Sejong City parkland

City centre of the future?

I’m spending a fortnight observing the birth – or at least the toddlerhood – of a brand new city. In fact, I might even be witnessing the birth of a new type of city.

But more of that later. Let’s start with some background. The city is called Sejong. It is being built on previously agricultural land in the centre of South Korea, and should house half a million people when it’s finished (2030). So far, only one neighbourhood is fully built and occupied, with around 25,000 residents. For the time being, it lacks various services, but the residents I’ve spoken to are confident that these will come in good time; on the whole, they seem very optimistic about its future.

Why build a new city? Mainly because Seoul has long been understood as too congested, with over half the country’s population living in its metro area.  The strategic policy aim, to which Sejong will contribute, is to create a more ‘balanced national development’.  In terms of industries and employment, it is hoped that Sejong will work with several other nearby R&D centres (including, most notably, the city of Daejeon) to form a hi-tech cluster.  To help it on its way, most of the country’s civil service has already been moved here – around 10,000 staff have been relocated (and not all were happy about this).

Sejong in South Korea

At ground level, Sejong might seem like a giant children’s playground – but I mean that in a good way. There are children playing and cycling everywhere, small parks and playgrounds, streams and rivers.  I like this – I can’t help agreeing with the old idea that if you design a city with children in mind, the rest will follow. I’m sure I would have loved being a child here.  The primary schools, too, are excellent, with state-of-the-art facilities.

The colossal expense of building Sejong – borne by the state – makes it unrepeatable in Korea, and unreplicable as a wholesale development model in most countries. So when I describe it as a ‘new type of city’, I’m thinking of something more specific: its ring-shaped layout.  While cities in the US have long been concerned about the ‘doughnut effect’ (whereby the city centre falls into decay and all the business and retail moves out to the suburbs), Sejong is planned deliberately not to have a city centre.  The aim is to avoid reproducing Seoul-like congestion.

How will this work?  Well, first, a frequent rapid transit bus will run all the way round the city, taking 40 minutes to do a complete loop. In theory, therefore, people can get to anywhere else in the city within 20 minutes without using a car.  At the same time, the city is not unfriendly to cars; vast underground parking garages are provided, with more than one space per household provided. As one civil servant explained to me, it is unrealistic to wish away people’s love of the car, but this way at least they also have other choices; as well as buses, the city is very cycle- and pedestrian-friendly.  Instead of a city centre, there is a lake and a large – and very beautiful – park.

Sejong City

The built part, meanwhile, is very compact (many buildings are 25 storeys tall).  The rationale for high-density urban development is of course well-established: it leads to greater resource efficiency (another central government goal, given recent power blackouts and a growing environmental conscience), and it makes services and public transport more viable and easily accessible.  Since tall residential buildings are very common in Korea already, there is no huge cultural barrier to be overcome in this respect.  On the minus side, high density development may lead to congestion at street level – especially if people still want to own and drive cars – and this congestion is most felt in the city centre.  In theory, then, the ring structure will provide all the benefits of compact living, but without the downsides.

A traditional city lover, though, might argue that congestion isn’t all bad.  Don’t we rather like our congested city centres? Okay, they may be inefficient, and lead to everyday frustrations. But doesn’t congestion create the urban ‘buzz’?  Don’t we need a critical mass of people in one place if we want things like large department stores to open?  Haven’t niche retailers and service providers traditionally been more viable in city centres?  Aren’t city centres often places where peripheral social groups can recognise fellow souls?  Where political protestors gather, so as to be visible?  From this perspective, the emphasis on mobility and ‘quality of life’ may mean that Sejong will lack ‘cityness’.

Seoul in the early evening

‘Cityness’ Korea-style: Seoul in the early evening

But I’m worried that this perspective reflects a rather narrow view of what a city should be. Perhaps ‘cityness’ is more a descriptive than a necessarily aspirational quality. It may well be the case anyway that Sejong will develop various city-like functions, but that these won’t all be in the same place.  And is it really such a big deal if Sejong only has some of the characteristics of a traditional big city?  It may not have universal appeal – the typical residents so far are married couples in their 30s with small children. But maybe we shouldn’t always assume that cities have to be all things to all people; in practice, their appeal is always constrained in some ways. People still have choices to live elsewhere, and – as one of my interviewees put it – “that’s democracy”.

But there are two possible ways, as I see it, in which the planners’ intentions may be subverted. First, a de facto centre may emerge as the city takes on its own life – perhaps in the already built (south-western) part – leaving the rest relatively isolated. More confusing, I think, is the possibility that the decentralisation of the city will simply negate the gains made by densification; paradoxically, it may end up both compact and dispersed. Can the ring-shaped city work, then, as a model for development elsewhere? Should it, as I have suggested, be thought of as a new type of city? I can only echo the words of one official that I interviewed: “we’ll see. It’s an experiment”.

old house in Sejong City

The old (one of the few remaining traditional houses in the central park area)…

The new - Sejong City 1

…and the new.

9 June 2014, Sejong City