Daylighting in the Heart of Seoul: The Cheong Gye Cheon Project

April 24, 2009 § 18 Comments

Last week I attended the standing-room only talk entitled “The Cheong Gye Cheong: a good example of sustainable development” by Dr. In-Keun Lee.  Dr. Lee is the Assistant Mayor for Infrastructure for Seoul, South Korea.

For many years I’ve used the following pair of images when I speak about the future of the Los Angeles River:

The Cheong Gye Cheon - Before

The Cheong Gye Cheon - Before

The Cheong Gye Cheon - After

The Cheong Gye Cheon - After

That pair of pictures are worth a couple thousand words… but I will add another couple thousand words to tell you more about the project that I learned about the project at Dr. Lee’s talk – and some of its implications for Los Angeles.  It’s a somewhat familiar story, echoing many aspects of river projects throughout the world – but inspiring in scope and in the rapidity in which it was accomplished. 

The Cheong Gye Cheong about 100 years ago (image from Seoul City Website)

Laundry and bathing in the Cheong Gye Cheong about 100 years ago (from Seoul city website)

Cheong Gye Cheon means more-or-less “clear stream creek.”   The Cheong Gye Cheon runs through the heart of the city, and is a tributary to the much larger Han River.

The Cheong Gye Cheon has its history of flooding, dredging, straightening, and plenty of other degredation as a consequence of intensive human development in its watershed.

In the 1950’s, while some folks in Los Angeles were “improving” our river by adding tons of concrete, Seoul decided to solve their stream’s issues (mostly related to sanitation) by concreting over their creek.  Cheong Gye Stream became Cheong Gye Road.  In the 1970’s, to add insult to injury, the Cheong Gye Freeway was added atop the road atop the buried creek.

In 2002, an ambitious mayor (now president of Korea), Lee Myung-bak, was elected after campaigning on a promise to restore the Cheong Gye Cheon.  From 2002 to 2005, at a cost of about $380 million (U.S.), the city tore down the freeway, ripped out the road, and daylighted 6 kilometers (about 4 miles) of their stream.

The primary opposition to the project was from businesses and drivers who feared traffic congestion… to address this, the city invested in public transportation, including creating bus-only lanes and pedestrian bridges, reforming parking policies, etc.  Per Dr. Lee, Seoul embraced a “paradigm shift… from car to human-oriented street.”   Many merchants are pretty happy now to be next to the “most preferred destination” in all of Korea.

An interesting feature that Dr. Lee showed that I hadn’t seen before are these pillars rising in the middle of the stream:

Ancient Pillars in the Cheong Gye Cheon (photo by Steve)

Ancient Pillars in the Cheong Gye Cheon (photo by Steve)

They are indeed remnants of (and reminders of the folly of) the  former highway that occupied the space.  I think that these sorts of leave-behinds create interesting historical interactions.  Another example of this is Northside Park in Denver, Colorado.  Designed by Wenk Associates, the new river park has some remnants of concrete structures from a former sewage treatment plant.

There a lots of beautiful features: art installations, signature bridges (many just for pedestrians), and even these wonderfully ancient-feeling stone step bridges: (note the side step in the middle, just in case two people meet in mid-crossing and one needs to step to the side)

Stepping Stone Bridge across the Cheong Gye Cheon (from Seoul city website)

Stepping Stone Bridge across the Cheong Gye Cheon (from Seoul city website)

The city has studied the project and found increases in fish, bird and insect diversity,  and also in property values.  Even though I think that this is a great project, I will pass along some criticisms.  The water in the stream is actually pumped from the Han River; it’s highly treated to ensure that it’s safe.  This is good for the public interacting with it… so it doesn’t function so much as a drainage… but more as a water feature… though it’s clearly dramatically better habitat than the double-deck freeway had been!  There also appears to have been a fair amount of gentrification and displacement.

Nonetheless, the story of the Cheong Gye Cheon is inspiring.  It’s a very dramatic transformation.  There’s lots of documentation online – from virtual tours to videos to history to how the engineering works – all available in English – at Seoul’s official Cheong Gye Cheon website.  You can even get your own commemorative Cheong Gye Cheon sports towel (to my friends and family – I’m putting you on notice that I’d love one of those for my birthday.)

Lastly, here are a couple lessons that I think we draw from this that apply to Los Angeles:

Vertical Channel Walls:
   The cross-section seems very smart – vertical channel walls, with paths below grade, accessible via ramps.  This allows for a great deal of flood capacity, with good access and visibility.  I suspect that it also creates a fairly cool and quiet place.  This sort of configuration could make sense for many places on the L.A. River (and Arroyo Seco, Rio Hondo, Ballona Creek, etc.) where there are currently sloped walls and very constrained rights-of-way.  Places like downtown Los Angeles.

Use of Street Right-of-Way: 
   Many parts of the L.A. River (and other local waterways) are constrained by freeways and streets.  Naturalization generally requires more right-of-way than the river currently has.  The more vegetated the channel is, the rougher it is, hence the roughness slows down the water, decreasing flood capacity.  To restore vegetation in the riverbed, we will need a wider channel to maintain flood capacity.
   In my dreams, I say that we take out at least a few lanes of the 5 Freeway from Griffith Park through Frogtown… and of the 710 Freeway from Vernon to the Pacific Ocean… and of the 110 Freeway from South Pasadena to Lincoln Heights!!!
  More realistically we might be able to narrow streets like Valley Heart from Studio City to Sherman Oaks and Avenue 19 from the River Center to the old City Jail.  Use that additional right-of-way to create more natural and more pedestrian-oriented green space.  Let’s do it! 


