[Robert Fouser] For more effective urban generation

By Robert J. Fouser
  • Published : Aug 28, 2018 - 17:17
  • Updated : Aug 28, 2018 - 17:17

In recent years, urban regeneration -- or reviving old, rundown neighborhoods -- has become a hot topic among architects and city planners in Korea. Instead of demolishing large areas of a city to make way for apartment complexes, planners have begun to focus on improving existing neighborhoods. The problem, of course, is how. It is also a new question in the Korean context.

From the beginning of the 20th century to the present, two waves of change remade Korean cities. The first was during the Japanese colonial period, when much of the Joseon era city was destroyed by Japanese colonial authorities to fit their needs. Industrialization and urbanization in the 1930s caused major cities to grow rapidly, causing them to grow far beyond their Joseon era boundaries.

The second wave of change began in the 1960s as Park Chung-hee began the push toward industrialization. Cities grew rapidly as people poured into them in search of work in booming factories. To ease overcrowding, the government began to promote apartments in the 1960s. 

By the 1970s, large areas in what is now Gangnam were being developed, centering on large apartment complexes. As the boom continued, planners in the early 1990s pushed the development of Bundang and Ilsan as satellite cities to relieve crowding in Seoul.

By the turn of the century, the apartment had become the dominant form of housing in Korea. Construction companies that grew out of the second wave began to encourage residents in old areas of cities to push for redevelopment of their neighborhoods. Redevelopment in this paradigm means total demolition of the area to build large apartment complexes. The prospect of massive dislocation creates tension between residents who want to stay and those who want redevelopment.

Public support for large-scale redevelopment began to wane in the 2010s because of a weakening housing market and growing criticism of mass dislocation. Preservationists also argued that old neighborhoods of historic importance should be preserved.

To counter the pressure for redevelopment, opponents began to push regeneration projects to improve the neighborhood. At first, most of the projects focused on making the neighborhoods more attractive. Mural projects and planters are classic examples of this. Other projects focused on making the neighborhood more like an apartment complex. Garbage stations that collect garbage any time and street security cameras are examples of this.

Low rents attracted new businesses, such as cafes and bars, to old central neighborhoods, which started the process of gentrification. The spread of social media in the 2010s made some neighborhoods popular overnight. This caused property value to rise -- which turned residents against redevelopment -- and also caused displacement as established businesses were driven out by rising rents.

President Moon Jae-in entered office with big plans for urban regeneration, but they are facing headwinds as the real estate market heats up. Redevelopment appeals to people when real estate prices are rising because it can turn an old house into a more valuable new house. 

This explains why it became so popular in the 2000s. Central areas of large cities, such as New York, London, and Tokyo, are the most expensive areas and remain highly desirable. The same holds true for smaller cities, such as Berlin or San Francisco.

This means that there is structural pressure to turn old neighborhoods in Seoul and other cities into expensive new apartment complexes. Gyonam-dong, a neighborhood near Seodaemun made up of hanok and small multi-family residences, was redeveloped into expensive apartments that are in high demand.

With pressure to redevelop rising, superficial improvements like wall murals and street security cameras are not enough to sway residents away from redevelopment. Something else is needed. Rising property value is an answer, but current government policy is designed to control prices rather than letting them rise.

A tangible improvement in the quality of housing through a combination of renovation and new construction is another answer. This would improve the quality of life of residents without dislocation and help the neighborhood attract new residents. This would help increase the supply of quality housing, which would help reduce pressure on apartment prices.

But who pays for the tangible improvements? Many older residents do not have enough money to do so. Rental property owners could be required to maintain their properties at a higher standard, but not all owners are rich. 

As part of an effective regeneration policy, the burden falls on the government to provide need-based funding to help lower- and middle-income residents and landlords to improve their properties. It will not be cheap, but effective policies that help people never are.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com. -- Ed.