A Visit to Songdo

Songdo Panorama

Songdo is the sensational urban development project of Incheon on reclaimed land at the western coast of South Korea. I follow the development and news articles about Songdo since a year or more. So I’ve went there with some certain expectations of a modern, green city, which is friendly to pedestrians. But I didn’t get the feeling like the short documentary  “Cities of Future: Songdo” by Cisco and an article by the Washington Post want to present.

I’ve got out at the station Central Park of Incheon line no. 1. The English name of the station was written in big letters on the sign, the Korean word (which is just an anglicism) was subordinated. A little bit strange, but it shows the international flair of Songdo, which is called “송도국제도시” (Songdo International City). Besides Songdo is part of the Incheon free economic zone (IFEZ). The area around the station is still in development. I followed a sign for tourists to a view point of the Incheon bridge. Unfortunately, the weather was very blurry and so I couldn’t see the bridge. However, I like the design with containers of the observation desk. It is very typical for an international port and it represents for what Incheon originally stands for.

20130112_142422My visit was on a Saturday and the streets have been empty (except for trucks). I don’t believe that the traffic looks different on the other days, as this part of Songdo still waits for development. The next picture shows the Posco Towers and a motorway bridge over the central park and they mark the current edge of the developed area.

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In the front of the picture is the frozen canal and on the right side is the performance hall.

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It’s truly one of the  highlights with such an exceptional structure. It looks like a spaceship. Performances are on the second and third floor inside of this structure.

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Already as I got out of the subway, I saw these posters hanging on the top floors of the skyscraper complex:

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The first one says: “악덕기업 포스코 건설! 참는데도 한계가 있다!” and it means “Vicious enterprise Posco Constructions! We’ve endured a lot, but there is a limit!”. The second poster says: “추워서 못살겠다! 포스코 건설은 이중창을 설치하라!”, the translation would be “It’s so cold that we can’t live here. Build double windows, Posco Construction!”. The third poster adds: “입주민을 무시하는 포스코 건설은 각성하라!”, it says in English: “Posco Construction, which ignores the residents, wake up (=start to act)!”. I didn’t expect to see something like that. Especially not in Songdo, where some buildings were built very energy-efficient and the whole city is built according to LEED standards. After this visit, I saw a news report about the situation in the buildings. The apartments have only one glass and the area directly under the windows is frozen due to the cold air.  That’s really a big issue.
Right next to these complex of three buildings, are another three buildings. The architecture of these buildings is really great:

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The main symbol of Songdo is the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, here on the right:

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The park offers a lot of great things: book station, where you can take books, a deer farm, a rabbit island and a lot of walking paths with a changing surface. The visitors were a mix of day trip tourists like me and locals with and without children. The park is very large and well designed. There is a lot to see and to experience. Sometimes, I would’ve wished more practical ways, which would allow more short-cuts and choice.

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I left the Central Park of Songdo and at a crossing I spotted the bike path. I expected to see a large network as it is is an essential point of an sustainable city. It was the first time that I’ve noticed the bike path network. In the Central Park I didn’t see anything, but it could have been that it was covered under the snow. The bike path was very disappointing. At least, the bike path makes it easy to cross the street. but then the path disappears in the sidewalk.

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Cars also ignore the bike crossings and they stop at the signal and block the bike path. This is a general problem in Korea (that car drivers ignore everything and everybody).

20130112_153115At the Campus Town Station there was a bike rack but it was full and so, I would say that it is too small for the demand. Except from the points I’ve described, the bike network and facilities in Songdo doesn’t differ to the majority of cities in South Korea. One thing that I totally missed in Songdo: a bike sharing system. If the city really wants to be an outstanding example of sustainability ad how cities in the future should look like, such things aren’t allow to be missing. As well as stations to recharge electric cars!
Then I’ve went to the current geographic center of Songdo. Although there have been offices on some floors in each building, it was primarily a residential area. Everything was really nicely arranged and the buildings formed some kind of harmony.

20130112_153328Such areas are only able to exist because they have an extended underground parking system. It is very efficient in terms of space but underground parking is expensive due to high construction costs and running costs for energy and ventilation.

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I hope the next picture shows what I mean with harmony.

20130112_155039Due to the cold weather, there haven’t been a lot of people in the urban space of the complex. Probably that’s the reason why I missed some kind of urbanity in that area.
20130112_154350There is one more park, which was also very nice, and there have been a lot of families because there are a lot of apartments and schools close by. The apartment can’t be older than five years but they are already in a bad shape, as you can see it in the background.
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Besides, they totally don’t harmonize with the image of Songdo. I don’t know if these apartment buildings have some special features from the inside, but from outside they look like regular apartment buildings with a design of pre-2000. The last part of my walk went through one more normal apartment complex area. I doubted for a short time that this area and the area above are part of such a great aspect. Of course, it is important to have a diversified social structure and not only high-class, luxurious apartments for the upper class. As Singapore shows, public housing can look very good and it can have a very unique, well-developed character as well.

