A gi­ant leap for walk­a­bil­ity

Hav­ing grown past the usual fo­cus on cars, Seoul shows how a ma­ture city can cham­pion pedes­tri­ans in­stead.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Spaces - By MENG YEW CHOONG

WHILE de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are fo­cused on keep­ing more and more pri­vate ve­hi­cles on the move by build­ing fly­overs to ease traf­fic flow, South Korea takes a dif­fer­ent view: That more traf­fic does not equate a bet­ter qual­ity of life.

For ex­am­ple, in 2003, it de­mol­ished sev­eral kilo­me­tres of mul­ti­lane el­e­vated roads in Seoul to create what is now the iconic Cheongyecheon, a 11km-long ur­ban re­newal project hailed glob­ally as a great ex­am­ple of re­ju­ve­na­tion that puts peo­ple first, not ve­hi­cles.

The mas­sive project that slowly took shape over a decade in­volved un­cov­er­ing a stream that had long been “buried” by rapid devel­op­ment in the coun­try’s post-Korean War boom pe­riod be­gin­ning in the 1960s. Even­tu­ally cost­ing more than US$1bil (RM3.9bil at to­day’s rates) the project even­tu­ally won over scep­tics when it be­came an as­tound­ing suc­cess with lo­cals and tourists alike.

Un­der new mayor Park Won-soon, who as­sumed of­fice in Oc­to­ber 2011, the Seoul Metropoli­tan Gov­ern­ment went one up by cre­at­ing an oa­sis for pedes­tri­ans out of a high­way fly­over slated for de­mo­li­tion after it was found to be se­verely di­lap­i­dated in 2006. Called Seoullo 7017, the project is about cre­at­ing a “more walk­a­ble city while pre­serv­ing his­tory and pre­cious mem­o­ries of Seoul through ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion”.

The area where Seoullo is lo­cated is a ma­jor gate­way to/from Seoul, which sees an av­er­age of 390,000 com­muters and trav­ellers ev­ery day. As the city grew after the post-war years, el­e­vated roads and rail lines be­gan mush­room­ing up around Seoul Sta­tion; this be­gan to iso­late the area as mov­ing cars took prece­dence over mov­ing peo­ple (sound fa­mil­iar?). The area even­tu­ally be­came an “is­land”, with no easy ac­cess for pedes­tri­ans, even as the fringe was bustling with eco­nomic and so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties.

The golden op­por­tu­nity for re­gen­er­a­tion was al­most missed, as the city’s gov­ern­ment was ini­tially con­cerned about safety when it de­cided to de­mol­ish the fly­over. But more in­ven­tive minds pre­vailed, and the think­ing changed to how to make the best use of a rel­a­tively strong struc­ture to sup­port pedes­trian traf­fic.

Con­nected to na­ture and com­merce

An in­ter­na­tional ten­der was called for the best con­cept to re­ju­ve­nate the 1km stretch, and the job went to Dutch firm MVRDV (mvrdv. nl). Winy Maas, one of the prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tects be­hind the project, was quoted as say­ing: “It is of­ten com­pared to New York City’s High­line, but it is dif­fer­ent in many ways. The size and height as well as its con­text are very dif­fer­ent.

“I think the Seoul project is more in­ter­est­ing. I like the idea of reusing the over­pass.”

(The High­line, high­line.org, is a project that also con­verted an el­e­vated struc­ture for pedes­trian use.)

Also known as the Seoul Sky­gar­den or Sky­park, Seoullo 7017 takes its name from a few sources: “7017” is the com­bi­na­tion of 1970, the year the over­pass was com­pleted; 2017, the year of its rebirth as a pedes­trian walk­way; and the 17 foot­paths con­nected to the lin­ear gar­den, as well as its height, 17m.

While Mayor Park was cred­ited with push­ing through the US$52mil (RM204mil) sky park, civil so­ci­ety also had a role to play. Even in the

face of Che­ogyecheon’s ster­ling suc­cess, the pro­posal for Seoullo was op­posed by some in the ini­tial stages as they feared traf­fic con­ges­tion and ve­hic­u­lar ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues; traders and shop own­ers in the nearby Nam­dae­mun mar­ket were es­pe­cially wor­ried – now, though, the mar­ket is much eas­ier to ac­cess.

“Seoullo is a new at­tempt to re­vi­talise the un­der­de­vel­oped down­town area and its sur­round­ings,” said Mayor Park as he boldly pre­dicted that Seoullo will lead to the re­newal of the sur­round­ing area.

Since its of­fi­cial open­ing last May, more than 7.5 mil­lion peo­ple have vis­ited Seoullo last year alone, mak­ing it the sig­na­ture place for the city as it em­braces the con­cept of “walk­a­ble ur­ban­ism”, an idea that is emerg­ing as a new global stan­dard for ur­ban devel­op­ment.

