October 1, 2005

Seoul revives buried stream in a bid to turn green

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL (Reuters) - As a top executive at Hyundai
Construction, Lee Myung-bak helped pour the concrete that
turned the South Korean capital Seoul into a massive gray city
in its headlong rush to development in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now Seoul's mayor, Lee has overseen the launch of a project
which tore down an elevated highway in the heart of the city
and on Saturday restored a stream buried underneath it for
almost 50 years.

Environmental experts and urban planners say what is
happening in Seoul with the restoration of the stream will
provide an interesting case study to see if a city that rushed
to become a major urban center without proper planning can
replace concrete jungles with green spaces.

"Since I participated in the construction, I am well aware
of the mistakes I made back then and I am trying to undo those
mistakes and transform Seoul into a greener and more culturally
rich city," Lee said in a recent interview with Reuters.

The Chonggyechon stream once flowed for about 10 km (6
miles) through the center of Seoul, home to about 10 million
people, from mountains behind the presidential Blue House and
was central to life in the city.

Work to restore about 6 km of the stream began in July 2003
at a cost of around $350 million. The stream flows through a
narrow park that celebrates the history of Seoul. There are 22
bridges across the waterway.


Kim Jin-ai, a leading urban planner, said it remains to be
seen if places such as Seoul, which quickly became modern urban
hubs can develop comprehensive plans that lead to greener

"Development in these types of cities focused on quick and
effective means to create urbanization and environmental
concerns were often placed on the back burner," Kim said.

"A project like Chonggyechon stream is a good start which
shows the country just realized the importance of preserving
the environment, but it needs to be integrated into a
well-developed, long-term and comprehensive plan," she said.

Critics have called the project short-sighted and say Lee
is using it to boost his bid to become the country's president.

According to the U.N. Environment Programme, it is
imperative that major urban centers use resources efficiently
because of the enormous strain they put on the environment.

"Cities demand huge amounts of energy to run their
infrastructure and fuel their transport, they suck in vast
quantities of water, they demand large amounts of food," said
Nick Nuttall, a UNEP spokesman.

By 2030, more than 60 percent of the world's population
will live in cities, up from almost half now, and just a third
in 1950, according to the UNEP.

Lee thinks a good place to look for an environmentally
friendly future may be in Seoul's past.

He is planning a green belt around Seoul to link the city's
ancient gates, palaces and parks with the Chonggyechon stream
flowing through its heart.

(With additional reporting by Kim Yoo-chul)