Tearing Down a Highway to Rebuild a Stream


Tearing Down a Highway to Rebuild a Stream – Progress is a relative thing, its meaning and measure differing depending on people, place, circumstances and era.  What one generation sees as a proud achievement, the next may look at quite differently.

This is a theme that comes up increasingly in contemporary discussions of “how the West was won,” especially on the topic of development.

The engineering marvels of a century ago that harnessed nature to serve the needs of rapidly growing western U.S. cities, for example, are  reevaluated today as their environmental impacts are increasingly understood and felt.

This issue is one that rapidly growing cities and countries all around the world are grappling with as they seek to manage a successful balance between economic opportunity and environmental sustainability.

Tearing Down a Highway to Rebuild a Stream

Tearing Down a Highway to Rebuild a Stream

For South Korea—which developed into one of the world’s largest and most advanced economies more rapidly than perhaps any country ever before it—few things may exemplify this evolution better than the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul.

The stream, which starts just off of Seoul’s main north-south thoroughfare of Sejong-ro, courses several blocks past soaring high-rises through the heart of downtown.  Visitors to this attractive and popular gathering spot today may have a hard time believing that, just ten years ago, it was an elevated highway.

Cheonggyecheon’s history is an interesting, meandering one.  While Seoul today sprawls across the wide Han River, its original boundaries were north of the river and Cheonggyecheon was within them.  The stream was used historically by the people of Seoul for drainage and to wash their laundry.

Rulers of Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392-1897) started dredging the stream from the 15th century for flood control, and made significant renovations to the stream in the 18th century (part of Gwangtonggyo, a stone bridge built over the stream in the 1600s, still stands today).

As Seoul’s population grew during the 20th century, a shantytown for recent arrivals from the countryside expanded next to the stream, which became increasingly polluted and a health hazard.  In 1958, the stream was paved over, and during the early 1970s—as South Korea’s rapid industrialization was in full throttle—an elevated highway was built over it.  At the time, this was seen as an important sign of South Korea’s development and growth.

Thirty years later, with South Korea now among the world’s largest economies and most prosperous societies, quality of life was increasingly a public priority after decades of a growth-at-all-costs mentality that had propelled Seoul’s development and that of the country as a whole.

In 2002, then-Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak—who as CEO of a construction company had built the highway over Cheonggyecheon—proposed removing the highway and restoring the stream, in order to improve Seoul’s environment and livability.

This proposal was not universally embraced at first.  Some people saw it as a boondoggle, and shop owners and street vendors operating along Cheonggyecheon that would have to relocate fought the plan hard.

Some environmental advocates did not support it either, not seeing it as a true environmental restoration effort.  Controversies and opposition aside, Lee moved forward with the project in 2003 through to its completion in 2005.

Upon its unveiling, the rebuilt Cheonggyecheon stream was an immediate and huge success with the public, while garnering wide international attention as an outstanding project of urban and environmental renewal.

Cheonggyecheon can, in some respects, be seen as representative of evolving priorities and values in South Korea during the past decade, with an increased emphasis on balancing growth with quality of life and sustainability.

Seoul Mayor Lee, who was elected South Korean president in December 2007 (building in part on the success of Cheonggyecheon’s restoration), put forward “low carbon, green growth” as a guiding focus and principle of his administration’s domestic and international policy agenda (which will be discussed in a future post).

Seoul’s citizens and leaders have embraced the concept of Seoul as an “eco-city” and continue to pursue projects to improve the city’s environment and livability.

It will be interesting, thirty years from now, to see how South Korea’s next generation views progress, and where Cheonggyecheon will fit into that picture.