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.
My 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.
In the front of the picture is the frozen canal and on the right side is the performance hall.
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.
Already as I got out of the subway, I saw these posters hanging on the top floors of the skyscraper complex:
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:
The main symbol of Songdo is the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, here on the right:
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.
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.
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).
At 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.
Such 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.
I hope the next picture shows what I mean with harmony.
Due 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.
There 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.
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.
Conclusion about Songdo
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.