GK:2.3.4 Urban planning, the urban landscape, and the characteristics of Korea’s cities today
Geography of Korea: II. Population and Living Space > 3. Urban Spaces > 4) Urban planning, the urban landscape, and the characteristics of Korea’s cities today
4) Urban planning, the urban landscape, and the characteristics of Korea’s cities today
Contributing to the distinctive characteristic of the Korean urban landscape today are such things as development-restricted greenbelts, new cities, and urban renewal projects, urban planning trends that have emerged as part of an effort to promote sustainable development and improve the quality of life of urban dwellers. Greenbelts are created to preserve the natural environment and ensure a healthy living conditions for urban residents by protecting green spaces along the city’s edge and controlling urban sprawl. To this end, areas are established on the periphery of cities where in principle such things as the construction of new or extension of existing buildings, changes of property use, and altering the shape or sub-dividing of land is strictly controlled. Such greenbelts date back to the early 1970s when they first began to be established in Seoul and then in large provincial cities. Since the early 2000s, however, some of these development restrictions have been gradually eased in order to improve underdeveloped living conditions, undertake national-level or regional projects. One could cite Hwaseong dating to the Joseon dynasty as an example of Korea’s earliest new town (or planned city), but the real development of planned cities commenced with the country’s full-scale industrialization drive as a way of both fostering industry and alleviating overcrowding in the capital region. New towns like Changwon and Yeocheon were established to promote industry, while in new towns around the capital region large-scale residential complexes were constructed with the aim of resolving Seoul’s housing problems. In the first phase of new town construction around the capital in the mid-1990s, Budang, Ilsan, Pyeongchon, Sanbon, and Jungdong were built with the goal of providing 200,000 dwellings and bringing in 1.17 million total residents. The second phase encompassed ten new towns with 470,000 total residences and a combined population of 1.27 million.
The most recent planned city or new town is Sejong Special Autonomous City, established as the new home for various central administrative departments and associated agencies as a way of relieving the excessive concentration in the Seoul capital region and as part of efforts to promote a more balanced national development. Further, as a way of encouraging regional growth, ten cities (Busan, Daegu, Naju, Ulsan, Wonju, Jincheon-gun, Jeonju-Wanju-gun, Gimcheon, Jinju, and Seogwipo) in “growth pole regions” were selected as innovation cities and sites for industry and the locations for public agencies moved out of the capital region. To foster economic activity five locations (Wonju, Chungju, Muan, Taean, Muju, and Yeongam-Haenam) were designated new towns and “enterprise cities” with the development there of industrial, research, and business facilities as well as sufficient residential, education, and cultural functions. In the urban landscape of major cities is often characterized by so-called greenbelts, areas on a city’s periphery where development has been restricted in order to curb urban sprawl and preserve the natural environment. The establishment of greenbelts dating back to the 1970s has served to clearly differentiate the rural from the urban landscape, however the restrictions on property rights for those residents living within such developmentally restricted zones created problems, and so from the early 2000s there was seen a gradual easing of such restrictions. The result has been an urban renewal of the inner city characterized by the construction of high-rise commercial buildings and apartments.
Starting in the 1950s Korea undertook efforts to redevelop its poor and inadequate housing but to little effect. From the 1970s such urban redevelopment efforts took on a new vigor, and in the case of the central urban area, where infrastructure was inadequate to the demands of rapid urbanization, there was a shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, and the business environment was changing, the response was the improvement of land use. The greater demand for commercial space and increases in the number of cars meant a need for wider roads and more parking lots, and so within city centers areas with aged facilities and residences were transformed into manufacturing and commercial areas and efforts were made at more efficient land use policies and the securing of public spaces. In terms of the redevelopment of residential space, in order to meet the increased demand for more comfortable housing and to improve the quality of life, to deal with mounting problems associated with older housing, as well as to improve the city’s image and urban aesthetics, efforts were focused on improving poor housing districts and expanding infrastructure and demolishing single-family dwellings to make way for the construction of new apartment complexes.
