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[Robert J. Fouser] Democratizing development in Korean cities

Population density remains one of the most controversial topics when discussing cities. The problems of crowded and empty cities are well known, but the problems are different. Crowded cities face the challenge of providing basic services to residents, who live in cramped and often uncomfortable housing.

Empty cities, in contrast, face declining economic fortunes and lack the energetic vibe that defines a city.

Global hubs, such as New York, London, and Paris, remain highly dense cities with a housing stock priced far beyond the average income of the countries that they are in. Other cities have had a difficult time reaching a balance in density as their fortunes fluctuate.

The classic example is Detroit, where the population reached a peak of almost 2 million in 1950 but fell to an estimated 673,000 in 2018. Large swaths of the city that were once crowded are now abandoned. The loss of residents has greatly weakened the city’s tax base, making it difficult to maintain basic services. For Detroit, increased density is a dream that would signal a recovery after years of decline.

Many cities in South Korea have begun to face population decline. The decline has affected older areas of the city as residents move to apartment complexes in newly developed areas. Others continue to seek their fortunes in Seoul as previous generations have done. Parts of the old commercial center have been revived, as entrepreneurs have opened cafes and bars that mimic the atmosphere of the Hongdae area or Ikseon-dong.

Daegu, Korea’s fourth-largest city, is a textbook case of “density balance.” With a population of close to 2.5 million, Daegu is a big city. It is an important regional center with a number of universities, hospitals, and cultural facilities. Daegu is unique among regional cities in Korea in that the established shopping street in the city has remained vibrant and continues to attract people from newer areas of the city.

Other areas of the center of Daegu suffered a decline as businesses followed people to newer areas of the city. To revive these areas, Jung-gu began to promote “alley walks” in the early 2010s as a way to discover the old cityscape and interesting historic sites. The promotion worked, and people returned to these areas. Some businesses opened in empty places, while others replaced existing ones, stirring fears of gentrification.

The revived interest in the center of Daegu has stirred an interest in building apartments and officetels -- studio apartments that can be used for living or office space. Such new buildings have caused the population of the Jung-gu district to rise to 78,000 from a historic low of 73,000 in 2010. The district reached its peak population of 219,000 in 1980. Though much of the revival of the area has come from outsiders searching for Instagram shots, the increase in residents has helped to bring new businesses, such as supermarkets, to the area.

The old cityscape and new buildings have stirred up the classic debate of development versus preservation in Jung-gu. The existence of historic and -- in the eyes of many younger people -- exotic cityscape helped spark the revival but that is increasingly threatened as new construction spreads. Opposing new buildings would help preserve the historic cityscape, but it would hinder efforts to increase population density that is so critical to sustained revival of the area.

The dilemma offers Daegu a chance to find an alternative solution balancing preservation and development. The Bukseongno area near Daegu Station offers insights into a possible way. On a recent visit, I was surprised to see that large portions of a historic block were being demolished to make way for what I was told would be a 49-story apartment and officetel complex. Three historic buildings that had received Jung-gu funds for renovation only years earlier were scheduled for demolition.

The project will bring more density to the area, but it will greatly damage the historic cityscape. A balanced approach would have preserved the historic cityscape while promoting the development of underutilized areas. An alternative could be to promote smaller-scale development -- both through renovation and new construction -- within the existing footprint of the city.

To find the right balance, Daegu and other cities need to develop structures that democratize development. Nearby property owners, residents, tenants and concerned citizens all deserve a place at the table to discuss development in their cities. 

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 -- Ed.