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Unboxing - The New Sustainable City as a Mirage

written by
Zo Hangman (professor, Seoul National University)
edited by
Bang Yukyung


Wangsuk2-Namyangju Winning Proposal ⓒG.S Architects Consortium

 

 

Cities Are Long, While City Plans Are Brief

As it turns out, cities have a longer lifespan than many other man-made fields including states and systems. Despite the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, founded by Romulus and Remus, it legacy lives on. Hanyang, founded as the new capital of the Yi Dynasty, is now the capital of Korea and one of the most impressive metropolitan destinations in the world. Relying on cities endure across the centuries, the notion of the Anthropocene has entered academic discourse, creating states and systems, developing a science, technology, and economy of the anthropocene, and supporting the lives of its communities and individuals.

In Korea, urban design and development began in earnest with the Ansan New Town in 1977, devising a cluster of structures in an industrial production area, Gwacheon New Town in 1979 was created to house administrative functions, and large urban management plans took hold in the mid-1980s under the thrall of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. In 1989, the five 1st Generation New Towns began to develop motivated by the goal of supplying 2 million new houses. With the ongoing construction of 2nd Generation New Towns from the 2000s to the 3rd Generation New Towns releasing their plans now, we have been responsible for the development of many large public housing sites, urban renewal, and the development of new towns. Over the last 40 years, the towns, though not always perfect, have served as places to live, work, rest, and play. In spite of our efforts thus far, it is almost impossible to plan a city that can immediately accommodate tens to hundreds of thousands of people. As a new city is completed by overlapping with the spaces of its original plan, chance happenings, substantials efforts and individual choices must be made which often divert from the intentions expressed in the plan, and when the result is materialised, the city is usually visibly different from the initial plan. Nevertheless, we plan cities, and in fact we are still planning cities. Here, I offer a few remarks about new towns in Korea and the impressions I gathered in the process of creating a third generation new town when participating as a member of the winning team behind the design for ‘The Competition for Urban Design Concept and Three-Dimensional Urban and Architectural Space Plan, Wangsuk2-Namyangju’.

 


Cities Are Long, While City Plans Are Brief

As it turns out, cities have a longer lifespan than many other man-made fields including states and systems. Despite the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, founded by Romulus and Remus, it legacy lives on. Hanyang, founded as the new capital of the Yi Dynasty, is now the capital of Korea and one of the most impressive metropolitan destinations in the world. Relying on cities endure across the centuries, the notion of the Anthropocene has entered academic discourse, creating states and systems, developing a science, technology, and economy of the anthropocene, and supporting the lives of its communities and individuals. In Korea, urban design and development began in earnest with the Ansan New Town in 1977, devising a cluster of structures in an industrial production area, Gwacheon New Town in 1979 was created to house administrative functions, and large urban management plans took hold in the mid-1980s under the thrall of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. In 1989, the five 1st Generation New Towns began to develop motivated by the goal of supplying 2 million new houses. With the ongoing construction of 2nd Generation New Towns from the 2000s to the 3rd Generation New Towns releasing their plans now, we have been responsible for the development of many large public housing sites, urban renewal, and the development of new towns. Over the last 40 years, the towns, though not always perfect, have served as places to live, work, rest, and play.

In spite of our efforts thus far, it is almost impossible to plan a city that can immediately accommodate tens to hundreds of thousands of people. As a new city is completed by overlapping with the spaces of its original plan, chance happenings, substantials efforts and individual choices must be made which often divert from the intentions expressed in the plan, and when the result is materialised, the city is usually visibly different from the initial plan. Nevertheless, we plan cities, and in fact we are still planning cities. Here, I offer a few remarks about new towns in Korea and the impressions I gathered in the process of creating a third generation new town when participating as a member of the winning team behind the design for ‘The Competition for Urban Design Concept and Three-Dimensional Urban and Architectural Space Plan, Wangsuk2-Namyangju’. for collective housing relies on private purchase. Many problems in the new city seem to stem from this conundrum.

The proposed lots for collective housing developments in new towns, whether for private or public sale or public rental, often adopt a rectangular form. This is because the rectangular site has an advantage as a commercially viable layout, sufficient underground parking space, and maximum floor area ratio, despite strict regulations such as distance between buildings. In addition, since business operators (constructors or implementation companies) who purchase land generally prefer a rectangular site, Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH), a supplier, and puts the site planned in that shape on the market to make good progress in new city project and to ensure profitability unless met with exceptional circumstances. A parcel or a block of collective housing units in a new town have usually been planned to accommodate at least 500 households. A collective housing project of 500 households or more should provide additional welfare facilities to its residents, such as a daycare center, a senior citizens’ center, and a neighbourhood park at the expense of the operator in order to alleviates the financial burdens placed on local government in a new city. For this reason, in general, local governments of new town development areas insist upon planning housing sites of 500 or more households if they do not have sufficient budget. Although it depends on the size of units to be supplied, the size of a housing site for 500 households is approximately 30,000 – 40,000and one side of the site tends to 170-200m long when it is a square (it can be often over 300m long when it is a rectangle). Such a medium to large apartment block is likely to become a fortress for branded apartments no matter how much it is tied and connected to public pedestrian paths and green areas. The inside of the complex provides a haven only for nominated and financially able residents, often reluctant to open its bounds to the city outside.

