(5) Restoring Cheonggyecheon
During the mayoral campaign, and then after assuming office, I tirelessly explained the details of the Cheonggyecheon project. When I said that the project would be complete in two years, people were skeptical. (Some quipped that my old nickname, Bulldozer, was especially apt now.)
Yet it wasn’t an unrealistic goal: with the preparatory work already underway, the actual demolition and restoration would take place over a period of two years.
Before the summer monsoon season, we would run a preliminary test of how the stream would hold up, make corrections, and finalize the project.
My intention was to minimize the inconvenience to the residents of Seoul and to all others whose livelihoods would be affected by the project.
The construction itself was fairly straightforward. We had to demolish the expressways, bury the water pipes and sewage lines below, and rearrange the streambed while landscaping the surrounding areas.
If the stream had not been in the middle of a city of ten million people, the entire project could be finished in less than six months.
As it was, however, the project was akin to closing down entire traffic lanes and relocating thousands of shops on New York’s Madison Avenue for two years (Although the shops on Cheonggyecheon were definitely more modest than the ones on Madison Avenue).
The immediate vicinity had more than ten thousand shops, represented by close to a thousand unions and owners’ organizations.
On top of this, there were hundreds of competing interests at work; shop owners and those who rented the space had differing, often conflicting, desires.
For instance, those selling fashion apparel and the like welcomed the change; the ones selling hardware and household appliances opposed it.
We set out to convince them all. To do this, I set up a special division within the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG).
Its task was to listen to the concerns of the shop owners, explain the need for restoring the stream, and describe how we intended to go about it.
If the vendors and shop owners had concerns, then the team would deal with them.
Every morning at 8:30 our team members would set out to visit the shops and vendors. Each evening, the team would come back to the office, write up reports, and handle the many requests made by the shopkeepers.
This was our way of earning trust. After a while, the shopkeepers would call our staff whenever they had a complaint or needed something done.
The staff did their best to help them in whatever way they could. From July 2002 until June 2003 our team met with the shopkeepers a total of 4,200 times.
We resolved close to 1,000 requests. As a result of such strenuous effort on our part, the shopkeepers and various organizations finally agreed to our plan just fifteen days before the scheduled start of the project.
Now, with the necessary administrative measures in place, we were set to begin our version of the Big Dig.
Adjacent roads were expanded to allow for more traffic, but we also took measures to curb drive-alone cars by urging drivers to take public transportation.
Public transportation system
Seoul’s public transportation system was undergoing its own transformation, aided by the adoption of the latest technologies, so that traffic in the downtown area would not become overly congested.
One-way streets were designated, and a central control center was created to monitor and adjust traffic patterns, depending on the flow at any given moment.
Korea’s state-of-the-art information technology helped us immensely.
Team members worked around the clock and ran countless simulations using the latest computer technology to prepare for all contingencies.
The simulations warned us to expect some initial confusion and congestion, but they also predicted that the situation would resolve itself within two weeks.
Seoul’s extensive subway system was helpful, too. We allotted extra cars during peak hours to encourage greater usage of the subway during the morning and evening rushes.
In the end we were fortunate, for the residents of Seoul adapted quickly to the new environment.
Credit must be given to them for their patience and understanding.
Koreans are infamous for being short-tempered and always rushing from one place to another.
However, Koreans are also good at recognizing when an inconvenience is worth their trouble.
Once they understand the value of something, they gladly bear any inconvenience to achieve the goal.
The people of Seoul were now fully convinced that what we were trying to do was well worth the trouble.
Nine days after the starting date, once we saw that all was going well with the new traffic patterns, I ordered the commencement of the demolition of the expressway.
As promised, the Cheonggyecheon stream was restored in two years.
For the first time in decades, people were able to enjoy fresh air and clean water in the heart of Seoul.
Even migratory birds came back, and the residents found a place to stroll and relax. Office workers began to commute on foot. During weekends, people came out with their families and friends.
Cheonggyecheon quickly became a favorite tourist destination and a landmark of Seoul.
World-renowned artists came to our city to perform, world-class art exhibits soon opened all across Seoul’s many museums, and people started to appreciate the beauty that Seoul had to offer.
Because of Cheonggyecheon, surrounding neighborhoods also began to come to life. Traditionally, the downtown area was known as the old part of town.
Rarely, if ever, would young people explore its rich history and quaint charm. Now the various streets in downtown Seoul were swamped by young couples out on dates and by teens armed with digital cameras.
If the area south of the Han River, with its chic architecture and exclusive boutiques, was considered the hip part of town, then downtown Seoul became known for its historical beauty, fusion of old and new, and classy sophistication.
The project quickly redefined central Seoul as a hip part of town all its own.
The project also gained international acclaim.
At the 2003 Venice Biennale it won the Best Public Administration award for urban construction and was given extensive coverage by Time magazine (May 15, 2006).
A documentary about the project was filmed by the Discovery channel and was aired globally.
Several European broadcasters took an inside look at the implications of the project and dubbed it a success, describing it as a feat that “killed two birds with one stone,” both restoring the environment and fostering sustainable development.
With global interest in sustainable growth catching fire, the Cheonggyecheon project served as a model for the future and an example of what urban planning should look like.
We were able to show the world that protecting the environment and promoting clean development can go hand in hand.
With more than ten million residents, Seoul is one of the world’s most populated metropolises. If one includes the Greater Seoul area, the combined population exceeds twelve million.
In Seoul alone there are roughly two million registered vehicles, and more than 2.8 million vehicles roam the streets every day.
The foundation of the public transportation system is an extensive underground subway that crisscrosses the entire city and its neighboring areas.
Buses are also widely accessible. Nonetheless, during my tenure as mayor, private bus companies were continually vying for the most lucrative lines with the greatest number of passengers.
The result was a morass of redundant routes served by multiple companies in some areas and a scarcity of public transportation along other, less lucrative routes.
The entire public transportation grid was in need of reorganization to improve efficiency.
Tackling this issue was, in some ways, even more frustrating than the restoration project at Cheonggyecheon.
It meant having to deal with hundreds of private bus companies, and this at times led to nothing short of shouting matches and acrimonious finger-pointing.
These were just a few of the issues that I tackled while serving as mayor.
It required a tremendous amount of skill for me to settle disputes and bring about amicable solutions.
Sometimes it required arm-twisting. But I learned that most of the time, if we were pursuing the right policies, then dedication, clear strategies, and an abundance of patience could take us a long way.
With the completion of Cheonggyecheon and the transformation of our bus system, Seoul was fast becoming a model for other cities, particularly in terms of sustainable development.
For example, government officials from Vietnam and China visited us to learn about our reforms of the bus transportation grid. This gave us an opportunity to share not only what we had learned but some of the mistakes that we made, too.
Chinese and British officials came to study our transportation overhaul as they prepared for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics, respectively.
The mayor of Istanbul was one of many foreign dignitaries who personally came to Seoul to learn about our experience.