USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Life Beneath the Asphalt

Too often times do we associate the act of designing to simply an object and overlook the fact that it is the spaces between the individual objects that begin to shape our experiences. The city essentially is not object oriented in the scale of architecture, but functions as a collective whole with emphasis on the relationships between the various components within it, creating an urban narrative that gives meaning to its people. The existence of public open spaces therefore becomes an important component in stitching the city together and helping it function as a collective whole. One aspect of public open space can be found through the use of landscaped pedestrian walkways within the dense urban context.

Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, discussed in his essay Politics, Power, Cities, the importance of public spaces as an urban equalizer, “In public spaces people meet as equals, stripped bare of their social hierarchies”.  Public pedestrian spaces such as, parks, waterfronts, and promenades are all means to a more inclusive and in turn more collective society. These spaces show respect for human dignity regardless of the level of economic development of a society, and begin to compensate for inequality in other realms. The restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul is a successful case demonstrating how public green spaces have helped change the quality of life of its inhabitants.  Contrary to its current state, during the early fifties, the Cheonggyecheon stream was a terribly filthy, trash-filled waterway when Korea was just beginning to run the course of industrialization.  The stream became so deteriorated that the Korean government had the Cheonggyecheon covered up with concrete in 1958, and ten years later an elevated highway was built over the concrete in order to relieve traffic congestion in the city. For half a century, a dark tunnel of crumbling concrete encased more than three miles of a placid stream that bisects the bustling city, until former Seoul Mayor, Lee Myung-bak decided to liberate the Cheonggyecheon from its dark sheath and revert it back into a stream with green pedestrian corridors surrounding the exposed waters. Today, it has become one of the few places in downtown Seoul where all the citizens of the city can congregate together, you will find children playing with their parents, young couples strolling hand-in-hand, the elderly sitting on the park benches, and even the rich business elite eating lunch in the shade underneath one of the bridges. The stream has not only become a pedestrian space, but also a recreational space, a place for all the citizens of Seoul to enjoy.

However, that is not to say the urban restoration of Cheonggyecheon came easily and without criticisms. The approximate cost for the restoration project was a whopping 384 million USD. It was a major undertaking as not only did they have to remove the highway, but also after years of neglect and development the original stream was nearly dried out – 120,000 tons of water had to be pumped in annually from the Han River, its tributaries, and the groundwater from subways in order to maintain its current state. In addition, there were also tremendous efforts made to compromise with the existing conditions, which involved hundreds of meetings with businesses and residents over a period of two years. The main criticism the project received early on was that it was expensive and an “inefficient” form of urban renewal, because open spaces are essentially not programmed in the architectural sense, cost money to maintain, and have no direct revenue – all values that are deemed inefficient. However, is urbanism only about efficiency? And though it is important, does it have to be defined by completely optimizing efficiency? Quoting Yi, our professor in Seoul, “a city is not only about the performance, but also about the narrative. Performance is only functional, while narrative gives the city meaning”. As an urban equalizer, the Cheonggyecheon does bring about diversity and a greater sense of community for the people of Seoul to work towards a more collective society. One cannot argue the fact that after the Cheonggyecheon restoration project it has not increased the quality of life of its citizens as well as marketed the city of Seoul to the world, as it has become one of the signature landmarks of Seoul that is enjoyed by people of all ages as well as races.

Cheongyecheon stream: a place for people of all ages – a grandfather playing in the stream with his granddaughter

Cheongyecheon: Before and After Comparison

Jeanette C.

Filed under: Collectivism, Landscape, narrative, ,


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu