The Seoullo 7017 opened May 20. It’s the signature project of Seoul’s mayor Park Won-Soon and designed by the star architect Winy Maas from MVRDV. This article takes you on a walk through the project, discuss the identity, shows some impressions from the path and lastly, evaluates the whole project.
Seoullo 7017 in press
There are many well-written, comprehensive articles about the Seoullo. In The Korea Times Jon Dunbar describes the differences to the Cheonggyecheon by Lee Myung-Bak. The Korea Expose takes on a critical stance on the project, describing the issue of traffic and gentrification among other issues. Seoullo even reached large media outlets (The Guardian, Curbed and Fastcodesign). I contributed my view on Seoullo 7017’s positive impact in the SEOUL magazine article by Marina Brenden.
I put all articles in a Wordcloud in order to identify which words were used the most:
Dominating words besides Seoul and Seoullo are skygarden, overpass, city and park. But my issue here is that I would expect grass and green fields instead of over-sized flowerpots from a garden or park. There’s no space to lie down and just enjoy the nature. The whole overpass has too much cement to qualify as a park in my view. So the fundamental question is: If it isn’t a skygarden, then what is actually Seoullo 7017?
What is Seoullo 7017?
The Seoullo 7017 is located at Seoul Station. It’s a former traffic overpass, built in 1970. After many years of use the bridge deteriorated and in 2006 it was evaluated as not safe enough for traffic. Seoul forbid heavy trucks on the overpass while thinking about alternatives. Through benchmarking other cities around the world, the city decided against removing the overpass and had the idea to transform the overpass into something else.
The biggest difficulty for me was to define what the Seoul Station Overpass has become. My expectation was that it will be lively green space in an otherwise grey built environment. However, after visiting it for the first time, I was quite confused and unsatisfied by the small amount of green.
During my second visit I realized that Seoullo 7017 is a path. The name Seoullo (서울로) has the direct translation “Road of Seoul”. The number 7017 is a combination of the overpass opening in (19)70 and it’s renaissance in (20)17. It’s a footpath for pedestrians, leading people from one side of the Seoul Station area to the other.
It means that the overpass didn’t change it’s original function. It’s still a bridge. The only difference is that the bridge caters towards pedestrians now. The flowers are just decoration and the amenities have the purpose to make the walking experience more pleasant. In addition, it means that I have to evaluate the project based on the functions of a pedestrian path.
Timeline of the project
The main milestones of the Seoullo 7017 are:
- 2014: the city announced that they want to make a pedestrian place out of the overpass; in October 2014, the first open day event was held; it was followed by a second event around Christmas;
- 2015: the design competition was conducted and Winy Maas won with “The Seoul Arboretum“; the Seoullo project was almost cancelled because of delays from other agencies (MOLIT and police department)
- 2016: the overpass closed ultimately for car traffic in 2016. In August 2016, a preview of the Seoullo 7017 opened;
- 2017: opening May 20 (a month lather than originally planned)!
Visiting Seoullo 7017
I visited the Seoullo 7017 twice, on the opening day and a week later. Both times I arrived at the Seoullo 7017 by using the subway and getting off at Seoul Station. A main entrance for Seoullo 7017 is at Exit 8 of Seoul Station:
It’s the only escalator leading towards the Seoullo. It’s also possible to enter the Seoullo 7017 from Namdaemun Market, the area west of Seoul Station, and from the western side.
The first day is actually a very bad time to explore new projects. It’s nearly impossible to see details or get a real feeling of the place due to the crows. But I still went there on that day because I wanted to hear what other people think. The reaction of the people was very mixed.
Many people were as confused as I was about the function of the place. A person said that it seems like a good place for suicides. Sadly, only 10 days after the opening the first suicide took place.
The Seoullo 7017 currently doesn’t provide a lot of shadow. Of course, over the years the vegetation is going to grow and the trees should be big. Until then, Seoul put up a lot of tents for more shadow.
Please don’t get me wrong. The Seoullo 7017 has a large variety of plants and beautiful flowers. However, they are all inside flower pots. There’s no interaction with nature.
