Flowing through the heart of downtown Seoul, South Korea, the Cheonggyecheon stream stands in stark contrast to the lofty skyscrapers and bustling streetscapes surrounding it. The reintroduction of this 3.6-mile waterway is often heralded as one of the most successful and recognizable examples of modern urban renewal, and strolling along this striking green space today, it’s difficult to imagine that less than 15 years ago, the stream did not exist. Seoul’s recent commitment to increasing urban green space has resulted in a number of fascinating places around the city, but this movement is by no means limited to the capital of South Korea alone. Cities around the world are recognizing the necessity of natural spaces within urban environments, and the widespread reverberations that accompany their implementation. The Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project offers a powerful example of how an intriguing and ambitious landscape design can transform the nature of an entire city.
Prior to the Joseon Dynasty around 600-years-ago, the Cheonggyecheon ran naturally through Seoul, known then as the city of Hanyang. Under King Taejong, Seoul became Korea’s capital, and, and shortly after, Taejong decided to dredge the stream to help regulate flooding. This decision transformed the stream’s natural, winding form drastically, and the Cheonggyecheon became a managed, urban channel. Over the centuries, slums developed along its banks, and it became a major conduit of sewage out of the city. From the late 1950s to the 1970s, the stream was gradually buried beneath concrete and highways with the Cheonggye Expressway eventually running most of its length. For decades following, the Cheonggyechon lay beneath the ground, dried-up, and largely forgotten.
The Cheonggyecheon was not the only green space in Seoul that was converted to accommodate urban development during the mid-1900s. In the wake of the decades-long Japanese occupation and the ravages of the Korean War, 1960s South Korea refocused its energy on the future and successfully ushered in an era of economic growth. Yet to facilitate this rapid development, many of Seoul’s already limited parks and natural spaces were built upon to accommodate the needs of its booming industrialization. By the 1980s, however, this trending loss of allocated parks and natural landscapes began to change. The 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics kick-started beautification efforts in the metropolitan area, and the drive to create more accessible green space in Seoul gained momentum throughout the 1990s - 2000s.
Breakthrough designs in land reclamation soon followed. By the time the city had completed the Cheonggyecheon restoration in 2005, a variety of other green spaces had already opened. In 2002, World Cup Park transformed the surface of a 15-year-old landfill containing 92 million tons of garbage, a project that took a total of seven years to complete - six years to stabilize the waste and one to build the park itself. That same year, the city unveiled Seonyudo Park located in the Han River, the site of a former filtration plant converted into a water purification park. In 2005, Seoul Forest opened providing an eco-forest, wetlands, and a center for nature field study.
The Cheonggyecheon stream restoration started in the early 2000s, when Seoul’s then-mayor, Lee Myung-bak, and urban planners began advocating to unearth the Cheonggyecheon, long buried beneath the Cheonggye Expressway. The expressway was in a state of decline; the area around it known for its noise and pollution. Thus the city faced the decision of whether or not to invest in repairs or tear it down. Lee offered yet another possibility - remove the expressway to resurrect the stream beneath it. The proposition was a risky one. In 2003, around 180,000 vehicles used the Cheonggye Expressway daily, and ramifications in terms of traffic and displaced shops could be substantial. However, if implemented successfully, the project would be a keystone of Seoul’s dedication to urban renewal and reintroduce natural scenery into one of the city’s most heavily developed areas.
The project pressed forward. No design to this magnitude had been attempted in the city before. SeoAhn Total Landscape created the design, yet its success relied heavily on the support of Seoul’s citizens to see the venture to fruition. Its construction was not easy and took a total of two years and three months to build. Civil engineers orchestrated the first phrase of the project’s construction, and landscape architects managed the final two phrases, overseeing teams of civil engineers, bridge designers, and lighting designers. Not only was the project enormously expensive, costing around $900 million dollars, but also hundreds of thousands of tons of water needed to be pumped into the city to revive the stream. There were rampant concerns in regards to safety and gentrification, and over 4,200 meetings were held to pacify alarmed business owners. All in all, it was a massive undertaking to construct, but, after the completion of the project in 2005, many have lauded the Cheonggyecheon stream restoration as a resounding success.
It is important to mention, however, that an endeavor of this magnitude and complexity is rarely without flaws. Since water is only naturally present in the Cheonggyecheon during the summer’s rainy season, consistent pumping of water from the Han and other sources is required to keep the stream filled year-round. Key accessibility measures, such as elevators, were not installed on-site until public demands necessitated them, highlighting the importance of designing for all user groups from the onset of a project.
In spite of these critiques, the results of the Cheonggyecheon stream restoration are nothing short of staggering. Detailed in a case study published by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Landscape Performance Series, the amount of biodiversity has improved dramatically. From 2003 to 2008 alone, there was a 639% increase in area’s flora and fauna, cited in the study as follows: “overall biodiversity of plant species increasing from 62 to 308, fish species from 4 to 25, bird species from 6 to 36, aquatic invertebrate species from 5 to 53, insect species from 15 to 192, mammals from 2 to 4, and amphibians from 4 to 8.” The stream offers protection in the instance of a 200-year flood and reconnects the Cheonggyecheon to the Han River and Jungraechon Stream. Pollution levels have dropped - an accomplishment of particular merit due to fact that prior to the redesign, area residents in this part of Seoul were twice as likely to contract respiratory disease compared to the rest of the city. Temperatures due to urban heat island effect have dropped, and notable social and economic benefits are readily apparent. The Cheonggyecheon draws in around 64,000 visitors daily, and the influx of tourists to the area contribute to Seoul’s economy. Frequent events are hosted along the stream, a popular example being the annual lantern festival celebrating Korean culture and heritage.
The Cheonggyecheon stream restoration project and Seoul’s other reclaimed landscapes play a valuable role in promoting environmental and social health in the South Korean capital. The construction of the Cheonggyecheon in particular demonstrates to Seoul’s citizens and the rest of the world the limitless benefits that come from dedication to creating urban green space. There is an increasing recognition of the landscape architecture field, and I firmly believe that this discipline stands at the forefront of this reformed relationship between urban environments and natural spaces. With monumental precedents such as the Cheonggyecheon already successfully implemented, it is exciting to see what the future will bring to revitalized cities around the world.
“Back to a Future Seoul: CheongGyeCheon Restoration Project.” Seoul Metropolitan Government, 2005.
“Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project.” Landscape Performance Series, Landscape Architecture Foundation.
Lah, T.J. “The huge success of the Cheonggyecheon restoration project: What’s left?” Citizen participation: Innovative and alternative modes for engaging citizens: Cases from the United States and South Korea. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 2011 (97-117).