Daylighting in the Heart of Seoul: The Cheong Gye Cheon Project
April 24, 2009 § 17 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:
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.
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:
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)
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!