Korea's Seoullo 7017 project puts people first, cars somewhere else

Part of the transformed flyover. This festive free public space is open year-round.

While developing countries are focused on keeping more and more private vehicles on the move by building flyovers to ease traffic flow, South Korea takes a different view: That more traffic does not equate a better quality of life.

For example, in 2003, it demolished several kilometres of multi-lane elevated roads in capital city Seoul to create what is now the iconic Cheong-yecheon, a 11km-long urban renewal project hailed globally as a great example of rejuvenation that puts people first, not vehicles.

The massive project that slowly took shape over a decade involved uncovering a stream that had long been “buried” by rapid development in the country’s post-Korean War boom period beginning in the 1960s. Eventually costing more than US$1bil (RM3.9bil at today’s rates) the project eventually won over sceptics when it became an astounding success with locals and tourists alike.

Under new mayor Park Won-soon, who assumed office in October 2011, the Seoul Metropolitan Government went one up by creating an oasis for pedestrians out of a highway flyover slated for demolition after it was found to be severely dilapidated in 2006. Called Seoullo 7017, the project is about creating a “more walkable city while preserving history and precious memories of Seoul through urban regeneration”.

The area where Seoullo is located is a major gateway to/from Seoul, which sees an average of 390,000 commuters and travellers every day. As the city grew after the post-war years, elevated roads and rail lines began mushrooming up around Seoul Station; this began to isolate the area as moving cars took precedence over moving people (sound familiar?). The area eventually became an “island”, with no easy access for pedestrians, even as the fringe was bustling with economic and social activities.

The golden opportunity for regeneration was almost missed, as the city’s government was initially concerned about safety when it decided to demolish the flyover. But more inventive minds prevailed, and the thinking changed to how to make the best use of a relatively strong structure to support pedestrian traffic.

Part of the transformed flyover. This festive free public space is open year-round.
This section of the Seoullo allows easy access to the famous 24-hour Namdaemun Market on the left side of this picture.

Connected To Nature And Commerce

An international tender was called for the best concept to rejuvenate the 1km stretch, and the job went to Dutch firm MVRDV (mvrdv.nl). Winy Maas, one of the principal architects behind the project, was quoted as saying: “It is often compared to New York City’s Highline, but it is different in many ways. The size and height as well as its context are very different.

“I think the Seoul project is more interesting. I like the idea of reusing the overpass.”

(The Highline, thehighline.org, is a project that also converted an elevated structure for pedestrian use.)

Also known as the Seoul Skygarden or Skypark, Seoullo 7017 takes its name from a few sources: “7017” is the combination of 1970, the year the overpass was completed; 2017, the year of its rebirth as a pedestrian walkway; and the 17 footpaths connected to the linear garden as well as its height, 17m.

While Mayor Park was credited with pushing through the US$52mil (RM204mil) sky park, civil society also had a role to play. Even in the face of Cheogyecheon’s sterling success, the proposal for Seoullo was opposed by some in the initial stages as they feared traffic congestion and vehicular accessibility issues; traders and shop owners in the nearby Namdaemun market were especially worried – now, though, the market is much easier to access.

“Seoullo is a new attempt to revitalise the underdeveloped downtown area and its surroundings,” said Mayor Park as he boldly predicted that Seoullo will lead to the renewal of the surrounding area.

Since its official opening last May, more than 7.5 million people have visited Seoullo last year alone, making it the signature place for the city as it embraces the concept of “walkable urbanism”, an idea that is emerging as a new global standard for urban development.

Increasingly, planners are shaping cities so that they provide a safe and comfortable walking environment by prioritising pedestrians. Seoullo, for example, is fully accessible to wheelchairs and those with mobility problems, with lifts and escalators installed all round to bridge that critical “last step”.

Beyond walkability, Seoullo is in itself a great place to hang out for young and old.

The stretch is now home to the biggest variety of Korean plant species, hosting 50 families of plants including trees, shrubs and flowers in 645 tree pots, covering 228 species and sub-species. The structure is like a long display shelf for 24,000 plants ranging from trees and shrubs to seasonal flowering plants. The seasonal plants are carefully replaced or rotated to remain in keeping with South Korea’s four seasons.

Walkways connect Seoullo to nearby buildings, ensuring the stretch serves as an artery for social and commercial activities, day and night. Along with Cheongyecheon, Seoullo is a must-visit destination for urban planners, architects, and those who dream of greater accessibility, walkability, and greenery in their own cities.

Project Seoulla 7017 in Seoul champions pedestrians over vehicles
A scale model of Seoullo shows the arterial shape that keeps its pedestrian movement flowing, a key point in any urban rejuvenation.

Project Seoulla 7017 in Seoul champions pedestrians over vehicles
Stairways, escalators and lifts bridge the 17m vertical gap between Seoullo and the roads below. Photo: Meng Yew Choong

Focus On Walkability

At the 9th World Urban Forum, which was held in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, many things were said about what makes for great cities, and walkability featured prominently – rightfully so.

Among the presentations focusing on walkability, the global nonprofit Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (itdp.org) unveiled Pedestrians First, a tool that helps anyone measure how walkable an urban environment is.

“Cities around the world are recognising how essential walkability is for the access and health of their citizens, and the economic growth of their cities,” said Joe Chestnut, the ITDP research associate who authored Pedestrians First. He went on to emphasise that “walkability is not just a sidewalk, it’s a whole system of design and infrastructure”.

In Malaysia, walkability is very much dependent on various local authorities, as they are the ones approving local plans. By drawing upon the lessons from developed countries, planners who are still car-centric in their outlook should wake up and see that a great city now means having less space for roads and parking while making more room for pedestrians.

Some good things are being done by Think City, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Bhd, which has shown what can be done to restore vibrancy to inner city living through its projects to refresh George Town, Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur, and Johor Baru while Kuala Lumpur City Hall has put in a network of elevated walkways connecting areas within the central business district over the past few years.

Still, these are mere drops in the bucket, as much more needs to be done by the various municipalities to put the focus on walkability, along with the creation of barrier-free or universal access.

In this regard, it is sheer delight to note that Seoullo 7017 has shown that it is possible to slow down, smell the roses, and look good, all at the same time.

For more information on Seoullo 7017, go to seoullo7017.seoul.go.kr.

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