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day,”says developer Stan Gale. And as a planned“prototype”city, setting up home or office here is proving very appealing.
Soul of the City
Songdo is a community in marked contrast to the ancient fortress city of Seoul, which instead of starting with a clean slate, was faced with the task of reconstruction in the devastating aftermath of World War II and the Korean War. Public infrastructure, homes and commercial establishments were built and designed solely for utilitarian purposes. Weighing their aesthetic value wasn’t part of the equation.
“Seoul has earned a reputation for being a less than attractive city,”says Maureen O’Crowley, vice-president for international marketing and convention at Seoul Tourism Organization (STO).“The emphasis on design has changed that and now Seoul is earning a well-deserved reputation for its trendy skyline.”
In 2010, UNESCO awarded the Korean capital a place in its Creative Cities Network by designating Seoul as a“City of Design.”It was chosen for its rich heritage and creative potential. The city joined counterparts around the world, including Buenos Aires, Berlin, Montreal, Nagoya, Helsinki, Shenzhen and most recently, Cape Town, on UNESCO’s list of creative cities in the field of design. This is recognition of Seoul’s massive effort to incorporate arts and culture in city development.
The project to transform Seoul into a beautiful city worthy of being called“Soul of Asia”was the brainchild of former mayor Oh Se-hoon, who upon his election in 2006, outlined a vision of city-wide rehabilitation of public infrastructure and the construction of eyecatching modern landmarks.
“We must create a city environment where people want to come and live with their businesses and their families. Attractiveness is the key to national competitiveness,”he told a reporter in 2008.
Considering the speed of Seoul’s astronomical economic rise, black spots are minimal.Yes, there may be some red tape, but the government is taking clear measures to cut it.Yes, English is limited, but a generation of Tiger Mums, after-school hagwons (small private cram schools) and international schooling will mitigate this. And yes, there may be signs of political wrangling influencing industry, particularly construction; but the rate at which impressive, successful projects such as IFC Seoul, and now Songdo, are rising far outweighs that of stalled projects.
Even the ever-looming shadow of North Korea has not been enough to stifle Seoul.“With North Korea the geopolitical situation is clearly a shadow but obviously it has not been an impediment,”says Freeman, citing the huge demand they have experienced from international companies including Sony, Philip Morris and ING for office space in IFC.
In the end, it’s the city’s people who have their foot on the accelerator.“This is a remarkable country, and clearly a remarkable people, when you consider the utter devastation and the income levels of Koreans in the early 1960s. The history has created a culture of people who are very hardy, nationalistic and proud of their heritage, and I think that is primarily the reason why Korea has become so dynamic,”says Freeman.
Certainly, examples of South Koreans donating their personal gold during the 1998 IMF bailout after the Asian Financial Crisis, and the constant sense of urgency and willingness to provide and move forward, illustrate this point. The “bbalibbali” (“hurry hurry”) culture that one so often hears about does not just refer to Koreans’efficiency, but also their desire to perform, compete and succeed – and this is something you immediately sense when you interact with Seoul’s people.
“I can assure you that I’ve never been in any other country that operates as efficiently,”says Freeman. With such a solid fundamental economic base to work from, and equipped with the capability, pride and determination of its people, it seems that Seoul’s ascent will not be plateauing in the near future. BT