Korea

Seoul becomes urban green leader

It is exciting to read about how Seoul, Korea’s Mayor Oh Se-hoon is remaking his city into a green leader. Accomplishments include reducing air pollution by 20% in just four years. I like how Seoul uses attractiveness and energy efficiency as success metrics.

I am impressed that Seoul is connected an attractive city with economic growth and international competitiveness. May Oh is quotes as saying, “If the city is attractive, people, information and capital flow in. This in turn creates economic re-vitality and it also creates a lot of jobs.”

This forward looking attitude seems lacking in Tokyo’s city government. Why does Japan’s largest city cede environmental leadership to smaller cities like Yokohama and Nagoya? How will Japan compete globally in the next economy with last century’s technology? What will it take for Tokyo to abandon the status quo and become a leader in new urbanism? Tokyo has so much grassroots energy and creativity for brining nature into the city and making streets livable, yet so little government and corporate support.

City and Country, 1970s and now

“The Japanese think of the City in the way that Englishmen used to think of Mighty London. It is either one or the other. Rice paddies or the Ginza.” (p35)

I am reading the wonderful author Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, first published in 1971. Richie is the ultimate American expat in Japan, who stayed from the start of the Occupation until today, and this is a classic travel book focused on Seto Nai Kai (the Inland Sea), which I recently visited.

This passage struck me because Ginza Farm, which I have visited for Tokyo Green Space, overcomes the division between city and country by bringing a rice paddy to Ginza, Tokyo’s most celebrated commercial district full of De Beers, Cartier and now of course Uniqlo flagship stores.

Richie’s The Inland Sea also reminds me of the recently deceased French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, which chronicled an Amazon on the verge of extinction. In a similar voyage by boat, Richie bemoans the new highways and lure of the city that threaten the fishing economy and general isolation of these islands and peoples. What used to be called “salvage anthropology” clashes with contemporary feelings by focusing on purity and what is about to be lost. This antique attitude also portrays the writer as both the “first” and last foreigner to capture a vanishing culture, creating a false sense of importance for the individual writer.

Despite this unease, it is hard not to enjoy Richie’s beautiful writing, his insights on insider and outsider culture, and his only partly closeted attraction to Japan. And I do not doubt the gulf that once existed between city and country, which makes the current urban interest in rural life and agriculture all the more indicative of profound social and environmental change.

On a related topic, I read this week in the New York Times that Korea, which is generally more accepting of national diversity, is having difficulties integrating children of mixed marriages. Most mixed children are the progeny of Korean farmers and their Chinese, Filipino and Thai wives. Partly the social question is of race, but also of class and city versus country.

I was struck that Korea shares Japan’s rural abandonment, and seems ahead of Japan in responding through immigration. Perhaps Japan, too, will first open its doors to immigrants willing to live in its rural areas now inhabited almost exclusively by the elderly. Despite Japan’s xenophobia, immigrants as care-givers and farmers seem more likely than the techno fantasy of robots: more cost-effective as workers and more human in terms of care and culture.

“Daylighting” Cheonggyecheon River

Daylighting Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul

A great article in today’s New York Times about “daylighting” the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul. Daylighting refers to uncovering streams buried under pavement. Three miles of elevated freeway were removed, a plant-rich stream restored, and central urban land was converted from car-centric to people-centric.

Benefits include:

  • summer temperature reduction by 5 degrees Fahrenheit
  • improved storm drainage, which global warming has worsened
  • reduction in small-particle air pollution from 74 to 48 micrograms per cubic meter
  • less auto congestion despite the loss of vehicle lanes
  • bio-diversity gains include 25 versus 4 fish species, 36 versus 6 bird species, and 192 versus 15 insect species
  • 90,000 daily visitors, including walking and picknicing
  • higher real estate values for adjacent buildings
  • political gains for former mayor, now South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (also formerly head of construction at Hyundai Corporation)
  • restoration of the historic center of a 600 year city
Daylighting Cheonngyecheon River in Seoul

Government officials and urban planners from Los Angeles, Singapore, San Antonio, and Yonkers have expressed interest in restoring urban streams. Sadly, the article did not mention anything about Tokyo, where most of its historic canals and rivers are covered by streets and elevated freeways.