In terms of poor and inadequate residential districts, some were situated near the centers of old cities, but usually they were located in poor, hilly areas (called in Korean daldongne or sandongne) on the city’s periphery. Attempts were made to demolish and redevelop most of these areas, which resulted in such problems as conflicts between developers and the original residents, the disintegration of traditional communities, and changes in the commercial conditions of the city. As a result, more recently urban planning has taken a different tack in which local residents and communities are involved. For instance, take the case of Nangok village in Seoul’s Sillim-dong neighborhood of Gwanak-gu district. Situated on a steep hill, its original population had moved there as a result of the government’s 1967 policy to demolish shantytowns. These residents had then been heavily augmented by migrants from the countryside. Its 13,000 inhabitants and 2600 households were crammed into single-room dwellings along narrow hillside alleys, such that it was nicknamed the “neighborhood in the sky.” In 1995, this area became the focus of redevelopment, with the original homes demolished and the area changed into apartment complexes. However, as the original residents were unable to pay the high cost for this new housing, they ended up having to relocate.
But Busan’s Gamcheon village may be highlighted as an example of this new approach to redevelopment that seeks to broaden the participation of the original residents and improve their successful resettlement rate, and to take advantage of the existing dwellings to preserve a sense of community. Gamcheon village was formed by refugees from the Korean War (1950–1953) who resettled on the hill by creating terraces, with the first generation residents consisting of some 3000 households. In 2009, the village won the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism’s “Village Art Project” contest and with the collaboration of artists and university students the village was designated a village of art and culture. The village’s vacant homes were converted into book cafes and photo galleries, handmade sculptures were installed in the village’s maze of narrow lanes, and the terraced homes were painted in pastel colors. Gamcheon village became an example of an alternative approach to the redevelopment of poor hillside neighborhoods, one that embraced renewal rather than simply renovation and helped to preserve the place’s sense of locality.
Apartments have become the standard type of residence in Korean cities today and are a typical feature of the urban landscape. As of 2010, the percentage of apartment dwellings was significant: of some 17,320,000 total residences, 8,170,000 (47%) were apartments, while single-family homes numbered 8,870,000 (39%), multi-family homes 1,230,000 (7.1%), and townhouses 500,000 (2.9%). In the case of Seoul, in 1985, apartments made up 26.1 percent of the total residences but by 2005 accounted for 54.2 percent, nearly doubling over the course of twenty years. Though the apartment penetration rate is somewhat high in Seoul than other areas, it is actually relatively low compared to some other Korean cities, such as Gwangju (70%), Ulsan (64.1%), Daejeon (63.8%), and Daegu (60.1%). Since the 1990s apartments also began to change the landscape of small and medium-sized cities.
Korea’s apartment phenomenon is a reflection of its rapid modernization. The early stage of modernization saw the massive influx of the rural population into the cities, where migrants were cramped into housing and home ownership for most was fanciful dream. Even up to the 1970s the type of home most favored by Koreas was a house with small attached garden. However, with the gradual concentration of the population in major cities like Seoul, available land grew scarce and the construction of apartment complexes began. From the 1980s, Seoul began to build many high-rise apartment complexes aimed at the middle class so that gradually the apartment became that class’s representative dwelling type. And as apartments began to built conveniently near to high-end shops and good schools, and to include various amenities, they acquired an image as modern and luxurious living spaces. Today, high-end apartments in Seoul and Busan that tower sixty floors or more high are regarded as luxury homes for the wealthy.
Though large-scale construction of apartments is the most efficient means of providing housing in an environment characterized by high population density and steep land prices, the foreign role of apartments—as residences for those of lower income levels—also found a resonance in Korea. But because apartment construction in Korea could not keep pace with the rapid urban population growth, this led to speculation in housing developments while also contributing to the standardization of apartment styles. Further, the government’s providing cheap land to the private contractors and its role as credit guarantor has allowed for the large-scale supply of apartments. The demand for apartments pushed up prices, thereby increasing the returns on investments and spawning the construction of yet more apartments. After 2000, with the precipitous rise in housing prices in Seoul and the Capital Region, increasing numbers of households turned to bank loans to finance their home purchase, such that by 2012 some 63 percent of households were operating in debt. However, with the gradual drop off in population growth, the retirement of baby boomers, and economic recession, housing prices are seeing a drop and the original functional role of the apartment is returning. With the formation of such large-scale, densely populated apartment complexes, Korean cities are seeing the emergence of self-sufficient apartment communities, with their own individual and education services. In major cities, attention is shifting towards the changing functionality and form of the city, with the rise of single-person households and the departure of some retiring baby boomers back to their home villages in search of a more satisfying lifestyle.