Adding some soul to Seoul

Raised walk­way aims to help trans­form South Korean cap­i­tal


The South Korean cap­i­tal is not famed for its es­thet­ics. Built up quickly dur­ing the coun­try’s as­ton­ish­ingly fast in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, it’s of­ten been de­rided with the say­ing: There’s no soul in Seoul.

But the city has a new ini­tia­tive to change that: Seoullo, or Seoul Street, an el­e­vated ur­ban walk­way sim­i­lar to New York’s famed High Line. Built on a 1.6-kilo­me­tre-long stretch of high­way over­pass that had been des­tined for de­mo­li­tion, Seoullo 7017 is to open on Satur­day. (It’s named for the year the over­pass was built — 1970 — and the year the walk­way opens.)

It will link the Nam­dae­mun mar­ket, a ram­shackle tourist hot spot that has been in de­cline for a decade, with a ne­glected neigh­bour­hood on the west­ern side of the rail­road tracks that run into Seoul Sta­tion. The area around the sta­tion is not ex­actly salubrious ei­ther, with its un­der­passes and side­walks hav­ing be­come a mag­net for home­less peo­ple.

“This will not only re­store the over­pass, but be­come a cat­a­lyst for the re­vival and re­gen­er­a­tion of neigh­bour­ing re­gions through the high num­ber of visi­tors,” Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said dur­ing a re­cent visit to the site.

Af­ter it emerged from the Korean War, Seoul was re­built al­most in the blink of an eye as South Korea be­gan its trans­for­ma­tion into an eco­nomic pow­er­house. Start­ing in the 1960s, city plan­ners or­dered the con­struc­tion of dozens of el­e­vated high­ways to keep traf­fic flow­ing through the cap­i­tal.

Fast for­ward a few decades, and th­ese hulk­ing over­passes be­came not only a blight on the land­scape, but also a safety risk, as heavy use lit­er­ally shook their foun­da­tions. In 1994, one bridge across the Han River, which bi­sects Seoul, col­lapsed, killing 32 peo­ple.

In re­cent years, the over­passes have grad­u­ally been com­ing down.

One in the cen­tre of the city was torn down to make way for Cheong­gye Stream, an 11-kilo­me­tre-long ar­ti­fi­cial river that opened in 2005. With paths and bridges, it has trans­formed its en­vi­rons, at­tract­ing lo­cals and tourists at all times of the day and night.

The high­way over the tracks into Seoul Sta­tion was found to have se­ri­ous safety prob­lems in 2006 and had also been slated for de­mo­li­tion. But it got a re­prieve when city plan­ners re­al­ized it could be turned into a walk­way in­stead, as the High Line was.

“Seoul lacks green space,” said Kwon Wan-taek, the city of­fi­cial in charge of the project, as he led re­porters over the walk­way, where work­ers were plant­ing in pots and in­stalling lights. “… It’s much more ef­fi­cient to turn old space into green space in­stead of tear­ing it down.”

Al­most half of Seoullo’s $53-mil­lion con­struc­tion cost has been spent on strength­en­ing the over­pass and en­sur­ing that it is safe for large num­bers of pedes­tri­ans. It is de­signed to bear the weight of 50,000 peo­ple, 10 times the num­ber that will ac­tu­ally be al­lowed onto the walk­way at any one time.

The project is part of a wider ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion ef­fort that has seen the cre­ation of pedes­trian-only streets and re­designed side­walks to make the city more walker-friendly.

Seoul is home to some 10 mil­lion peo­ple; the greater metropoli­tan area, in­cor­po­rat­ing bed­room com­mu­ni­ties, has a pop­u­la­tion of 25 mil­lion.

The walk­way will have planters with 250 kinds of trees and plants, all in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der and with QR codes so visi­tors can learn about the flora. It will be il­lu­mi­nated with LED lights that will make the whole struc­ture glow blue at night.

The project was de­signed by the Dutch ar­chi­tec­ture group MVRDV.

Un­like the High Line, built on an old rail line on Man­hat­tan’s Lower West Side, the walk­way will con­nect with build­ings — there are al­ready bridges into an of­fice tower and a ho­tel — and will have cafés and per­for­mance ar­eas. There are even tram­po­lines for kids — with fences to make sure they don’t bounce over the edge.

John Hong, a pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­ture at Seoul Na­tional Univer­sity, said the over­all vi­sion for the project was awe­some.

“Seoul is peel­ing back th­ese pre­vi­ous lay­ers of progress,” he said. “But in­stead of just tear­ing it down, the city is say­ing, ‘Why don’t we keep it and make it into his­tory?’ “

The project hasn’t been with­out con­tro­versy. Res­i­dents and ven­dors at the mar­ket end of the walk­way are up in arms that there has been no plan for park­ing or eas­ing traf­fic in the al­ready-con­gested area. And ex­pec­ta­tions of de­vel­op­ment at the other end of the walk­way have led to ram­pant real es­tate spec­u­la­tion.

But Hong said the over­all project should cre­ate a sense of com­mu­nity in a part of the city that has been sev­ered by rail­road tracks for decades.


A ren­der­ing shows the Seoullo 7017 walk­way, which is to open on Satur­day.

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