The Korea Herald


[Robert J. Fouser] Turning Seoul’s dead streams into parks

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 23, 2024 - 05:31

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Ask former residents of Seoul, Korean and foreign alike, what they miss most about the city, many will cite the mountains in and around the city. Indeed, few major cities of Seoul’s size have as many accessible mountains as Seoul. But Seoul has another important natural feature: streams. The streams may not be as flashy as the mountains, but in recent years they have played an important role in improving the quality of life in the city.

One of the most accessible and popular streams is the Cheonggyecheon, which was restored in 2005. Starting in the 1960s, Seoul’s population boomed, and it needed new infrastructure to keep up. The city began widening roads and building underpasses and overpasses. Beginning in stages in 1955, the Cheonggyecheon was covered and turned into a road. To move traffic through the congested city center, an elevated expressway was built in stages from 1967 to 1976.

By the 2000s, South Korean society was beginning to take the shape of a developed country. With a growing concern for quality of life and interest in environmental issues, people began to look at urban spaces in a new light as they realized their impact on the quality of life.

The restoration of the Cheonggyecheon grew out of this change. The restoration process was controversial because many businesses were displaced, but the resulting park, with its garden-like walkways, was hugely popular and had a ripple effect in Seoul and other cities in the country.

Drawing on the success of the Cheonggyecheon, the restoration of the Seongbukcheon, the Anyangcheon and the Yangjaecheon, planning for which had begun in the late 1990s, became a higher priority. Restoration of the Anyangcheon, for example, began in 2005, and a walking and biking path was built alongside the stream from the Han River to downtown Anyang. Also in 2005, a walking path was built alongside the Yangjaecheon all the way to Gwacheon. The more than 50 kilometers of trails and parks along these three streams have become beloved walking courses.

Seoul has been at the forefront of restoring and revitalizing streams and waterways. Take Paris, for example. The Promenade des Berges de la Seine was developed only in 2008 after a major road along the Seine was demolished and the roadless sections were connected by floating walkways and gardens. The park has become a favorite walking course for its views of the historic center of Paris.

Most of Seoul’s major streams have been restored, but unfortunately, the city’s residential neighborhoods still lack green space. Apartment complexes have landscaping to comply with building codes, but it’s limited to the residents. In the many low-rise, densely populated neighborhoods with small multifamily housing, nature is hard to find. As redevelopment continues, Seoul is becoming increasingly divided by green space. Apartment complexes have it; most other neighborhoods don’t.

What should the city do? One option is to restore streams that have not been restored in the last 20 years. Most of these are covered to make roads but could be uncovered to make way for restoring streams with walking paths along them. This would immediately bring nature back to the city.

Budget and other conditions might not allow for a complete restoration, but even partial restoration would help. For example, partial restoration of the Segyo Stream, which flows from the north gate of Yonsei University to the Han River would bring nature into residential areas in Hapjeong-dong that lack greenery. The partially restored Banghakcheon on the other side of town in Dobong-gu is a good example of this.

Another option instead of restoration is to create a narrow symbolic stream, with landscaping and a walking path, in its place. This brings nature into a dense urban space without the need for major construction. Prominent examples of this include the Junghakcheon behind the Kyobo Building in Gwanghwamun or the Heungdeokdongcheon along Daehangno. The result is more like an urban garden than a restored stream. Many small streams in Seoul have disappeared and cannot be restored, making this a good choice for those situations.

In addition to creating green space and beautifying the city, streams also improve air circulation in crowded areas. In the hot summer months, they can help reduce the actual and perceived temperatures, which improves the quality of life in the face of climate change. Seoul has taken the lead in restoring large streams, so the next step is to restore smaller streams to bring nature and greenery into residential areas.

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 -- Ed.