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Cheonggyecheon - Relax and Chill
Cheonggyecheon Relax and Chill Long-term Seoul Resident ALAN TIMBLICK Celebrates the Success of
a Landmark Urban Planning Project Photographed by Ryu Seunghoo
It is already five years since the Cheongycheon stream was opened to the public and already there are many thousands of people—both Koreans and visitors, who may not be aware of what was in its place before. If only they could have seen it they would be astonished by the contrast.

It’s a Cover-up
In 1958 a since-disappeared English language newspaper in Seoul, the Korean Republic, announced that the smelly and muddy stream which flowed through the heart of Seoul was to be concreted over and converted into a thoroughfare for motor vehicles. By 1960 the work was done and it seemed as if the dirty little river, Cheongyecheon, had disappeared from sight for ever, relegated to passing underground through concrete pipes. In due time an elevated four-lane urban highway was erected over the top, whisking traffic in and out of the city center, flying over the East Gate (“Dongdaemun”) and its markets at rooftop level. This work was completed by 1976.

Alan Timblick OBE is Head of Seoul Global Center of Seoul Metropolitan Government. He has lived in Korea for 23 years.
Previously, he served as Head of Invest KOREA and Senior Vice President of KOTRA. Until he joined Seoul Global Center, he advised Invest KOREA as a Senior Advisor. He also currently serves on the Advisory Forum of the Presidential Committee on Nation Branding

Infrastructural Obscurity
In the face of the quest for efficiency in moving the motorized population, the physical appearance of the highway did not count for much. Beneath the concrete arches a dead sunless zone developed, sui table for the temporary parking of garbage carts, illegal vehicle parking and other shadowy activities. The highway effectively severed the visual connection between buildings on either side, acting as a six kilometer-long Berlin Wall-type barricade along the east-west axis of the city.
So much for ridding the city of unsavory sights and smells—all that had been achieved was to replace one kind of unsightliness for another and all in the name of King Automobile!
Opened Up Again
By the turn of the century, opinions about the importance of traffic and the priority given to cars had evolved considerably. And so it became time to tear down the overhead highway and to open up the stream again. The ambitious project, launched in 2003, aimed to improve the environment by cooling the city center and allow pedestrians to take the prime place in the usage of the passage.
The scheme was completed by 2005 and the stream now bore no resemblance to the original dirty trough of the early 20th Century. Huge quantities of water were diverted and pumped to fill the river up to wading depth and a sophisticated filtering system was installed so that the water was fresh and clean enough even for fish to survive. Sunken walkways either side of the stream made for a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere at the water’s edge. Ancient bridges were restored and new ones built, each with its own character, and through traffic relegated to narrow lanes at street level. Even those lanes have been resurfaced partly with cobble-stones, effectively slowing the speed of vehicles and giving the route something of the air of a mediaeval city.

New Leisure Space
At the source end, where the stream emerges from Gwanghwamun crossroads, a surging waterfall provides a lively acoustic start to the river’s flow and to delight the children stepping stones are placed so that even the most cautious of them can venture into the middle of the stream. At lunchtime and in the early evenings the paths on either side become a strolling route for office workers to exercise their lungs outside their air-conditioned work-stations or even to jog for a few kilometers to work off the excesses of the night before.
The streets either side have also become invigorated, with restaurants and pavement cafes permitting dining al fresco during the warm summer months. With the rushing water constantly replenishing the area with oxygen, average temperatures in the summertime have dropped a few degrees, so that the benefits are not just confined to the immediate water’s edge.

Traffic Anxieties Unfounded
When the project was first mooted many were skeptical about the impact on traffic flows in the city center. With so many vehicles having to be re-routed off the elevated highway, it seemed inevitable that congestion would increase in all of the neighboring al ternat ive routes. In particular the removal of a means to by-pass the East Gate shopping complex was thought to spell deadlock at that complex junction.
To the surprise of most people, the traffic flow has actually improved as drivers have found alternative routes or simply avoided the city centre altogether. In fact the result has inspired the city traffic planners to take down most of the overhead passes at junctions, undoing the construction of the 1970s and creating broader, lighter, airier, cleaner and more visually attractive scenes at the intersections. The additional resulting space allows for the planting of trees, bushes and grass areas—all part of the greening of the city.

A Benchmark for Stream Restoration
With so many mountains around the city and smaller hills dotted around the wider city plain either side of the Hangang River, there is a constant flow of water which runs into streams and rivulets, eventually finding its way into the grand waterway of the Hangang. The success of Cheongycheon’s restoration has prompted other local authorities to follow suit, with walking areas successively emerging along streams such as Seongbukcheon, Yangjaecheon and the flows from Namsan.
Some say that man evolved from creatures which lived in or around water. Perhaps that is why it gives us so much happiness to be back beside good old fresh H2O!
- The article courtesy of Seoul magazine
Date 07/07/2010

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