Paradigm Shift in Seoul
By Soo Hong Noh
For more than 600 years, the Cheonggyecheon River ran through downtown Seoul, the capital city of Korea, before the river was covered by an elevated highway in the 1970s. By 2002, more than 170,000 vehicles used the road every day. As the road deteriorated, so did the ecological conditions of the river, and likewise, economic life in downtown Seoul.
For Seoul, the Cheonggyecheon River was a challenge of scale. Shifting the paradigm would require a vast and expensive project requiring the buy-in of a monumental array of stakeholders, from policymakers on Korea’s economy to its ecology, experts in fields ranging from transportation to water engineering, plus citizens, street vendors, business owners and candidates for office. 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.
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.
The main objectives of the restoration were to restore the historical heritage of Seoul and to recover her identity, deformed in the last century; to transform the city from highway-reliant to a public transit- and pedestrian-friendly environment; to revitalize the economy of the neighboring area of Cheonggyecheon; and to provide a hands-on environmental education to millions of citizens by restoring water ecology in downtown.
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.
On January 1, 2002, Hankyoreh, a major liberal newspaper, published a special interview with a famous Korean writer, Pak Kyongni, on the Cheonggyecheon restoration. From there, media coverage of the restoration increased steadily as the election approached. Multiple public polls showed over 70% of Seoul residents in favor of the restoration. However, the city administration, perhaps the singular required stakeholder for the project, did not show any interest in the restoration, even after researchers at Seoul Development Institute, an important city think-tank, joined an active role in the research group and reported back to the city with details of the symposium’s agenda.
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.
Before and after the election, public polls showed consistently strong support for the project. However, city officials were not ready to initiate the challenging tasks confronting more than 200,000 stakeholders in and around Cheonggyecheon. Despite the lack of interest of the city administration prior to the election, afterward it appeared that additional consent for the restoration of Cheonggyecheon was not necessary. Mayor Lee’s strong leadership during the campaign spurred hesitant officials into action once he took office.
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.
The governance system we created to carry out the Cheonggyecheon River Restoration Project had three pillars: 1) a citizens’ committee of 126 members, included six subdivisions and a main division responsible for consensus building and final approval of the restoration plan, granted authority via a bylaw passed by the city legislature; 2) a research team formed by the Seoul Development Institute responsible for planning the restoration and providing technical support; and 3) a project team responsible for the overall construction and supervision of daily chores.
A public poll conducted before the election by Hankyoreh showed an overall 75% approval rating for the Cheonggyecheon restoration. But after the election, as the mayor began to turn his election promise into reality, various stakeholders including property owners, shop renters, and street vendors voiced concerns about adverse effects on business during the construction and after the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon River. Street vendors in particular launched strong protests demanding compensation and alternate locations to set up shop.
Overcoming these challenges was led by the citizens’ committee, negotiating between the city and stakeholders. In addition, the city hosted more than 4,000 hearings, public presentations, and one-to-one consultations with stakeholders large and small. For some city officials, this meant more than ten such meetings with stakeholders in a day. Throughout, the success of these negotiations could be attributed to the firm and fair system of governance guided by a committee of citizens with a strong presence of stakeholders directly concerned with the potential for adverse effects.
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.
Here, it was again the support of writer Pak Kyongni that pushed the project forward. In a May 2003 column in the daily newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, Pak emphasized the potential of an urgent restoration of Cheonggyecheon, and her well-received argument brought fresh momentum to public support for the project. Soon after, the necessary permits were issued. Construction began less than two months later. On October 1, 2005, the Cheonggyecheon River Restoration project was completed with an overall budget of 360 billion wons, or around 300 million U.S. dollars.
The Cheonggyecheon River District, once a polluted waterway under a smog-filled highway, is a gathering place for all of Seoul. Artist performances, exhibitions, fashion shows, marathons, public campaigns, and other cultural events are on the schedule every week. The ecosystem has quickly recovered, with the number of species increasing from 98 before the restoration, to 864 in 2010. Heavy traffic has eased downtown and the restoration project inspired the city of Seoul to create innovative public transit systems, extending the operating time of the subway, implementing bus-only central lanes and a free bus-to-subway transfer system. Over 200 million citizens and tourists have visited Cheonggyecheon.
To create the Cheonggyecheon River District, it took nearly a decade of consideration and research, but most significantly, the slow process of listening to stakeholders and building consensus. However laborious, the process has shifted the entire transportation paradigm in Seoul from cars and highways to public transit and pedestrian concerns. The Cheonggyecheon restoration has also triggered river restoration projects throughout Korea and has become a model of urban river restoration around the world. Steady consensus building, good governance and strong leadership worked to change a seemingly unfixable problem in Seoul, and it is a model that can be applied to do the impossible anywhere.
[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2017.]
Soo Hong Noh is a professor at the School of Environmental Engineering at Yonsei University, Korea. He is a graduate of Yonsei University and has a Ph.D. from McMaster University, Canada. He joined the Yonsei University School of Environmental Engineering in 1989. In 2000 he founded a research group that initiated the Cheonggyecheon River restoration movement. He played vital roles in the restoration process and his group received the Seoul Metropolitan Policy Grand Award in 2004 for their contributions. His current research includes an appropriate technology for safe drinking water supply in developing countries to achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6.1.