The path ends in a big public space with some nice art on the western side:
Path without connections
The two main criteria for a foot path are accessibility and connectivity. Let’s discuss of how the bridge improves these two factors for pedestrians.
The path greatly improved the walkability from Malli-dong (western area) to Namdaemun and the city center (eastern area). That’s nice for the people of Malli-dong. From the eastern side, it’s going to lead tourists into this area. What is now known as the “area behind Seoul Station” is going to receive more attention, gentrification and resulting in displacement of current citizens.
Research by Jason Houliston analyzed the impact of the Seoullo 7017 project on the pedestrian network. His conclusion was that the path contributes little to the improvement of walking and it requires a lot more connections to improve the walking environment. You can read his thesis here.
There are only a few escalators and staircases:
Access for people in wheelchairs or parents with strollers is limited.
The old Seoul Station Overpass had three ramps in the western part and one ramp on the eastern side. The Seoullo 7017 increased the amount of entry points only slightly as the map below shows.
For me, the crucial part is Section C (Seoul Station Square). The integration of the Seoullo 7017 with Seoul Station has to be improved. Travelers coming by train will have luggage and they are going to have a hard time accessing the elevated footpath.
Pedestrians require more entry and exit points. This example of the eastern side also shows that both, connectivity and accessibility, is lacking:
A pedestrian project has to fundamentally reform the pedestrian environment on street-level. How can the city spend around 50 million USD but not be able to install (at least) two pedestrian crossings on these northern roads right below Seoullo 7017:
On the eastern side, the project removed a pedestrian overpass and replaced it with a street-level crossing which is really great.
Process was a success
The most important achievement of the Seoul Station Overpass project is the process. For a city and a government that focuses strongly on top-down decision-making process, the Seoullo 7017 is the most participatory project in Seoul’s urban history. As the Korea Times article mentioned, no blood was shed. Surrounding neighborhoods were consulted, even if not all promises were kept.
The buildings next to the Seoullo 7017 were included in the planning process. As a successful outcome, the buildings signed MOUs with Seoul and created connections to the overpass:
It’s going to increase the foot traffic towards shops in these buildings. The buildings provide a refuge from sunshine, cold and rain.
That is something where the Cheonggyecheon or Dongdaemun Design Plaza failed. The process of the Cheonggyecheon was very top-down, all decisions were made by the city. There is supposed to be a “second phase” of the Cheonggyechoen where buildings open up towards the stream but the whole construction costs would be the responsibility of the building. The Dongdaemun Design Plaza doesn’t fit into its surrounding and it feels like a spaceship stranded on a strange planet.
Seoul had two pre-events that opened the overpass to citizens. A small mock-up of the overpass was set up before. These actions had the goal to raise public awareness of the project and increase public consent. The name was decided through a public consultation where citizen’s were able to submit ideas. Overall, it was a very inclusive project.
The project also costed far less in construction and the maintenance costs will be lower than the Cheonggyecheon or the Dongdaemun Design Plaza.
It expresses that Seoul’s development is shifting to renewal and that the times of redevelopment are over. Instead of tearing down building and structures, Seoul thinks about how to make the best use out of the existing elements. It means that the current constructions (apartments etc.) have to be built for a longer future.
In the SEOUL magazine article I said that any project that transforms car lanes into a space for pedestrians is a success. It sends out an important message to cities inside and outside of Korea: Let’s plan for pedestrians!
The Seoullo 7017 reached 1 million visitors within 14 days. People seem to enjoy it and it will be a great attraction for tourists.
The design of the Seoullo 7017 could have been done better. Sadly, it became just a very sophisticated pedestrian bridge. More access points and overall better connectivity, maybe even a separated bicycle lane are suggestions from my side. Also if they expanded the path to have a larger space in some areas, a real park could have been implemented. But these are very idealistic, probably impossible ideas.
Nevertheless, it initiated a change in how projects will be developed in the future. Seoullo 7017 is going to have an important spot in Seoul’s urban development history. It’s the symbol of urban renewal.