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Conclusion

In conclusion, I have to say that Songdo isn’t an ordinary new city of South Korea at all. Everything, what a city needs, is there. But everything could have been executed a little bit better. However, it was built from scratch. There wasn’t even land before there. The majority of places has a great design. Sometimes the design seems to be more important than practical aspects like I discussed with the walking routes through the park. Throughout the two hours of walk I can’t remember that I’ve walked any stairs. That’s really well accomplished. It makes walking very comfortable, but so sometimes the routes are longer. However, the area is too large to be able to walk any place.

What I’ve learned from my visit is that it isn’t easy to build up a whole city from scratch. Some areas need revision and others need more dialogue (Posco and the apartment tenants). Songdo shows diversity and harmony. After my visit, I promised to myself that I’ll go there again in summer of 2014. At that time, the development will be even more advanced and the impression of Songdo may differ in the summer.

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About Nikola
Grad Student of Geography at Seoul National University, interested in transport and urban planning.

13 Responses to A Visit to Songdo

  1. sb8636 says:

    I was in Songdo in 2011. Here are my thoughts:

    – Streets are too wide for good walkability. (Same problem as many 신도시)
    – Too hard to get there from the (Incheon) airport, despite the geographical proximity.

    See this page: http://songdoibd.tistory.com/m/post/view/id/216

    Taking the subway takes WAY too long, and even taxis are . Airport bus is not the greatest since you have to wait awhile to take it, then it only drops off in a few places while Songdo is a very large area.

    Really, if the government wants Songdo to become a major destination of foreign investment, I think there needs to be a new bridge directly from the airport to cut the drive-time. When I can take a frequently-departing train to Seoul Station or Digital Media City in just over 40 minutes, the current transit modes to Songo should be significantly MORE convenient in order to win over foreigners, IMO.

    – Lights are timed poorly for walkability (same problem as everywhere in Korea, really).
    – Many buildings are still largely vacant which lends a somewhat ghost-town feels – as is borne out in your post as well as many newspaper articles I’ve read. “If you build it they will come” seems to be no longer true, at least outside of Seoul itself and perhaps Busan proper.

    IIRC the apartments that “don’t match” were largely purchased by speculators in the mid-2000s, thinking that anything in Songdo would turn to gold (much like it did in previous 신도시 in the 수도권 area). Well, obviously that has proven untrue. I think the apartments are now worth significantly less than what they sold for as newbuilds.

    Basically, Songdo reminds me of, say, a Brasilia, where not enough thought went into planning for everyday ground-level commerce – the building setbacks from street/sidewalk are way too far – and basic movements such as walking and biking. Ironically, cities like Seoul or Tokyo that are built up over time seem to be much better on these fronts.

  2. sb8636 says:

    Sorry, meant to say “even the taxis are not very convenient.” (In fact, Songdo’s isolation means some taxi drivers don’t want to take you there, since it will be difficult for them to find a nearby fare after dropping you off.)

  3. Nikola says:

    Hey,

    thanks for this great comment!

    Yeah, the streets are too wide. Far too wide! That’s a problem everywhere in Korea. In my opinion this is even the case in Seoul. I would’ve liked to see narrow roads, organic structure, hierarchy of roads and shared space. And yeah, most of of I would’ve liked to see bike paths on street level, not on the sidewalk.

    The government did built a completely new bridge (the Incheon Bridge 인천대교) as part of this project. It goes more or less directly from the airport to Songdo and it also improves other connections like to South Seoul, Suwon and so. The sad thing is only that they didn’t include a light rail or something on the bridge. Direct public transport, maybe even a PRT system from the airport to Songdo would be a revolution.
    Maybe the planners of Songdo had the following mindset: Songdo is for business people, who get out the airplane after a flight in the first class, their chauffeur awaits them on the airport and drives him directly to his meeting in Songdo. For something like this, Songdos connection is “perfect”. Such a thinking is, of course, totally wrong.

    I wouldn’t go so far and they that Songdo is like Brasilia. As Brasilia was built, they anticipated that in some years/decades people are going to move via helicopter. This was a completely different decade and time of planning. Songdo went from a ubiquitous city to the aerotropolis (I really don’t know what this concept means). The city was built from nothing, there wasn’t even any land. It takes time to develop and establish itself as a regional (international?) hub and so far, I would say that Songdo is at a good pace.

    Here is also a very interesting opinion on the whole project:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/04/smart-city-rio-songdo-masdar

    Songdo is a decent project and if you compare it to other new towns of South Korea, it’s a big step forward. In Songdo you have two universities, a lot of R&D centers and even the headquarters of the UN climate fund are there. I hope that Korea learns a lot out of Songdo and it may develop to a real, more advanced sustainable way of urban planning.

  4. Sean Brown says:

    Thanks for you reply. I have taken the Incheon Bridge before. The biggest problem is that it does not actually start at the airport; therefore not only is car/bus travel time increased but it makes building effective, zero-transfer rail – which is 100% necessary as you said, especially for an airport-focused city – much harder.

    Yes, I hope that the authorities learn MANY lessons from Songdo. They will certainly be expensive lessons.

    I did not know that Brasilia was built on such ridiculous premises. Perhaps I should compare instead with, say, Odaiba (Daiba) in Tokyo? Even compared to Daiba, the amount of bank/private-company money gambled on Songdo is absolutely astounding.

