was falling apart due to insufficient management budget.

By sacrificing Dongdaemun Stadium — the first modern sports facility, the historic remains of Hadogam Site, and the contemporary heritage that are street vendors, once so famous as to have a guidebook for Japanese tourists entirely dedicated to them, Seoul obtained DDP. Ironically, the giant building was challenged with a lack of content. The city even attempted to restore the history of street vendors that it previously erased: in 2016 and 2017, Seoul Bamdokkaebi Night Market allowed about 200 food trucks to temporarily set shop in DDP, charging a daily rent of 150,000 KRW. Jongsook Woo, a street vendor who operated in Dongdaemun since the Asian financial crisis before being forced out into a street with very low pedestrian flow, was in rage at the sight of the Night Market. “The city of Seoul promised that the original street vendors would have priority in case DDP decided to allow street vendors. Then last year I saw 200 food trucks go in there, and I protested like a mad person. We yielded our spots, and now they are letting new food trucks in but not us. How does one make sense of that?” (Jongsook Woo, interview with the author, 2017)

The argument that street vendors are less an intrusion than important cultural elements that invite population inflow and vitalize the streets has long been ignored. However, the city of Seoul which has been ignoring it is faced with the dilemma of needing to embrace street vendors. Will it be able to find a low-cost solution to fill DDP’s large space?

Urban history of common people

This workshop’s aim was to question the construction of urban history using maps. No map holds the locations of street vendors. They have always been voiceless beings in urban governance. However, now that old neighborhoods have almost disappeared due to New Town developments, street vendors have become place-apparatuses that retain the affect of the streets. We listened to and mapped the stories of three street vendors. Poverty activist Inki Choi has spent his childhood in Cheonggyechon, Soon-gwan So has done business in Cheonggyecheon for a long time, and Jongsook Woo has operated mainly around Dongdaemun. History is often narrated around heroes. But the urban life is neither heroic nor dramatic; the urban people’s history consists of moments where countless anonymous strangers pass across each other and lead their lives. The right to the city involves the discussion by the unqualified about their own rights and public space. We need to rediscover and document the long-neglected history of ordinary people and reconsider the diverse urban cultures that have been erased by developmentalism.

The first day involved writing an ethnography of the street vendors using maps. The second day was a field trip to Cheonggyecheon with the goal of building a disaster map. Listen to the City has conducted Seoul Tours since 2010, where we observe the stream’s algal bloom. This is a reminder of the fact that the CGC Project, covering 10km, was eventually expanded into the Four Major Rivers Project which involved the development of over 600km of streams, and is characterized by its infamous green tide. Most citizens were not aware of the process of the CGC restoration, the problems of rushed cultural heritage restoration, as well as the fact that rain water from surrounding areas pours into Cheonggyecheon through storm water gates, that more than 70% of the riverbed is impervious, and that its water is supplied by the city and circulated using electricity. Workshop participants marked the locations of flood gates, which open automatically when precipitation exceeds 3mm in 15 minutes, as well as the locations of emergency ladders. One participant said that “it is hard to understand that they concealed a potential danger, instead of making it easy to notice.”

Twelve years have passed since the completion of the CGC Project, and four since that of DDP. Their maintenance fees amount respectively to 7.2 billion KRW and 30 billion KRW. Of course, the high cost does not prove the project wrong by itself. But what it means is that both DDP and CGC have become the citizens’ problem. Where should we begin? I hope these two places mark the end of large-scale construction works in Seoul disguised as public projects. The city does not consist of real estate values only.


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Listen to the City is an art, design and urbanism collective consisted of artists, urban researchers and designers. Started from 2009, they have been collaborated with many designers and researchers and visualized undocumented histories and entities in urban space. Listen to the City have been interested in the relationship of power that owns space and the commons, by research and activism projects about Naeseongcheon, Okbaraji Alley, and Dongdaemun Design Plaza. In 2014, they published Hidden History of Dongdaemun Design Park and the Star Architect, which is about history and criticism of building Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

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