Overview of Seoul, including Seoullo 7017 - a lushly planted elevated walkway with activities along the way/ Credit: Seoul Metropolitan Government
Seoul has successfully turned itself around from a highly bureaucratic top-down city with rising tensions between the government and its people, into an inclusive, socially stable, and highly innovative city.
Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, has been conferred the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize 2018.
The Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize has been jointly organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Singapore and the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) since 2010. It is a biennial international award that that recognises their cities and their key leaders and organisations for displaying foresight, good governance and innovation in tackling the many urban challenges faced, to bring about social, economic and environmental benefits in a holistic way to their communities. The nominating committee includes Dr Cheong Koon Hean, Chief Executive Officer, Housing & Development Board, Singapore and Prof Kishore Mahbubani, Former Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
The jury citation states that Seoul is recognised as the role model for megacities with a will to change. The city has successfully turned itself around from a highly bureaucratic top-down city with rising tensions between the government and its people, into the inclusive, socially stable, and highly innovative city of today.
Seoul’s successful and impactful high-quality projects to repurpose urban infrastructure, make the city an excellent example of bold leadership, commitment to citizen engagement, data-supported problem-solving decisions, and creative designs to transform the built environment, add vibrancy and improve quality of life.
Nominating Committee Chairman Professor Kishore Mahbubani said that Seoul once appeared as a city drowning in problems beyond solutions.
However, through a combination of visionary leadership and active engagement of its citizens, Seoul has turned things around to become an inclusive, creative and sustainable city with a high quality of life.
Like many other cities experiencing rapid urbanisation, Seoul found itself confronting many urban challenges at its peak. For instance, the city was facing the task of providing for a burgeoning car-based society, which in turn led to other issues such as environmental degradation.
Moreover, prior to the city’s democratisation in the 1990s, citizens had been largely excluded development decisions and post-democratisation the government faced resistance from an increasingly vocal citizenry who had lost trust.
The city recognised that its relentless pursuit of economic success over a relatively short period of time was taking a toll on the quality of life, which could make the city lose its appeal quickly.
These problems were overcome through the election of successive visionary leaders in the 2000s who demonstrated strong political will and displayed foresight to implement a series of catalytic projects - such as Dongdaemun Area Regeneration to shift Seoul’s focus from traditional manufacturing to design - that would bring about benefits for the entire city.
Regaining citizens’ trust
The city leaders understood that proper communication would be essential to achieve buy-in from both the people and stakeholders. The city administration undertook rigorous engagement and negotiation with conflicting parties representing various interests in the city, on issues such as traffic disturbance, business losses, and historic restoration.
The city formulated a set of conflict management strategies, which eventually led to a dedicated team of negotiators within the Seoul Metropolitan Government today for urban development projects, to engage citizens on the city’s vision. This became the city’s “modus operandi” in urban development projects. These strategies helped the city achieve impactful and effective results, and this process in turn helped win over even the most reluctant citizens over a period of time.
The Seoul Master Plan 2030 under the leadership of current mayor, Park Won-soon went further to make citizen participation the norm of all plans, and prioritised bottom-up processes. Ground-up processes are incorporated in the day-to-day operations under the Community Governance Project where residents are given a say over local issues that affect their communities directly.
Citizens can also decide the use of up to 5 percent of the entire city budget under the Public Participatory Budget System. Through regular monitoring and publishing of results in the press, and use of big data in its decision-making to focus on minute details, the city has ensured utmost transparency and ensured that no citizens are left out.
Through these steps, the city managed to build trust with the citizens, and also assured them that engagement is not merely a token gesture, but one that will truly shape and reshape the future of the city.
Achieving social sustainability is expected to become a much bigger challenge than extending economic and environmental sustainability, as cities become larger and more difficult to manage. By making citizens the creators of their own city plan, Seoul has demonstrated that a truly bottom-up city is possible, where the citizens own their shared city. This also ensures that beneficial policies are built upon, as decisions are no longer top-down and dependent only on the government and experts.
People, not cars
In its urban core areas, Seoul has demonstrated boldness in shifting away from car-oriented transportation to people-centric spaces. The city recognises that the transition from private cars to mass transit is not an overnight task and tackles this through a comprehensive set of measures, including the use of big data, to make public transport as seamless and convenient as possible.
Elevated highways and main roads were reclaimed to become prominent public spaces. For instance, an elevated highway at Cheonggyecheon was removed to restore a former stream and a natural recreational haven was created at Cheonggyecheong, while a formerly congested area at Yonsei-ro was pedestrianised.
The conversion of the Seoul Station Overpass into Seoullo 7017 - a 1 kilometre-long lushly planted elevated walkway with pockets of activities along the way - demonstrates the city’s commitment to a future where people come first, not cars.
Development without demolition
As megacities continue to mature and age, deterioration of its urban infrastructure is inevitable. Seoul has adopted an innovative approach to rejuvenate its modern heritage, through a policy termed “development without demolition”.
The jury stated in its citation that projects like Makercity Sewoon - a rehabilitation of seven commercial superblocks built in the 1970s through the sensitive insertion of new interventions and uses, and Mapo Culture Depot - a conversion of disused oil tanks into a cultural venue and public space, offer new perspectives in repurposing infrastructure while preserving collective memories of the people.