Development vs. preservation
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon's tour of the Seoul Wall on Jan. 31, 2012 marks a key turning point in urban history in Korea.
During the long walk along the wall, the mayor commented frequently on how buildings obstructed the view of the mountains on which the wall runs. He noted accurately that the presence of mountains in the center of the city distinguishes Seoul from other important world capitals. The mayor's comments on the interface between the city and its natural environment mark a new departure in discussing urban spaces in Korea.
The use of space, particularly in large, densely populated cities is universally controversial. Powerful interests converge on an extremely limited commodity: land. Land in cities, particularly in the commercial center, is prized for its financial and symbolic value. Financial and symbolic values converge because symbolism helps branding, which in turn helps sales.
This explains why places like Myeong-dong, Ginza, and 5th Avenue have some of the highest rents and property values in their respective countries. In the end, land use is about money, about who profits from use of the land.
In this context, pressure to make efficient use of limited land in the traditional center centered in Gwanghwamun, Jongno, and Myeong-dong is extremely strong. The pressure spreads to nearby areas within the Seoul Wall. Other commercial areas in Seoul, such as Gangnam, and other cities in Korea are under similar pressures.
The same pressure, of course, also applies to the construction of apartments _ the taller the apartment, the greater the profit for the developers. This explains why many ``redevelopment" projects in areas with height limits are economically challenging.
The concentration of tall buildings is not inherently ugly. Indeed, Manhattan with is layers of skyscrapers is the most famous skyline in the world. Hong Kong and Chicago, where the skyscraper was invented, are also known for their beautiful downtown cityscapes.
Like Seoul, Hong Kong, has a mountainous backdrop, with tall apartments climbing up the sides. Tall buildings are also efficient because they save space and resources used for heating and cooling. And from another perspective, much of the vitality of Manhattan and Hong Kong comes from the maximizing of residential and commercial areas in a small space.
The problem with Seoul is that the mountains have aesthetic, historical, philosophical importance. Koreans like mountains, as anybody who rides the subway on a nice weather weekend can tell you. Korean mountains are easy to climb and the climate makes them accessible most of the year.
From a historical and philosophical perspective, the mountains are important because the area where Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces are located is auspicious according to the principles of geomancy. Taejo Yi Seong-gye, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, chose the area for his new capital because he thought it would bring his dynasty good luck. The mountains, then, are integral to understanding the history of Seoul for without them, the capital would sure have been built somewhere else.
The question of how to preserve and improve the view of the mountains in Seoul leads to a more serious discussion of property rights in Korea. Since the preservation of natural and historical areas has become important for the country, the battles lines have been drawn: restrictions versus property rights.
From the government's perspective, the easiest and cheapest way to deal with the issue is to restrict construction in given areas. This immediately raises the ire of owners because they cannot realize the economic potential off their land. Out of frustration, the owners appeal to property rights and often succeed in convincing politicians to loosen limitations.
This leads to building, which leads to outcries from preservationists. Seeking votes, a new crop of politicians appeals to the concept of preservationist interests and reinstates restrictions. And the cycle repeats itself, leaving everybody unsatisfied.
A new approach is needed. For ideas, Seoul can look at other capital cities for ideas. In Washington DC, for example, a powerful planning commission includes the federal government and the City of Washington. The federal government reflects national views of Washington, whereas the city reflects local needs and opinions.
Seoul is the capital of Korea and the national government can play a positive role in reflecting a national consensus on what the capital should look like. That consensus may differ from local needs, which the city can understand best. A national planning commission for historical areas of Seoul would help build a consensus on development that goes beyond political whims.
Regardless of the form, the key to dealing with issues of development versus preservation is consensus. This is difficult in Korea because rapid economic development has resulted in sharp generational differences. To create a consensus, politicians need to focus on stimulating discussion rather than making transient promises. From this perspective, Mayor Park's comments are a most welcome start to an important discussion.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.