Saturday, September 5, 2009

South Korea: Exploring Suburban Seoul's Latest Blitzstadt

(Ed. Note: feel free to check out an interestingly edited version of this story that ran in the October issue of Groove Korea.)

Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work. A land full of places that are not worth caring about will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending.
- James Howard Kunstler The Geography of Nowhere

Cars and trucks were parked haphazardly on half-finished sidewalks and streets that broke down into trampled pits of muddy rainwater. Rows of identical buildings stood gutted, half-painted and devoid of plumbing and electricity. If it weren't for the handful of tradesmen working their way through a Sunday afternoon, Pangyo New Town would have felt like post-apocalyptic old town.

Developers hope come January these boulevards will house thousands of families. Pangyo – South of the capital's city limits- will be the newest in a series of blitzstadts growing out of the greater Seoul conurbation.

As a former high-rise construction worker in Vancouver I'm always amazed at the incredible pace of South Korea's residential development. As a resident of an overpopulated planet showing irrefutable signs of stress, this development fills me with dread.

In cities and towns across this peninsula wet concrete formed by metal frames vaults the vertebrae of identical apartments into the smog-filled atmosphere. South Korea is roughly the size of Kentucky, but with 49 million residents it is the third most densely populated country in the world. Many Koreans live cheek-to-jowl in homes that would make the average North American claustrophobic.

These suburbs may not be as environmentally devastating as the acres of detached single-family dwellings that scar the North American landscape, still such density developing so rapidly cannot be ecologically sound, as Seoul’s constantly clogged commuter arteries can attest.

Neighbouring residents have also complained about putrid runoff water from the construction site fouling their area further downstream one of Pangyo’s four waterways. Like many suburban frontiers, the border where Pangyo meets the natural world is a distinct and disturbing landscape.

Upon first entering one of the main boulevards from the Seoul Ring Expressway, the sheer scale of the development shocked me. Fields of dirt destined to become parks, plazas, and river-side “greenspace” were strewn with heavy machinery and waste from construction.
The subdivision I walked around included 25 towers with 4,000 units, however, Pangyo’s entire population could be close to 80,000 people by next year. It is part of the federal government's wider plan to construct 300,000 homes in and around Seoul by 2017. Despite this ecologically devastating and seemingly archaic form of development people need to live somewhere. And even though South Korea’s population is projected to decrease 13% by 2050, thousands will continue to stream into urban areas in search of an better life.
That afternoon, walking through Pangyo I wondered: if this is the development model for a country with a decreasing population, then what does it look like in a place where the population is booming?

By Mike Hager

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

The interesting thing about Korea's development is that it is a hybrid of 2 commonly opposing strategies: Import Substitution, and Free Trade. Normally you either shelter your markets from foreign competition in order to prevent them from being totally outcompeted during start up, or you throw open your doors, and let the markets competition drive your innovation. Korean steel is actually one of the few examples I can think of where a centrally planned economic industry was wildly successful. I find development to be very interesting in that it often seems to get worse before it gets better. At some point development is continuously tied to decreasing population, increasing affluence, a demand for more progressive tax systems, and government transparency. There is a pretty good argument to be made that development is our best path to envrionmental stability. Problem is the good argument can be made both for and against. Nice writing Mike and best of luck in your travels.

Kevin Poskitt

Karen said...

heard this is getting published! good for you!

dan said...

great stuff Mike! (but grim.)

the photos are excellent too, and well-integrated.

keep it up, dude!

Anonymous said...

i like to see seoul in sa different light. this just proves that there can be a downside to the most glamourous cities in the world. well done to the person that made this website

Marlene Lockett said...

Love your blog! Your photography is amazing!

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