Columnist: New ‘People Places’ Humanizing the ‘Asian Tiger’ Cities

July 29, 2012

Neal Peirce

SEOUL, South Korea -- Monotonous blocks of ever-higher, uninspired apartment buildings. Mounting tides of thick traffic. Serious air pollution. Pell-mell addition of office skyscrapers more show-off than people-oriented.

The images of such rapidly growing "Asian tiger" cities as Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou aren't always positive.

But there's another side: New development choices -- some dramatic -- that harken back to the cities' history, re-evoking deeply held cultural values in ingenious new ways. They remind me of the admonition of my friend Weiming Lu, a Chinese-born, Minneapolis-based planner: "Innovation must live side by side with history. We don't need to destroy neighborhoods to renew them; neither must we keep them mired in the past."

Seoul's famed restoration of its Cheonggyecheon river offers one of the world's most dramatic examples. For decades, its bed was buried beneath a 10-lane highway and four-lane elevated expressway. But today it's a 3.6-mile symphony of running waters, green landscape and inviting walkways for people.

For centuries, the Cheonggyecheon had been a sociable spot where women washed laundry and children played. But by the 1940s, despite its location at Seoul's city center, it was becoming a sewer-like symbol of poverty, despair and infection-bearing pollution. The solution of the time? To entomb the river, cover it with concrete slabs to create a 10-lane highway, and top it in 1967 by an elevated highway to speed traffic.

Drivers liked the solution, pouring through 170,000 a day strong. But the negative impact on the area's thousands of offices and small shops -- literally the central business district of Seoul -- was profound. The elevated roadway created dark areas below, beams and plates began to rot, air pollution mounted, and businesses were fleeing.

The solution, said reformers: Tear out the roadway and elevated expressway; literally "daylight" the buried Cheonggyecheon. Critics predicted a traffic disaster; fearful local merchants feared for their livelihoods. But a new mayor favoring the project was elected in 2002. South Korea had reached a point, relates Il Keun Lee, who became the project's chief planner, in which quality of life was as important as fast economic development. The downtown needed revitalization. It was time to recapture history and culture.

Two big obstacles had to be overcome. First, meticulously planned engineering for rapid -- but high quality -- demolition and reconstruction. And second, dealing with businesses' and residents fears about disruption and traffic tie-ups. An array of coordinated steps -- including 4,000 citizen meetings in advance of the demolition -- turned the trick. Traffic congestion was minimal, construction (2003-05) completed on time, on budget.

And then? About 10 million visitors came to the restored river in the first two months. Today it's the most favored destination in South Korea.

And for good reason. Day or night, "locals" and visitors walk along the expertly designed riverside paths with their places for children to play, historical plaques, floral decorations and more. Air quality has improved, noise abated, the heat island effect relieved. An ingenious system to keep sufficient fresh water flowing has worked out well. Fish and bird populations have soared. It's a place everyone (BEG ITAL)wants(END ITAL) to be, including nighttimes when the riverbank walls come alive with ingenious colored light projections.

And local business? It's picked up dramatically, shifting from tool shops and second-hand book stores to cafes, restaurants and modern retail. City traffic? It's heavy, but accommodated. And politics? The mayor who pushed the project forward got elected president of South Korea.

In hundreds of small parks, plazas, redesigned streets, Asian cities are edging into a time of re-humanization. It will take many decades, especially to create livable environments around what's been described as "the supertower-in-the-parking-lot-pattern" of development in which high numbers of people live in sterile, dull settings.

But the impulse to reform has been sparked. In Beijing, there's Sanlitun Village, a lively mix of apartments, stores, restaurants, nightclubs and embassies that combines modern architecture with the pedestrian-friendly alleyways typical of the city's old districts.

And in Guangzhou's center-city Liuyun Xiaoqu neighborhood, built three decades ago solely to house workers in five- or six-story apartment buildings, residents in recent years have started to open shops on the ground floors, creating a more lively, mixed-use neighborhood. There's lots of greenery and the streets are car-free -- a model that reformers hope might be emulated in similar housing areas around China.

Guangzhou has in fact been experiencing a boom in greenway development. I was intrigued by a center-city section of its Pearl River, actually as it runs under a freeway underpass, where the riverbank has been landscaped artfully for rest and play by all ages, even featuring cross-water stepping stones for the adventuresome.

Cities truly for people, not just cars and soaring high rises? Fast-growth Asia needs thousands more. But there's a fascinating start -- and a model for a developing world.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necesssarily those of the National League of Cities.