Breathing life into the congested city of Seoul was a dream which became a reality with the restoration of Cheonggyecheon in 2005
words: Ambica Gulati
Once I had taken photographs of myself near the beautiful fountains, I observed that some people were trying to throw coins on a stone in the middle of the stream. The air was light and breezy and we had just landed in Seoul. I was tired but curious and got talking to the person sitting next to me on the bridge about this beautiful relaxing spot in the capital of Republic of Korea (ROK).
This was Cheonggyecheon, an 8.4 km creek flowing west to east through Seoul, meeting Jungnangcheon which flows into Han River. This is a saga of reviving a dirty, polluted and neglected river and restoring the city’s natural balance. It was difficult to believe that once upon a time this area housed dingy huts and was poverty-stricken. With its skyscrapers and good restaurants, it is now a tourist’s delight. This is a seven miles long public recreation space in Seoul.
Back in time
The city of Seoul appears to have grown around Cheonggyecheon which divided it into northern and southern parts. As per the early geography of the city, 23 tributaries flowing from the mountains into the city fed the creek. Nature has its own rules and the rivers were often dry in spring and fall but tended to flood during the summer rainy season.
For almost 500 years, during the Joseon Dynasty, the tributaries supplied clean water, and the Cheonggyecheon washed away the city’s wastes. Between 1406 and 1412, King Taejong had deepened and widened the river and built dykes to control the floods. His successor King Sejong had continued the work. The river then came to be known as Gaecheon meaning digging out.
King Sejong’s advisors had two opinions about Cheonggyecheon. Following the principles of feng shui, idealists believed that the water should be kept clean. But realists held the view that the growing city needed a waterway to carry out its sewage. And the Cheonggyecheon was used as a sewer.
But with time, the city grew and its needs changed. By 1657, the population of Seoul had risen to over 190,000. And from 1760 to 1773, King Yeongjo began the dredging, building new embankments and dykes.
And Gaecheon became Chongyecheon during the Japanese rule. In 1925, they covered many of the tributaries, converting these rivers into covered sewers. They had many plans of covering the river but lack of funds did not let this happen and only a small section of the river was covered in 1937.
Modernization of Seoul
The river lived a sewer for many years. After World War II, South Korea had plans to dredge the Chonggyecheon, but the Korean War (1950-53) stopped the plans. As refugees flocked into Seoul, the river was lined by makeshift houses and the Chonggyechon was a symbol of the poverty in the 1950s. Submerging it seemed to be the best solution. And during the country’s modernization plan (1955-1977) an elevated freeway was built above the underground stream between 1967 and 1971.
Back to nature
But by 2000, the Chonggyechon area had become the most congested part of Seoul and needed revitalization. The area housed flea markets and tool, lighting, shoe, apparel, and used book stores. It was a dream that restored the natural flow and boosted the city’s eco-friendly plan. This was the promise of Lee Myung-bak who ran for mayor of Seoul in 2001. Lee had been the CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction. One of the project’s goals was to make Seoul into a hub of Northeast Asia by attracting tourism and investment.
In Lee’s dramatic plan, the freeway was removed and the displaced traffic was accommodated by building a Bus Rapid Transit system. The project was budgeted at 349 billion won but the final cost of the project was over 386 billion won (approximately US$281 million.
The project was tough—the highway needed to be removed, the stream was almost dry, 120,000 tons of water was to be pumped in daily from the Han River, there was deteriorated concrete construction along the banks to deal with. The plan encouraged a pedestrian-friendly road network connecting the stream with traditional resources such as Bukchon, Daehangno, Jungdong, Namchon and Donhwamungil. This network system, named the CCB (Cheonggyecheon Culture Belt), built up the foundation for the city’s cultural and environmental base.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government established many organizations for the restoration–the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project Headquarters for the control of the project, the Citizen’s Committee for Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project for the management of conflict between the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the union of merchants, and the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Research Corps for the establishment of the restoration plan. To address the consequent traffic problem, the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project Headquarters established traffic flow measures based on the research of the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Research Corps.
The stream comes to life
The stream was opened to the public in September 2005 and lauded as a success in urban renewal and beautification. With clean water and natural habitats, the species of fish, birds and insects increased; the temperature on the nearby areas cooled down by 3.6 °C; number of vehicles entering downtown Seoul showed a decrease of 2.3%, with an increasing number of bus users (by 1.4%) and subways (by 4.3%). The restoration joined the northern and southern parts, resulting in a balanced and sustainable development.
Today the project is touted as a model for Asian cites with their dense traffic and heavy population.