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CASE STUDY

Sustainable Urban Transformation: Three Cases of Urban Public Space Development from Seoul

Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Cultural Park following its transformation from a sewing industrial zone. Photo credit: Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Cultural Park following its transformation from a sewing industrial zone. Photo credit: Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Published: 09 June 2022

Public spaces help revitalize a city’s environment, culture, tourism, and economy.

Overview

Urban public spaces do not only provide rest areas; they are also integral to a city’s sociocultural fabric and identity. Spaces such as public parks, plazas, and cultural facilities are places where one can share community experiences and memories.

In situations like the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic where gatherings and indoor activities are restricted, public spaces within the community function as welfare infrastructure that citizens can enjoy at a relatively low cost.

This article provides overviews of three public space development projects implemented by the city of Seoul in the Republic of Korea. Sunyudo Park is a former industrial water purification plant, which has since been repurposed into a popular ecological park. Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park was created by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to regenerate public space in what was once a sewing industrial zone. It is now a landmark and prime tourist attraction that features unique architectural forms and a revitalized surrounding neighborhood with bustling socioeconomic activities that reflect the area’s heritage. Seoullo 7017 is a pedestrian walkway and public space that was repurposed from a former highway overpass that reached the end of its operational cycle.

Challenges

Dilapidated and neglected urban infrastructures that once were in heavy use over the course of a city’s urbanization and industrialization accelerate the decline of surrounding areas, and often lead to public safety issues.

The city of Seoul, which underwent rapid changes to its urban fabric from the 1960s, is no exception. Large-scale infrastructure (i.e., water and sewage systems, stadiums, and roads), which were constructed to accommodate the city’s growing population and economic development, started to pose serious environmental and socioeconomic problems as they reached the end of their operational lifecycles around the year 2000.

The city government had to come up with strategies to reuse spaces occupied by decommissioned infrastructure to ensure that Seoul continues to develop in a sustainable manner. Unused water purification facilities, old stadiums, and highways that used to be important structures have been rendered obsolete by modern facilities.

Context

Sunyudo

Sunyudo is a small island located near the west bank of the Han River. Once a landmark of the Han River’s natural landscape, the island’s natural state became heavily damaged when a significant amount of rocks were taken from its banks to construct paved roads for the city. Following this, the island became the site for a large scale water purification plant built to service the growing urban population in the mid-20th century.

Dongdaemun

The Dongdaemun area used to be one of the historic city centers of Hanyang (the old name for Seoul) where one finds traditional buildings and historic fortresses. In 1925, a large-scale sports facility was built in the area. Wholesale and retail stores specializing in sports equipment and clothing sprang up, and together with the burgeoning local sewing factories in the area, became the local economy’s central aspect. But sales dropped and the sewing industry declined as more modern sports facilities were built in other areas of the city. Under the ‘Design Seoul’ strategic vision, the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2007 began to demolish decaying structures and facilities in the area.

Seoullo7017

The highway overpass to the north of Seoul station, opened in 1970, was a symbol of the Republic of Korea’s rapid economic growth. However, a safety inspection in 2000 revealed that the overpass had scored the lowest safety rank. In addition, the overpass was perceived negatively for deteriorating the urban aesthetics and contributing heavily to environmental pollution. The huge structure cut off several neighborhoods adjacent to each other, hindering neighborhood mobility in its immediate vicinity. The Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2009 decided to completely dismantle and reconstruct the overpass

Solutions

Sunyudo Park

Over the course of expanding the number of neighborhood parks in the city’s western part, the Seoul Metropolitan Government set framework guidelines for the development of eco-friendly parks that also address environmental and ecological issues. The Sunyudo Park Transformation Design project— launched in 1999 to repurpose the decommissioned water purification plant into a park—was the first to adopt these guidelines. The park’s design embraced the industrial heritage of the old water purification plant by incorporating old rusted pipes, concrete pillars, and carved traces of water on purification tanks into prominent features of the park such as those seen in the garden of green pillars and the aquatic botanical garden. The project was completed in 2002.

Overview of Sunyudo Park. Photo credit: Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park

After the sports facilities were demolished in 2008, the site was transformed into two main parts: Dongdaemun History and Culture Park and Dongdaemun Design Plaza. It transformed the area into a new multiuse space that preserves its unique cultural and historical legacy. The park was designed to incorporate the excavated and restored fortress walls, ruins, and other ancillary historic structures in the area to ensure the city’s legacy would be the park’s prominent feature. The plaza, on the other hand, was intentionally designed as a large modern architectural landmark to create an integrated cultural complex to attract an influx of population into the area.

Seoullo7017

Instead of its initial plans to dismantle and reconstruct the overpass, the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2014 decided to repurpose it into a linear public park for the local community. The existing structure was reinforced, and various landscaping works (i.e., planting of diverse flora) were done to complete its transformation into a pedestrian-only area. To facilitate ease of access for pedestrians, elevators and stairs were installed to connect the overpass to nearby subway stations and bus stops, and to tourist information centers and public toilets. In addition, bridges connecting Seoullo7017 and several large privately-owned buildings were built to make it easier to access nearby commercial facilities. The pedestrian overpass is 1,024 meters long with 17 connecting throughways. The new Seoullo7017 was formally opened in 2017.