In­creas­ingly, plan­ners are shap­ing cities so that they pro­vide a safe and com­fort­able walk­ing en­vi­ron­ment by pri­ori­tis­ing pedes­tri­ans. Seoullo, for ex­am­ple, is fully ac­ces­si­ble to wheelchairs and those with mo­bil­ity prob­lems, with lifts and es­ca­la­tors in­stalled all round to bridge that crit­i­cal “last step”.

Be­yond walk­a­bil­ity, Seoullo is in it­self a great place to hang out for young and old.

The stretch is now home to the big­gest va­ri­ety of Korean plant species, host­ing 50 fam­i­lies of plants in­clud­ing trees, shrubs and flow­ers in 645 tree pots, cov­er­ing 228 species and sub-species. The struc­ture is like a long dis­play shelf for 24,000 plants rang­ing from trees and shrubs to sea­sonal flow­er­ing plants. The sea­sonal plants are care­fully re­placed or ro­tated to re­main in keep­ing with South Korea’s four sea­sons.

Walk­ways con­nect Seoullo to nearby build­ings, en­sur­ing the stretch serves as an artery for so­cial and com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties, day and night. Along with Cheongyecheon, Seoullo is a must-visit des­ti­na­tion for ur­ban plan­ners, ar­chi­tects, and those who dream of greater ac­ces­si­bil­ity, walk­a­bil­ity, and green­ery in their own cities.

Fo­cus on walk­a­bil­ity

At the 9th World Ur­ban Fo­rum, which was held in Kuala Lumpur last month, many things were said about what makes for great cities, and walk­a­bil­ity fea­tured promi­nently – right­fully so.

Among the pre­sen­ta­tions fo­cus­ing on walk­a­bil­ity, the global non­profit In­sti­tute for Trans­porta­tion and Devel­op­ment Pol­icy (itdp.org) un­veiled Pedes­tri­ans First, a tool that helps any­one mea­sure how walk­a­ble an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment is.

“Cities around the world are recog­nis­ing how es­sen­tial walk­a­bil­ity is for the ac­cess and health of their cit­i­zens, and the eco­nomic growth of their cities,” said Joe Chest­nut, the ITDP re­search as­so­ciate who au­thored Pedes­tri­ans First. He went on to em­pha­sise that “walk­a­bil­ity is not just a side­walk, it’s a whole sys­tem of de­sign and in­fra­struc­ture”.

In Malaysia, walk­a­bil­ity is very much de­pen­dent on var­i­ous lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, as they are the ones ap­prov­ing lo­cal plans. By draw­ing upon the lessons from de­vel­oped coun­tries, plan­ners who are still car-cen­tric in their out­look should wake up and see that a great city now means hav­ing less space for roads and park­ing while mak­ing more room for pedes­tri­ans.

Some good things are be­ing done by Think City, a wholly-owned sub­sidiary of Khaz­anah Na­sional Bhd, which has shown what can be done to re­store vi­brancy to in­ner city liv­ing through its projects to re­fresh Ge­orge Town, But­ter­worth, Kuala Lumpur, and Jo­hor Baru while Kuala Lumpur City Hall has put in a net­work of el­e­vated walk­ways con­nect­ing ar­eas within the cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict over the past few years.

Still, these are mere drops in the bucket, as much more needs to be done by the var­i­ous mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to put the fo­cus on walk­a­bil­ity, along with the cre­ation of bar­rier-free or uni­ver­sal ac­cess.

In this re­gard, it is sheer de­light to note that Seoullo 7017 has shown that it is pos­si­ble to slow down, smell the roses, and look good, all at the same time.

For more in­for­ma­tion on Seoullo 7017, go to seoullo7017.seoul.go.kr.

— Seoul Metropoli­tan Coun­cil

The age­ing fly­over has trans­formed into this fes­tive space, a free pub­lic at­trac­tion open year-round. star2@thes­tar.com.my

(Left) Artist im­pres­sion of a bird’s eye view of Seoullo 7017. By bridg­ing pock­ets of space iso­lated by mul­ti­ple rail lines and high­ways, the project frees up the com­bined po­ten­tial of such land and dis­jointed pedes­trian routes. — Seoul Metropoli­tan Coun­cil

(Inset above) MVRD’s ar­chi­tec­tural scale model of Seoullo, show­ing its ar­te­rial shape pump­ing the life­force vi­tal to a city’s re­ju­ve­na­tion: pedes­tri­ans.


Stair­ways, es­ca­la­tors and lifts (one can be seen on the left) help bridge the 17m ver­ti­cal gap be­tween Seoullo (on top) and the sur­round­ing roads below.

If you are vis­it­ing Seoullo in spring, ex­pect to see spring blooms in place of these sum­mer ones, as the plants are ro­tated ac­cord­ing to the sea­sons.

Park was a ma­jor driv­ing force be­hind Seoullo 7017.

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