Sunday, October 02, 2005

Seoul revives buried stream in a bid to turn green

By Jon HerskovitzSat Oct 1, 6:05 AM ET

As a top executive at Hyundai Construction, Lee Myung-bak helped pour the concrete that turned the South Korean capital Seoul into a massive gray city in its headlong rush to development in the 1960s and 1970s. Now Seoul's mayor, Lee has overseen the launch of a project which tore down an elevated highway in the heart of the city and on Saturday restored a stream buried underneath it for almost 50 years.

Environmental experts and urban planners say what is happening in Seoul with the restoration of the stream will provide an interesting case study to see if a city that rushed to become a major urban center without proper planning can replace concrete jungles with green spaces.

"Since I participated in the construction, I am well aware of the mistakes I made back then and I am trying to undo those mistakes and transform Seoul into a greener and more culturally rich city," Lee said in a recent interview with Reuters. The Chonggyechon stream once flowed for about 10 km (6 miles) through the center of Seoul, home to about 10 million people, from mountains behind the presidential Blue House and was central to life in the city.

Work to restore about 6 km of the stream began in July 2003 at a cost of around $350 million. The stream flows through a narrow park that celebrates the history of Seoul. There are 22 bridges across the waterway.


Kim Jin-ai, a leading urban planner, said it remains to be seen if places such as Seoul, which quickly became modern urban hubs can develop comprehensive plans that lead to greener cities. "Development in these types of cities focused on quick and effective means to create urbanization and environmental concerns were often placed on the back burner," Kim said.

"A project like Chonggyechon stream is a good start which shows the country just realized the importance of preserving the environment, but it needs to be integrated into a well-developed, long-term and comprehensive plan," she said. Critics have called the project short-sighted and say Lee is using it to boost his bid to become the country's president. According to the U.N. Environment Programme, it is imperative that major urban centers use resources efficiently because of the enormous strain they put on the environment.

"Cities demand huge amounts of energy to run their infrastructure and fuel their transport, they suck in vast quantities of water, they demand large amounts of food," said Nick Nuttall, a UNEP spokesman. By 2030, more than 60 percent of the world's population will live in cities, up from almost half now, and just a third in 1950, according to the UNEP.

Lee thinks a good place to look for an environmentally friendly future may be in Seoul's past. He is planning a green belt around Seoul to link the city's ancient gates, palaces and parks with the Chonggyechon stream flowing through its heart.

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