Enjoy the clean safe cheongyecheon!


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§ 18 Responses to Daylighting in the Heart of Seoul: The Cheong Gye Cheon Project

  • Vanessa says:

    This is a great blog! Thanks for creating such an informative resource. I moved to LA a few months ago from Berkeley and I’ve been enjoying exploring LA including its various waterways. I live in Culver City and have been using the Ballona Creak bike path a fair amount – I also did a FOLAR walking tour last weekend in the Glendale Narrows. All the concrete is truly horrible, but I think the rivers and creeks here are exciting because they have so much potential. I’m looking forward to exploring and learning more about LA’s waterways!

  • paul bournhonesque says:

    안녕하세요 creek freak!
    I loved the posting. I lived in Seoul from 2003 to 2006 during which time I saw the full transition of the Cheong Gye Cheon.

    Dark and dirty, even during the day. Black, car pollution of diesel and tire dust coating everything. On a rainy day it was just like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner environment, only more crowded. Sidewalks constricted by double parked trucks on one side and street vendors crowding the other leaving only a 1.5 ~ 1 meter for pedestrians to maneuver through. In order to increase the traffic flow for cars, crosswalks had been closed, and pedestrian bridges were built relegating foot traffic to large, green painted steel staircases which sprouted up out of the sidewalks (taking up more precious sidewalk space). They rose up to tunneled walkways crossing under the raised roadway. Once in the wintertime I saw a grandmother slip and fall while descending one of these pedestrian bridges because it was iced up.

    Now motorcycle delivery guys sit on bridge benches along side with business women and men drinking after lunch coffee in the sunshine. Down in the creek there is daylight and air and green, all bathed in the wonderful sound of water which is only drowned out at times by chatter of the large volume of people that might be enjoying the environment with you as well. Some places have water shows shoot up out of the creek with illuminating colored lights, but other places have native plants and calm waters. From bridge or creek path you can see fish.

    The impact of this project in the larger context of Seoul may be difficult for non-Seoulites to understand. The Cheong Gye Cheon runs through the old part of Seoul, which has been forsaken for decades as corruption and money grubbing real estate developers focused resources and energies on other areas. Those new “modern” developments, while mostly concrete jungle environments, do have some green spaces with benches and trees and grassy areas from where people can see the sky. In the old part of Seoul, outside of some remaining palaces, it was hard to find anything green other than green painted steel girders or the green flash of 10,000 won notes passing between shopkeepers and customers. It was past due for people to pay little attention to the old part of the city.
    As ugly as the old place sounds, I confess that I miss a part of that environment and its people. Tucked underneath one of those staircases was an Ajuma (Korean “auntie”) who sold, from her illegal street cart, the best “spicy chicken sticks” I have ever eaten. I learned a lot of Korean from her and her customers as we stood by the smoky grill on freezing winter nights, shouting over the rumbling, booming roadway and the shrieking of the horns. However, the pre-restoration environment was a place which most people avoided, the restored creek environment is a magnet, that draws people to it as all rivers and creeks naturally do. This is now reflected in the local language as I noticed when I was there in the summer of 2008 and heard people giving others who were lost directions by saying, “go down here, and pass the creek, and continue to…”. It is the new point of reference. It is the once blackhole that everyone tried to avoid, transformed into a new sun which draws people in.

  • Joe Linton says:

    Wow! Thanks for the first hand account, my friend, Paul. I want to go visit!

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  • Zane Selvans says:

    River rights-of-way with vertical walls + ramps and stairs do indeed create a wonderfully quiet pocket of sanity in the middle of a busy city. The Cherry Creek Path in downtown Denver is arranged just like this, with a pedestrian path on one side, and a bike/skate path on the other. Going down there is like dropping out of the city altogether. Cycling around Denver on the creek and river paths, even ten or twenty or thirty miles at a time, is extremely relaxing. If by any chance you haven’t checked them out as one possible instantiation of the kind of system you’d like to see in LA (and I suspect you have) I highly recommend it. And I can hook you up with a free place to stay too 🙂

  • Zane Selvans says:

    Also… I don’t know if you have a soft spot for sci-fi or monster flicks, but if you do, The Host is a surprisingly good movie, set in Seoul along the Han River. It’s as much about Korean family values and the weird post-war relationship which still drags on between Korea and the US as it is about polluted rivers giving rise to giant man eating amphibians…

  • Gabi says:


    Please, I would like to know who has shot the two first pictures of this post (before – after) because I want to use these and cite the author.

    Thank you very much!

  • Claudia says:

    I would like to use the picture “The Cheong Gye Cheon – before” in an education project. Could you, please, say me who is the photographer? It’s urgent and important.
    Best regards.

  • juliadelrieu says:

    A great project was proposed to restore New York city freshwaters with Oysters
    you can read more here or check the Oystertecture video on TED!
    Great blog!

  • Melina Watts says:

    This project happened because a mayoral candidate made it a campaign promise that it would come to pass. And then he got elected. ❤

  • […],, KCET, LA Creek Freak, Inhabitat, Landscape Architecture Foundation, Discovering Korea Share […]

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