What amazed me most about Cheonggyecheon was its freedom. Here was a stream running through the middle of Seoul, one of the world’s largest cities, and it gurgled as contentedly as any country creek. You can walk next to the water, sit next to it, wade in and feel its sharp chill on your calves.
It becomes all the more remarkable when you realize that, ten years ago, it was little more than a sewer running beneath a traffic-clogged highway. For decades, Cheonggyecheon was buried under an expressway; it was famously restored in the early 2000s. (David Maloney wrote an exhaustive account of its history a few years ago.) When I visited Seoul last year, it was one of the things I was most eager to see, and luckily enough, I happened to be staying a short walk from it.
After the expressway was demolished, a six-kilometre linear park was built along the stream, from the business district near Gwanghwamun in the west to another river, Jungnangcheon, in the east. The stream runs several metres below street level, and descending towards the stream is a liberation from the noise and exhaust above it. Late at night, I sat next to the water and watched two couples wade into the stream, pants rolled up, giggling as they splashed around. During the day, kids played on stepping stones that traverse the water.
Cheonggyecheon is one of the best-designed examples of urban nature I have encountered. Its impact has been fare-reaching. Fewer cars enter central Seoul now and public transit use is up. Summer temperatures around the stream have been reduced by several degrees since the stream was restored.
For all its success, though, there is a downside to Cheonggyecheon’s restoration. The project was rammed through with little public consultation. It has spurred gentrification in the surrounding neighbourhoods, threatening the livelihood of the many wholesalers and small merchants who do businesses there.
And, despite its natural appearance, the restoration of the stream was not really a restoration at all. By the time the expressway was demolished, Cheonggyecheon was almost completely dry, and 120,000 tons of water are pumped in every day from a water treatment plant to keep the stream flowing. Ultimately, Cheonggyecheon is a tool of urban development and not much else.
But is that a problem? It’s hard to argue against something that has such an obvious public benefit. The creation of such an accessible, inclusive public space is something whose legacy will extend for generations to come, well beyond the vagaries of politics and economy.
Tags: Cheonggyecheon, Gentrification, Parks, Preservation, Redevelopment, Restoration, Rivers, Seoul