Seoul: on course to be one of the world's greenest cities?

By greening up its act, Seoul is setting an example to the rest of South Korea
By greening up its act, Seoul is setting an example to the rest of South Korea

By greening up its act, Seoul sets an example to South Korea

Seoul, host of this year's G20, is well on the way to achieving its goal of becoming one of the world's most eco-friendly cities. But, as Anna Sheldrick reports, there may be room for improvement elsewhere in South Korea

Despite the disappointment of COP15 in Copenhagen last year, and wary expectation for COP16 in Cancun this year, delegates at the latest G20 (Group of 20 major economies) meeting in Seoul earlier this month reaffirmed their commitment to fighting climate change. World leaders there said they would spare no effort to reach a balanced and successful outcome in Cancun’.

Had they taken note of their surroundings, they would have seen what can be achieved with a little political will and some genuine commitment to the environment. By redesigning its road layout and revamping its public transport systems, the South Korean capital is now bidding to become one of the greenest cities in the world.

It's certainly come a long way since the 1960s and 1970s, when South Korea went through an industrial boom that took it from being the second-poorest nation in the UN to one of the richest. The sudden increase in its wealth did not come without consequences, however, and in the early 1980s people began to notice the impact that this economic growth was having on the environment.

Over the past decade South Korea, and particularly the capital city Seoul, has taken drastic steps to try to reduce the amount of pollution it creates and to curb its reliance on fossil fuels. This has involved taking small steps and attempting to re-educate a money-fixated culture. Seeing large roads and old buildings being demolished in the capital, not all South Koreans have agreed with what is happening in Seoul. Its citizens are slowly beginning to reap the benefits, however, as the health and economic benefits of turning their heavily polluted city into a green haven become apparent.


In 2008, Seoul’s mayor, Oh Se-Hoon, announced that he was determined to make Seoul one of the world’s greenest metropolitan centres and an example to the C40 formely the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group of which Seoul is a member. In an article for the UN’s Urban World magazine in 2009, Oh said that he planned to get Seoul to reduce energy use by 20 per cent, reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent and increase the use of renewable energy by 20 per cent, all by 2030.

Since taking office in July 2006, Oh and the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) have worked hard to tackle one of Seoul’s biggest problems: air pollution. Over the past few decades, satellite towns have sprung up around the capital, increasing the use of private cars.

Population growth may have slowed down since the 1980s, but the population of Seoul over the past decade has nevertheless risen from 9.8 million in 2000 to nearly 10.5 million people in 2010. Car-ownership has also increased: in 2003, 215 in every 1,000 South Koreans owned a car; by 2005 that figure had risen to 319. This gives some indication of how numbers will have grown in the past five years, with those of Seoul often higher than the national average.

Despite efforts by the SMG to encourage the use of greener cars, the sheer number of vehicles on the street has cancelled out any effort to reduce air pollution. Until recently the regulations to tackle exhaust fumes were almost non-existent, making cars one of the greatest causes of air pollution in the city. The increase in particulates over the decades led to a rise in respiratory infections, with the life-expectancy in Seoul approximately five years lower than elsewhere in South Korea.

In order to tackle this problem, Oh reduced fares on Seoul’s Metro and bus systems to the equivalent of less than £1, and made plans to connect the ever-growing satellite towns to central Seoul by building seven new train lines to be incorporated into the Metro and overground systems. In 2008 Seoul had already converted it’s 72,000-strong taxi fleet to run on liquefied petroleum gas instead of petrol, while this year saw Seoul's fleet of buses complete the move from diesel to compressed natural gas. This push to become an example to the C40 cities led to a 10 per cent decrease in air particles in 2008 alone, a drop of more than 90 per cent since records started in 1980.

The SMG also initiated a complete revamp of the bus network, and with help from Korean Air has introduced a limousine bus service between Incheon international airport and various locations in Seoul that rivals the train and taxi services in speed and price. This has helped dramatically reduce the amount of congestion on the roads, as citizens swap their cars for cheap, reliable public transport.

A city within a park

Our goal is to create a metropolis that can practically be regarded as a city within a park,’ wrote Oh in Urban World. In some parts of the city, large-scale green parks will be created and small spaces in residential areas will be used to create small parks.’

Oh’s goal is well on its way to being achieved, with derelict buildings and roads converted into miles of parks or pedestrianised walkways. One such project has been the redevelopment of the flood-control banks on the Han river, which runs through Seoul. These concrete barriers have been torn up and replaced with plants and sports fields that are capable of withstanding flooding during monsoon season.

But perhaps the biggest change has been the restoration of the old Cheonggyecheon stream, which cuts east to west across the city. Neglected and highly polluted, the authorities began to cover it over in 1958 in a bid to remove an eyesore and the stench emitting from its dirty waters. In the 1970s, a raised four-lane highway was completed on top of the stream, by then completely concreted-over. Used by more than 120,000 cars a day and often gridlocked, the highway was a major contributor to air pollution.

When the ambitious project to uncover and rejuvenate Cheonggyecheon was announced in 2003 by then-mayor Lee Myung-bak, it was met with huge opposition from citizens and businesses. Work continued regardless and the stream was opened to the public in 2005, complete with plants and fish that have since flourished. While there are still doubts about the sustainability of the stream – environmentalists argue that more attention should be paid to the ecological regeneration of the waterway, rather than its use as a means of urban regeneration it has become a hit with locals and tourists alike.

The rest of Korea

There is also concern that the rest of South Korea may be less committed than its capital to environmental issues – certainly its policies abroad leave some doubts. Korea is the one of the world’s biggest outsourcers of food production, for example, having bought large amounts of land in Madagascar and Sudan to grow crops; as its population grows and space decreases, its homegrown agrilculture is unable to keep up with demand.

Intensive farming is an issue, too: South Korea farms chickens, pigs, cattle, dogs and, in some areas, Asian black bears; their rearing for Chinese medicines is illegal but there are still farms hidden away in the more secluded areas of the country. There are few organic animal farms, as the focus is firmly upon feeding a growing population rather than on the quality of food and its impact on the environment.

In a bid to revive its ecological systems, it has developed the Four Major Rivers restoration project, which the authorities say will guarantee water security, flood control and ecosystem vitality. In reality it will involve the damming up and dredging of 600km of South Korea's four major rivers, and the destruction of acres of wetland that are home to many endangered bird species.

But with Seoul leading by example, setting a standard not only for South Korea's other metropolitan centres but also for its Asian neighbours, city councils and regular citizens are beginning to take notice of environmental matters, and making every effort to clean up the mess they made during the mad industrial boom of the late 20th century.

Anna Sheldrick is a freelance journalist

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