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.
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.
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 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.