Though we are well into the 21st century, the infrastructure and design of most of the world’s cities still reflect the zeitgeist of 20th century modernist urban planning. Urban planning is struggling to keep up with the new, progressive values of sustainability, livability and inner-city revival. But in South Korea, the Island of Palm Trees, Songdo, has hopes of becoming the 21st century model of a hyper-modern city, and the major economic center of North East Asia. Located on reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea – about 2 hours from Seoul proper – Songdo is a planned city less than 10 years old. If successful, it may be the first of many new 21st century cities that can achieve economic development, sustainability and livability for its residents.
Songdo is the physical embodiment of the tenants of globalization, free market capitalism and privatization that frame the global economic ideology. At 13,100 acres, it is the largest private real estate project in the world ($35 billion), with the majority stake owned by Gale International, a major New York-based real estate firm. Private interests, namely Gale International and POSCO Construction and Engineering (a domestic conglomerate), enjoy unprecedented power over Songdo’s design, with the government playing only a small role. Following the reasoning of free market efficiency, the Korean government entrusted the private sector to accomplish the project with cost-effective design and construction; it is this neoliberal feature that sets Songdo apart from a project like the world-renowned Palm Islands in the United Arab Emirates, which were constructed and operated by a government-owned conglomerate and are now on stall (and purportedly sinking into the ocean) due to financial mismanagement.
After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis – which was blamed on excessive government involvement in tandem with overleveraged conglomerates (Chaebol) – the South Korean government looked toward Songdo to help reclaim lost national prestige by augmenting the country’s role as a major trade hub. While constructing a city from no pre-existing foundation (save a few fishing villages) came with major risks, many factors made this project attractive for private development. With North East Asia’s total combined population of 1.5 billion, one of the world’s best airports, Incheon International Airport, merely 15 minutes away and the fifth best container port, the Port of Pusan, a 30 minute flight away on the southern coast, Songdo is strategically located for an international economic hub. Some even dub it an “aerotropolis” given its proximity to other major centers of trade.
To cultivate a truly free market environment, the government has applied the lessons learned from the successful free trade zone projects across East Asia (eg. Pusan, Shenzhen) and put into place incredibly generous tax exemptions and very light regulations on land use and labor. In line with neoliberal thought, the government’s day-to-day role is limited to providing public goods, which the private market has limited incentive to offer. The government has partnered with private entities and subsidized the creation of new schools and hospitals, and has built government service buildings (e.g. immigration offices) that cater to foreigners.
With a state-of-the-art Songdo School District, top companies like POSCO and Cisco, and several university campuses (e.g. Yonsei and New York State University), the city is poised for rapid growth by attracting a broad range of people: families, young employees and college students. Due to cognizant planning, Songdo was built with the anticipation for growth and expansion. It has multiple layers of smart and sustainable infrastructure that meet the demands of the present and the future. The whole city is LEED certified thanks to its environmentally friendly construction and efficient design features, including a central pneumatic waste disposal system that can accommodate sudden spikes in demand and eliminates the need for garbage pickup. The area uses 20% less water and 14% less electricity than a typical city of a similar size. To manage traffic and growth, the city has 6 major subway stations, an extensive bus system and bike lanes that connect to the rest of South Korea.
But the city is not just a machine of efficiency; civil engineers have also ensured that the city is livable by boosting aesthetic beauty and amenities. These features are critical in preventing the urban decay and flight from city centers that characterize many mature cities such as New Delhi and Pittsburgh that are purely concerned with economic growth at the expense of livability and provision of public amenities. Parks and green areas take up 40% of the ground space, masking Songdo’s density. This is possible because the city is populated exclusively by high-rise and apartment towers, achieving vertical density while limiting the horizontal area. Right in the center of the city is Central Park (inspired by New York) with a long canal (inspired by Venice), where residents can bike, canoe and hike among other activities. Deer and rabbits graze while classical music plays in the background, creating a tranquil oasis surrounded by metropolis. Architecturally the city center is inspired. The crown jewel of Songdo is the 68 story Northeast Trade Tower, the tallest building in South Korea (1001 feet). It is composed of triangular glass planes and symbolizes the modernity of Songdo and Korea.
Songdo is an unprecedented neo-liberal economic experiment that has already become a success. As a smart, compact city, it has strong economic growth potential, well-planned infrastructure and innovative architectural designs. The city reconciles the need for economic growth with the need for city livability and sustainability, ultimately proving that private urban planning can strike a balance. This is particularly crucial given the expansion of cities and construction of new urban spaces all across the developing world, especially in China and India. Songdo’s free market atmosphere and investments in city livability and sustainability attract businesses and people, inadvertently competing against neighboring cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin. Could it be that Songdo is ushering in an era of city competition, where governments and companies strive to build international hubs that attract human capital, investment, and trade? If so, Songdo is blessed with a very advantageous location, as well as a significant head start.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.