South Korea’s Dream City

by Jasmine Lau:

Joseph Chung, a 27-year-old venture capitalist from California and president of the Thalas business network, arrived at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport. Three-quarters of an hour later, he had passed through customs, cut across several jagged islands on a superhighway, and arrived at New Songdo City. This brand-new urban center is an ambitious development project, partially government-sponsored, partially privately funded, and aims to become an Asian international hub rivaling Hong Kong and Singapore.

Begun only nine years ago, Songdo has begun to take shape, garnering the attention of environmentalists, urban design experts, and businessmen worldwide. Combining high-tech with green design, this master-planned city, set for completion in 2015, already features rows of energy-efficient buildings, 125 kilometers of bicycle lanes, and a system of electric water taxis for transporting people along the salt-water canals. “The whole feel [of the city] is that it’s very cutting edge,” said Chung, who serendipitously stumbled upon Songdo a few years ago and has since become involved with its development. “I think companies, especially forward-thinking ones, would love this place.”

A computer-generated model of Central Park's salt-water canal. The canal is designed to accomodate a system of electric water taxis, offering a clean and fun alternative mode of transportation. (Courtesy Flickr/Creative Commons)


Chung joins both native Koreans and international entrepreneurs drawn by the vibrant, avant-garde image of the city, a style he likes to call “eco-art” because its economic vision has been developed with an eye towards ecological and artistic concerns. The window in his hotel room gives Chung a panoramic view of the central city district, which he showed me via webcam. Cranes still litter the skyline, but many of Songdo’s signature landmarks are visible in the hazy winter morning light: the 100-acre lush green Central Park, the architecturally stunning Convensia Convention Center, and the soaring Northeast Asia Trade Tower, the tallest building in South Korea. The Korean government has entrusted to New York real estate company Gale International. Costing $35 billion, Songdo is the largest private real estate venture in history.

Songdo’s designers have had a completely blank canvas on which to implement their vision. “It’s much easier to design a sustainable city from the ground up than retrofit an existing city,” said rachel Keeton of International New Town Institute, a Netherlands research center that studies planned communities. Songdo makes use of this advantage. It incorporates efficient waste and water recycling systems that would be impossible for an existing city to install, completely eliminating the use of garbage trucks. It also features ubiquitous wi-fi and a system of smart-cards that pay for everything from parking meters to movie tickets, offering efficiency packaged in futuristic glamour.

Beyond the glitzy amenities, Songdo’s commitment to sustainability is firmly grounded. Songdo is the first urban area to seek LEED-ND (Leadership in Energy and Environmental design for Neighborhood development) certification, an American rating system for energy conservation, for an entire city. “This measurability is the most important factor in claiming to be a sustainable city. One has to have a way of gauging success,” said Keeton. She explained that many cities claim to be carbon-neutral, but that they measure this in rather disingenuous ways. Adopting an international rating system and embracing a commitment to measurability, she said, has made Songdo’s green aspirations “seem pretty sound.”

Challenges of a Planned City

Songdo is not the first grandiose urban agglomeration to be planned from scratch, bypassing the decades or centuries of evolution normally required to turn a cluster of villages into a living, breathing metropolis. The history of new town planning has been around forever, and has a mixed track record. Washington d.C., built on the Potomac river at a site selected by George Washington, was once a new town. So was Brasília, the capital of Brazil, whose sprawling slums and atmosphere of cultural hollowness have made it an oft-cited example of failed central planning. Even the most well thought-out designs cannot plan for all of the inexhaustibly complex activities and patterns that characterize organic cities.

Among Songdo’s visiting evaluators is dan Hill, a senior consultant at the Arup project consulting firm. Though impressed by the progress of the city, he remarked that its lack of diversity and complexity could be a problem. While he reviewed most of Songdo’s development positively, he commented on the homogeneity of the streets and the general arid framework and suggested that the projects need to be smaller, more adaptable and responsive so that the city’s “initial built fabric [could] become porous, encrusted, overgrown, transient and entwined with smaller constructions as it develops.”  Otherwise, a city life as vibrant as “a street ballet dance” will be unlikely to emerge. It is important that Songdo avoid falling into the trap of being built as a completed and self-contained showroom, leaving no latitude for addition, subtraction or modification.

Recruiting Big Business

“From the infrastructure standpoint, we have a great story to tell,” Tom Murcott, vice president of Gale International, said with pride. Yet to achieve Songdo’s goal of joining the ranks of Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore, building a glorious shell will not be enough. Both Murcott and Charles reid, executive vice president of design and construction for the Songdo project at Gale, admitted that one of the major challenges Songdo currently faces is getting international corporations to move their headquarters or regional headquarters to Songdo. “You have to get a certain critical mass,” said reid, before businesses will start feeling comfortable enough to relocate their headquarters to Songdo. So far, the only big companies that have committed are POSCO Inc., a steel company that partnered with Gale in Songdo’s development, and Cisco.

Murcott spoke of a “two-pronged” marketing strategy, targeting both domestic and international markets. Government cooperation is essential. “We need a consistent favorable regulatory economic package by the government,” said Murcott. Negotiations with the government are still in progress. reid said that, although he didn’t expect the government to lift all taxes on the city, “unless the government comes up with a plausible tax break program, we’re not going to be successful.”

Government Nudges

Others believe that even with tax breaks, creating a new international business district will not be as easy as it sounds. Hailing from the “rival” city of Hong Kong, Tsang Zhong Wing, vice president and chief writer for the Hong Kong Economics Times, took a more criti-cal stance on Songdo. despite having “sophisticated hardware” like green technology and hi-tech facilities, Tsang predicted that Songdo’s face will depend on the quality of “its software, which cannot be engineered in a day.” Tax breaks are just one factor; a flexible economic environment, high transparency, good legal support, and insurance systems are also crucial. Tsang pointed towards South Korea’s traditional focus on manufacturing and research and development and posited that it would take some time for the country to develop the legal infrastructure and human capital to create a new nexus for Asian trade along the lines of Singapore or Hong Kong.

That isn’t to say that the government isn’t trying. With China’s turbo-charged economy lending it increasing influence in the region, South Korea, Asia’s traditional industrial powerhouse, is determined not to be left behind. In addition to creating business metropolises from scratch, the government has formed a series of special economic zones to encourage foreign investment in a break from its former protectionist stance. Most Koreans have felt the change in the economic tide — one of Songdo’s residents, dong-hee Lee, remarked that the city was planned as a response to China’s growing economy. Because Korea cannot compete with China in production, Songdo focuses more on service industries and technologies.

Nicholas Kwan, who studies East Asia’s macroeconomic develop-ment as leader of Standard Chartered Bank’s Asia research team, noted that Korea has a long history of targeting specific industries and developing through specially designated areas. “What really determines sustainable success of an international business pro-posal is whether it can develop its unique comparative advantage,” Kwan said. He pointed to past successes in industries such as iron, steel, automobiles, and semi-conductors — all fields that involve the skilled labor, research and development capacity, and export orientation that have made Korean manufacturing famous. He believes that given Korea’s relatively large size and highly developed, one trillion dollar economy, Songdo will eventually attract reasonable interest from international business. But will the planned city live up to its founders’ expectations by fusing advanced urban design and green technology to become a model twenty-first century city? Its designers must surely lay awake at night, wondering if they will be remembered as Korea’s George Washingtons or as the culprits behind yet another Brasília.

Jasmine Lau ’12 is an Economics and International Studies double major in Calhoun College.