Paradigm Shift in Seoul

By Soo Hong Noh

How the Cheonggyecheon River became what it is today — a pinnacle of mixed-use restorative redevelopment — is a prime test case example of a project built of many, many minds.

Setting an Agenda

This restoration story begins in 1991 with a casual conversation at Yonsei University between a historian, Lee Hee Duck, and me, an engineer. Inspired by that conversation, I continued to research and gather opinions on the idea of restoring the Cheonggyecheon River until 2000, when we formed a formal research group. Our first step was education, with the goal of building consensus around an agenda for the project. We organized seminars to teach early potential stakeholders about the basic design concepts of restoration.

Getting Attention

The Cheonggyecheon Restoration Research Group organized their first symposium on September 1, 2000, circulating the idea among environment professionals and major NGOs. By the time of the second symposium, held on April 27, 2001, the research group was able to provide a detailed restoration plan and an approximate project cost. Major newspapers started to cover the story. Politicians preparing the mayoral election in Seoul also began to show interest in the restoration.

The Critical Moment

The 2002 mayoral election in Seoul became a watershed moment in building consensus for the Cheonggyecheon restoration, when the candidates picked sides on the issue and lifted the topic to a top-level public debate. Lee Myung Bak, the conservative party candidate, took up the restoration as his prime election promise. Kim Min Seok, the liberal party candidate, opposed the restoration under claims that it would cause severe traffic jams. During election debates in spring 2002, the Cheonggyecheon restoration became the object of a heated battle and fierce discussion, eclipsing all other election issues. Lee Myung Bak won the election by a huge margin.

Building Consensus

After the election, the Cheonggyecheon River Research Group offered its expertise to the mayoral transition committee to set up a governance system for the project. This public commitment to consensus and widespread stakeholder buy-in was critical to later success. Despite support for the Cheonggyecheon River restoration in polls and a decisive victory in the mayoral election giving a clear picture of the citizens’ consent for the project, we pursued a fair governance system to execute it.

A Paradigm Shift

Even as stakeholders began to reach consensus on the Cheonggyecheon restoration plan, the city struggled to begin construction, because closing the Cheonggyecheon road required a permit from the city police department, which is under the control of the central government. At the time, the mayor’s political party was different than the central government ruling party.

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