One of Seoullo7017’s walkways. Photo credit: Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Results

The new public spaces play a vital role in revitalizing the environment, culture, tourism, and local economy.

Sunyudo Park has won local and international awards for its contributions to environmental and ecological restoration and aesthetics, including the Design Award from the International Federation of Landscape Architects. It was also designated as a Seoul Future Heritage and recognized for providing high-quality leisure space while educating the public on the value of ecological preservation.

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park hosts a variety of design and fashion exhibitions and international workshops annually, and contributes heavily to the development of the country’s design and creative industries. Although some perceive that its modern and unique architectural features do not fit well with the local context, it is undeniable that these very features are what attract local and foreign tourists and exhibitions, enabling the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park to perform its function as a cultural facility that works to revitalize the local economy.

Seoullo7017 serves as a network to connect residential and commercial areas around the Seoul station. The repurposed overpass has proven to be critical infrastructure for urban regeneration efforts by providing pleasant and safe walking paths for local residents and tourists in the city center, significantly increasing foot traffic to nearby commercial areas, such as the Namdaemun Market.

Lessons

Public sector leadership and governance system

The Seoul Metropolitan Government’s leadership in project planning and execution was a critical element of the public space development process. Its clear vision to maintain the Sunyudo site’s heritage, and its role in establishing development guidelines and regulatory frameworks ensured that its transformation into a park was carried out with restraint and respect for already existing structures and features.

In the case of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park, the city government formed a dedicated consultative body—composed of local residents, merchants, and stakeholders from the sports and cultural industries affected by the large-scale spatial reorganization—to gather opinions, form consensus, and make decisions on the development.

Seoullo7017’s pedestrian mobility—enhanced by building throughways connected to privately-owned buildings—was achieved through the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s active engagement and negotiations with the private sector. This ultimately resulted in providing a more convenient public space for city residents.

Direct connection between public spaces and local community

The creation of public spaces can only be considered successful if these are actively used by the people. The three cases share the common design element of accessibility for residents and visitors. Easy access to buses, subways, and bicycles, and connecting the local community and surrounding commercial areas help ensure the continued vitality of the space. In the case of Seoullo7017, the surrounding communities are directly connected by pedestrian trails, and facilities were expanded to enable convenient movement from buses or subways to residential areas. On the other hand, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park has become the economic, social, and cultural center of the area, with various programs to support the existing sewing and fashion wholesale/resale businesses in the area.

Shift toward sustainable development

Principles of sustainable growth—reduction of environmental pollution and economic growth that respects the natural, historical, and cultural environments—were the driving values behind the development of public spaces. Rather than the complete dismantling of the relics of the industrialization era, these were reused to create new forms of public space that enable visitors to enjoy the environmentally-friendly spaces of Sunyudo Park and Seoullo7017. In the case of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park, limitations of an area’s physical development made the city rethink its redevelopment initiatives as ways to solve local socioeconomic problems. This change in thinking has proven to benefit the revitalization of dilapidated downtown areas.

Resources

Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Dream, Design, Play.

Parks in Seoul. Seonyudo Park: A Water Garden that Embraces the Beauty of the Han River.

Parks in Seoul. Seonyudo Park Map.

Parks in Seoul. Seoullo 7017.

Seonyudo Park.

Seoul Solution. 2014. Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

Ssunha. 2016. Seoul Station 7017 Info Garden Open to the Public. Seoul Solution. 28 June.

Ssunha. 2017. Seoullo 7017 Amenities for Tourists and Citizens. Seoul Solution. 18 May.

Ask the Experts

  • Dr. Sehyung Won
    Urban Development Specialist, Seoul Urban Solutions Agency

    Dr. Sehyung Won is working as an urban development specialist at the Seoul Urban Solutions Agency of the Seoul Housing & Communities Corporation. He shares Seoul's outstanding urban policies with foreign cities. After graduating from the Architecture Department at Inha University, he studied urban planning and design at Seoul National University Graduate School of Environmental Studies. He lectured on urban planning and design theory at the Korea National University of Transportation.

  • Dong Hoon Shin
    Project Advisor, Seoul Urban Solutions Agency

    Dong Hoon Shin specializes in sustainable urban development and the digital transformation of public service delivery. He is actively involved in the design and delivery of technical assistance and advisory for capacity-constrained cities across the globe.

  • Seoul Urban Solutions Agency

    The Seoul Urban Solutions Agency (SUSA) was established by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to share its urban development experiences with other cities seeking to become sustainable and smart urban domains. Through a wide network of partnerships with the public and private sectors within and outside the Republic of Korea, SUSA works to connect and leverage its wide range of knowledge and resources to assist in solving the development challenges of its partner cities. 

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