    Other 신도시 (e.g. Gimpo or numerous others in Gyeonggi) at least have good transit links to the rest of the metro area and were populated relatively quickly after construction. More to the point, as you somewhat alluded to, the target market of Songdo is unclear to me and/or just doesn’t really exist. Foreign companies want to have offices in Gangnam or Seocho where the action is. They don’t want to be carved off in an isolated area, far from culture, Korean HQs, the best universities, etc. And if there’s no train to the airport or easy transit elsewhere – what’s the point? As you say, only the very very top (and not even then in the West) have their own driver.

    I agree with the premises of the article: Rio has some very precious resources that Songdo does not. Namely, millions of people, (some) walkability, and living streets.

  5. James says:

    Far more important than any engineering/design flaws with Songdo is the fact that it never should have been undertaken in the first place. It destroyed critically important habitat for a lot of wildlife, including some species of endangered birds. Sometimes there are legitimate “sacrifices” of parts of the environment when necessary projects cannot be built at alternate locations, more housing is needed to reduce overcrowding, etc. But this is not one of them. None of those nor any other needs apply here. No reason whatsoever that this “development” should ever have gotten off the ground. Yet another 4-rivers/Saemanggeum style project with no other purpose than to line pockets of developers and their corrupt sponsors in government. Just sickening. A good list of concerns can be found the Birds Korea website’s Songdo page: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Songdo/BK-HA-Songdo.shtml

    • Nikola says:

      I know about the environmental issues of Songdo but I don’t agree with the point that Songdo is unnecessary. Incheon has a lot of potential and so, the capacity to accommodate people and businesses had to be extended. Songdo has a number of R&D companies, some headquarters, even UN climate fund headquarter and two universities.One of the universities is the international campus of Yonsei, which is situated in Seoul and has no place to expand there. Of course, you could argue why they choose Songdo.
      The city government of Incheon intented to use its possibilities, esp. the benefits of the international airport. If you look at a map, then you’ll see that Songdo is relatively close to the airport and that there aren’t any other available places which could compete in this point. It would have been great if they redeveloped the already existing urban area of Incheon (increase of density in Incheon!) instead of reclaiming land and destroying important wetlands, but such measures would have taken longer and they would be far more expensive. Songdo could boost the economy of Incheon. It isn’t easy to compete with Seoul and Songdo is somehow the ace of Incheon. So, there are clearly economic reasons for the development and then sadly environment gets forgotten too easy.

      • James says:

        Not the case.

        1) Incheon does not need to “compete” with Seoul for anything. It just needs to go about business. And everyone today knows that only ethical way of doing business is through innovation and sustainable development—not wanton expansion and environmental degradation. There is empty office space abounding in Incheon already.

        2) How do we know development is sustainable? Because a major international climate organization endorses or has headquarters there? Hardly. It is common knowledge that the major international environmental organizations are in bed with the major international polluters and degraders of the environment. So it’s no surprise the UN Climate Fund put a branch there. Another case in point is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), if you read all the documentation in the Birds Korea link I included in my last comment. They actually gave an award to former president Lee Myoung Bak, father of the Four Rivers Project, continuer of Saemangeum and countless other environment-destroying projects and policies. So if you’re looking at major international environmental organizations as models of sustainable development, you’re looking in the wrong place. You’ll notice that reputable organizations like Greenpeace don’t have offices on Songdo.

        3) Does a major university like Yonsei locating a campus there give it the stamp of sustainability? Hardly. While universities are generally institutions of progress, some play the role of extended arms of big business and its government enablers. Seoul National University’s Economics department and its support of the destructive Korea-America Free Trade Agreement is one example. Yonsei opening the campus on Songdo is another. Birds Korea and other environmental organizations have documented the environmental unfriendliness of this project and have sent letters to Yonsei and its international partners with the data. Reputable institutions would take notice of the data and not be any part of that kind of reckless development.

        So, did Incheon need to destroy Songdo? No.

        But, while it is wrong to say that Songdo was economically necessary and environmentally friendly, I don’t want to personally criticize Nikola. He has been an amazing addition to the already great Kojects website with awesome suggestions like the car-free Sejongno day, etc. So keep up the great work, Nikola!

      • Nikola says:

        Hey James!

        Sorry for the late reply. I was busy the last day. I don’t feel offended by your comment and please don’t hesitate to tell me your opinion! Kojects is a place to discuss such projects, exchange opinions and look at developments from all possible points of view!

        Thank you for your comment. You know as well that the word sustainability is used everywhere and it lost it’s original meaning of environmental stable development. Even I used the expression in this post regarding the urban aspects of Songdo, not in an environmental way. So it’s great that you emphasize the environmental aspects.

  6. elegiacomo says:

    Reblogged this on elegiacomo and commented:
    Is this Blade Runner city, as seen on the bus from Incheon Aiport to Seoul? The view stays with you

  7. Pingback: The Truth About Korea’s Invisible Skyscraper Tower Infinity | Kojects

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  9. Pingback: Songdo, revisited! | Kojects

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