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Seoul: Asia's Surprising Eco-Travel Destination

South Korea's capital is turning a new leaf on the concrete jungle by cultivating post-industrial parks, living roofs and public urban farms.

Seoul eco travel - Namsan Park

Nature rules in Namsan Park.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I've come to Seoul – a megacity with a population of more than 10 million people – to experience nature. On my morning run through Namsan Park, the city's answer to Vancouver's Grouse Grind, I pick my way along trails that twist, turn and fork through tall pines, past a mineral spring that pours out of the granite mountainside and ponds covered with water lilies.

Seoul eco travel - concrete spaces

One tree at a time, Seoul is converting its concrete spaces into green oases.

But what really grabs my attention isn't the city's largest and most visited park. It's places like the little pocket forests along highways and the expansive verdant ribbon that traces the banks of the Han River, a favourite for Lycra-wrapped cyclists who move at triple the speed of traffic. Seoul is ceding precious square kilometres back to nature (not bad, considering the population density is twice that of Mexico City), or, where that's not entirely possible, creating a new coexistence between glass-steel-concrete and trees-grasses-waterways.

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I find nature almost everywhere I look: former industrial wastelands converted into parks, public veggie gardens sprouting on top of office buildings and green roofs doubling as community lounges — like the one sprawling across the city's latest architectural landmark, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park, dreamed up by Zaha Hadid. South Korea's hyper-industrialized, IT-driven capital decided 15 years ago to make green growth a measure of its success. For people like me, interested in the biophilic cities movement, which integrates nature into urban design, Seoul is emerging as a leader.

Seoul eco travel - Seonyudo Park

At Seonyudo Park, a former water-treatment plant on an island in the Han River in central Seoul, water lilies blanket old filtration ponds, and vines twirl around the remnants of the city’s decommissioned tanks and reservoirs and pumphouse factory. Birds – and kids – can be seen splashing in the crystal-clear streams that criss-cross the park. Indeed, Seoulites of all types – from clouds of teenagers in their school uniforms to matriarchs walking their snow-white Havanese dogs – revel in the cool, labyrinthine walking paths. For 360-degree city views, head to the lookout platforms or the arching Seonyudo Bridge.

"Seoul is actually very feng shui," Chang-Hyun Lee tells me, pointing at a historic map of the city in his corner office overlooking a lush hillside in the Greater Gangnam district. The president of the Seoul Institute, a public-private arm of the city's green initiative, he gives me a quick lesson on how Buddhist monks selected this site in the late 14th century as the capital for the Joseon Dynasty; the ring of mountains in the north and the Han River to the south provided the right balance for human needs. But with the frenetic mid-20th-century industrial expansion, almost half of the city was covered with asphalt and concrete. "It was a grey dream," says Lee in his baritone voice. "We have to go from grey to green now."

Seoul eco travel - World Cup Park

It’s difficult to imagine that World Cup Park used to be the city’s landfill. The 3.5-square-kilometre area comprises five parks; the top of Haneul (Sky) Park is a prairie of waist-high Eulalia grass, a native perennial with swishy foxtails. Families picnic in the shade of elevated platforms screened by intricately carved wooden roofs. Cut across the grass and you’ll reach the park’s edge for views over the Han River and the downtown core. Or take a moment to sit in A Bowl Full of Sky, an open observatory, and listen to the hum of insects and the twitter of birds as the sun inches toward Seoul’s skyline.

Curious to see how things are shaping up, I meet Gildong Moon from the Green Bureau Parks and Landscape Planning Division at City Hall, a blue glass building that curls forward like a wave, cresting over the top of the old City Hall. We walk through the skyscraper canyons of the financial and administrative district to Cheonggye Plaza, where the sound of rushing water rises above the street noise. We've arrived at the start of Cheonggyecheon Stream, a 5.8-kilometre waterway that wends through downtown. The city's first well-known renaturalization project, it involved toppling an elevated highway, uncovering the paved-over stream and reintroducing trees and fish. I notice a flash of orange in the water — it's a carp. The bali-bali (rush-rush) fades. Couples stroll hand in hand and well-dressed commuters cruise by on city bikes. When we pass by a waterfall, Moon stops and laughs. "Air conditioning," he says.

Seoul eco travel - Buk Seoul Museum of Art

In northeast Seoul, residents and visitors ramble over the lush, grassy hilltop at Buk Seoul Museum of Art. That’s when they’re not taking a quiet moment for contemplation in the garden that blankets the roof of the building, which houses art and cultural collections in the light-filled space below; a living wall, studded with plants, announces the museum’s entrance. Inspired by a reed-filled marsh that once occupied this spot, the 17,000-square-metre museum and park garnered major national ecological and architectural awards for connecting people, art and nature in a neighbourhood previously known mostly for high-density, high-rise apartments.

Having quickly acquired the locals' habit of retreating to parks in the heat of the day, I take the metro to the Ttukseom neighbourhood, home to the 160-hectare Seoul Forest. Sprawling across five parks at the confluence of the Han and the Jungnangcheon Stream, it was once the hunting ground for the royal family, then a water-treatment plant and later a horse-racing track and a golf course before the city decided to convert it to a public park. (Citizens participated in the design and the planting stages.) I've arranged a tour of Seoul Forest with two of the city's most important urban planners. Kangoh Lee is the contemplative executive director of Seoul Green Trust, while the frizzy-haired Kyung Jin Zoh is a professor of landscape architecture at Seoul National University. Both sit on the city's Green Growth strategy board, working on how to bring urbanites into contact and interaction with nature.

Seoul eco travel - Cheonggyecheon Stream

Seoul’s first major project to bring back nature to where it had once existed started with the removal of a four-lane elevated highway; two years later, the flow of Cheonggyecheon Stream, disrupted and buried under the pavement for decades, was restored. Carp and dozens of other fish species now swim in the stream, which flows along a leafy corridor that passes beneath 22 bridges, and bees and butterflies flit about, landing on blossoms in greenery that gets thicker as you walk west from the start of the creek. Inspired by this extreme makeover, citizens all over Seoul now want to restore their local streams and rivers.

As we stroll past a community garden and public apple orchard, Lee tells me that Koreans have 5,000 years of agricultural heritage. "Planting, cultivating and being in touch with nature is part of my DNA," he says. Zoh adds that he grew up in a neighbourhood where every household had a kitchen garden; three generations living under the same roof would grow much of the food for the family. "But we lost a lot of our culture and traditions because we urbanized too fast," Lee explains.

Seoul eco travel - Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Designed by Zaha Hadid, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park is partially topped by a carpet of green.

The era of building cities to accommodate industry is ending. City planners and landscape architects are now recreating urban space to best serve the people who live in them. Here in Seoul Forest that includes basketball courts, a butterfly conservatory and even a petting zoo where families buy food pellets from a vending machine as overweight deer push their faces against the corral fencing. "Our strategic plan is to have parks and green space within a 10-minute walk for all citizens in Seoul," says Zoh. Which is what those 15th-century monks had in mind all along.



Comments… or add another


Monday, July 6th 2015 22:41
Excellent article.
Worth reading for anyone planning a trip to Korea or anyone who has no idea about Korea at this day and age.


Thursday, August 13th 2015 16:04
Did the writer travel and stay for free? This should be explicitly stated.
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