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[Robert Fouser] Improving housing quality in Seoul

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 29, 2023 - 05:31

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City rankings often produce strange results. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s high ranking for Osaka, Japan in recent years has always struck me as odd. The group produces the “Global Liveability Ranking” report for cities around the world. The 2023 report examined 172 cities around the world using more than 30 quantitative and qualitative indicators. Among Asian cities, Osaka was tied for 10th place with Auckland, New Zealand. The most liveable city ranked as Vienna, Austria, followed by Copenhagen, Denmark, and Melbourne, Australia. Seoul ranked 58th, much lower than Osaka.

Osaka is puzzling. Vienna and Copenhagen are already widely recognized as liveable cities, but Osaka? In Japan, Osaka is not considered the most liveable city; regional centers such as Fukuoka and Sendai have a positive image for quality of life. Osaka is seen as a declining commercial and industrial center with crowded living conditions. From a global perspective, Osaka has a much lower crime rate than almost anywhere else in the world. Because of its size and proximity to the historic cities of Kyoto and Nara, Osaka offers many cultural and leisure activities.

The 30 indicators, which are divided into five categories -- stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure -- have slightly different weights. Stability and culture plus environment each had the highest weight at 25 percent each, while education had the lowest. Infrastructure accounted for 20 percent, which included housing quality, but the overall impact was not significant. Osaka’s relatively high score is likely due to the low weight given to housing, which is one of the city’s biggest problems.

Japan is a wealthy developed country, but the quality of housing lags far behind that of North America and Europe. Though more spacious than Tokyo, houses in Osaka are small compared to those in other advanced countries. Outside of Hokkaido, Japanese homes rarely have central heating, leaving them very cold in the winter. Many houses, especially rental houses, are noisy because they lack adequate soundproofing. With the exception of a few wealthy people, most people living in large cities in Japan live in cramped and noisy houses.

Thinking about housing in Osaka raises questions about housing in Korea. Is it any different? For people who live in apartments, the answer is definitely yes. Korean apartments are larger and better heated than in apartments in Japan. Most have more green space as well as parking and other facilities that their Japanese counterparts, especially in the biggest cities, often lack.

The problem for Korea is that not everyone lives in an apartment. Flooding in the summer of 2022 and increasing typhoons due to climate change have highlighted the problems of semibasement houses found in older densely populated neighborhoods. Residents in these areas have to deal with odors inside and outside their homes because most buildings in these areas still use septic tanks. Noise from inside and outside is a common problem in these crowded neighborhoods.

Apartments themselves vary greatly in comfort and quality. Many apartments, some of which are new and expensive, suffer from noise from the floor above, as well as outside traffic noise.

The definition of a liveable city varies from person to person, but at the very least, the quality of housing should be one of the most important criteria. This is true for both Seoul and Osaka. What can Seoul do to improve housing quality?

Tearing down older areas and replacing them with new housing in the form of apartments is one answer, but it causes displacement of lower-income residents and does not address the problem residents face now. Redevelopment also reduces the supply of smaller rental units that many young people rely on.

After the 2022 floods, the city of Seoul banned living in semibasements. Landlords who rent illegal units built on rooftops are being fined in the hope of pushing them to demolish them. The city and local district governments have improved fire safety and other infrastructure in recent years. Although restrictive and unpopular with landlords, these measures will have a positive effect over time.

However, the most effective thing the government could do now would be to start work on an advanced sanitation system that focuses on eliminating septic tanks. South Korea is too developed and too advanced to tolerate septic tanks in its capital, or any other major city, for that matter. The project would also provide opportunities to invest in other infrastructure, such as water pipes, roads, sidewalks, in older neighborhoods. Let 2024 be the year that plans for Seoul’s “Great Dig” are announced.

Robert J. Fouser

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