A recent EASIN Urban, Transport and DRM Community of Practice (CoP) meeting I attended in Seoul, South Korea was an eye opener in terms of the rapid urban development of the city of Seoul. Considered an East Asian tiger, manufacturing and an export-led economy have made Seoul a global city with neon skylines and the new focus of Asia’s technology boom. A presentation by Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), the agency responsible for the city’s urban planning, describes the city as a ‘strategic space for people to reside in since ancient times’. Nevertheless, the city and its urban identity have gone through various transformations – through the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) to restoration after the Korean war (1950-53) to industrialization (1960s-1970s) to development and globalization. In SMG’s words, Seoul is witnessing the ‘environmental and historical awakening as a world city’. Evidence of this was seen in sites I visited to the restored Cheonggyecheon stream and a former landfill converted to Haneul Park.
Presentations and conversations with our Korean counterparts spoke of a pride in the city’s urban façade and identity. However, this was not always the case. The restoration of Cheonggyecheon was as much a political as an environmental reality with Lee Myung-Bak winning elections to be the Mayor of Seoul on this platform. Among other challenges, the project that involved tearing down the Samil elevated expressway that stood in place of Cheonggyecheon incurred protests from vendors and small businesses whose livelihoods depended on sales from the expressway traffic. The project went ahead, and once completed, Cheonggyecheon was hailed as an instant national and international urban and economic success. Not surprisingly, this played a huge factor in Myung-Bak’s election as the President of Korea in 2007.
So how did Korea make this work? What is impressive about the Korean experience is not just the ‘what’ but ‘how’ they did it, i.e., taking an adaptive rather than a technical approach to the problem. Lee Myung-Bak’s political will, coalition building and dispute negotiation skills with different interest groups are especially noteworthy when making a politically risky decision to tear down the expressway built by his own former company – Hyundai. Although it was not apparent then, Cheonggyecheon’s transformation had spillover effects in terms of economic and urban development. An example is the construction of the 14.5 kilometer BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) line that reduced automobile use by half and improved congested traffic conditions in Seoul. Perhaps most importantly for Korea, as I saw it, the definition of progress moved from growth at all costs (noticeable by skyscrapers and freeways) to a sustainable development model.
Sustainable development is an approach to economic growth that looks at development without compromising the needs and effects for future generations. In this context, Cheonggyecheon has attracted tremendous economic growth, in a sustainable manner. Cheonggyecheon incorporated economic need with the social and environmentally conscious fabric, transforming the area into an environmentally friendly, aesthetically pleasing, open space built for pedestrians, while still attracting new businesses, foreign investment and tourism to Seoul. During 2002-2003, the number of businesses around the area increased by 3.5%, and today, the stream attracts an average of 64,000 visitors daily.
When juxtaposed with other Asian examples of urban growth, such as many thriving cities in China where economic growth was achieved but arguably at a longer-term environmental cost, Cheonggyecheon can be considered a success story because it achieved economic growth with a mindset that did not simply shift environmental and social costs to be left for the future.
What is the lesson for development practitioners like us? The challenge of Cheonggyecheon was a ‘wicked’ problem  (a complex problem without a simple solution), with political, economic, social and environmental ramifications.
And ‘wicked’ problems need problem-driven iterative adaption  (Andrews, Pritchett, Woolcock ‘12) — local innovations to find a local solution to a specific problem in a local context. The key word is local. In this regard, Lee Myung-Bak and his team’s efforts to get buy-in from various local political and economic interest groups, utilize local knowledge and expertise to build the stream (the planning was done by the Seoul Development Institute) and his political position as leverage was key to the success of the project.
Korea’s experience has two key lessons. The first suggests that environmentally conscious projects and economic development are not mutually exclusive. In fast developing cities in Asia, sustainable development is key to not just longer-term, but shorter- and medium-term benefits as well. Second, Cheonggyecheon shows us the power of governments to shape the growth agenda and successfully carry through its implementation. In the World Bank where we have a responsibility in shaping a ‘sustainable’ growth story, Cheonggyecheon offers a beacon of hope.