 

 

Social-mix at Stake

For these reasons, new cities, almost without exception, have been filled with fragmentary blocks of large highrise branded and standardized apartments. Usually, large apartment complexes equipped with agreeable community facilities are disconnected and disagree with each other. This results from the determined self-preservation of the brand and satisfaction from living within the complex. Thus, when a public rental housing complex is planned near the apartments, desperate placards opposing the plan are always raised and affixed to their surfaces, bubbling with concerns about falling house prices leading to the blocking off of pedestrian paths that connect the spaces. The consolidated areas always form a boundary along which conflicts and problems have arisen, such as traffic jams, littering, bullying, and hate crimes including violent assaults. Defined territories and social segregation has become social norm, slowly prompting class struggles in schools for the children of these complexes. While social-mix▼2 within a building seems to be difficult to enact, so common in developed countries, it is near impossible to achieve at the level of a complex or a whole new city. This situation, where a complex is filled with one unit type and there is no diversity between areas of lease, sale, private and public sectors, is bound to alienate its residents.

 


Neglected City Users

Urban sustainability cannot be discussed without recognizing its users. Our new town plan does not consider people as individuals but only the population at large and as a number. This is no different in 3rd Generation New Towns. The competition presented only the requirement of supplying tens of thousands of houses’ without definitions or predictions about who its users might be, who the apartments of supply in large number are targeted towards, where these future residents come from, the composition of the households (newly-weds, aged, young, and so on), and their occupations. As such, everything floats; how many rooms in each unit, the educational facilities required, the kind welfare facilities deemed to be appropriate, and the programmes to be planned for the parks. When everything is as vague as this, we are likely to make passive decisions based on our own typical lived experiences. The problem is that our experience, which provides the basis for most of our decisions, is not all that successful either. There is no dwelling place but only residences. A new city that takes more than a decade to complete faces beginning with the possibility of anachronism from its planning stages. Speaking more frankly, it will end up as a city with housing for the young but no young people, a city tailored for childcare without children, or a city of rental housing that is inaccessible to the end users.

 

 

Meandering Nature and Conscientious Engineering

I would like to return to the large squared-apartment-houses blocks that flood our new town. It is difficult to conclude what came first, but usually it is the straight road networks that are established between large typical residential blocks. As one side of the residential block for more than 500 households is 170 – 300m long, there is a long straight road. The engineering severely cut away and dug out the charming and winding hills, rice fields, rivers and streams of the new town site to ensure the smooth flow of traffic and to improve the average driving speed. As experienced in the Public Administrative Town in Sejong, the original topography barely recognisable after construction is finished. This explains why new towns are often followed by the problems presented by environmental issues. In Wangsuk2-Namyangju, there are three streams that run through it. New town engineering, which prepares the sites for the possibility of various disasters, widened and straightened the streams and raised embankments against a possible 200-year flood. This inevitably involves major scale infilling work to increase the ground level of the adjacent site, while the soil is prepared by cutting straight hills in the site to reduce construction costs. Box-shaped high-rise apartment buildings can match exactly on a rectangular residential block. Fast cars passing along the straight road network will increase noise at which point the urban planning project operators begin to get worried about civil complaints. At this point environmental impact assessments suggest easy solutions such as tens of metres of separation from the road, large berms, and tall soundproof walls, but they rather become a setback for street environment, the largest public space in the city. In other words, the biotope should be protected, but cutting away is necessary for infilling; there is a desire to increase driving speed, but this will increase noise; and the width of the streets moves beyond human scale or is surrounded by walls to protect houses and schools from noise, and the situation becomes messier: this is a portrait of the contemporary new town. A city should be a holistic world, but engineering interventions that disagree with planning will lead the new town to an outdated city of contradictions and antinomy.

 

 

Right Then, Wrong Now

The 4th Industrial Revolution into which we are entering, prompted by the advancement of new technologies such as IoT and AI, and the Post Coronavirus Disease-19 (COVID-19) era which requires divergence rather than integration, have rapidly transformed our demands for new cities. The tenets of urban planning on which we have relied over the past four decades is set to expire soon. While we continue to plan traffic and roads suited only to automobiles, new forms of transportation such as autonomous driving, Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and micro-mobility are emerging. In addition, the statistics reveal that the cases of COVID-19 in Los Angeles, where public transportation is less developed, have been far fewer than those in New York. This is suggestive information. As majority of households comprise single-occupants, we need to prioritise not was right then but is wrong now and make rapid adjustments. Our title for the competition entry for a small new town, Wangsuk2-Namyangju was ‘Slothophical City ’. We wanted to create a slower paced and more relaxed city, maintaining a reasonable distance between people. After cooperating with the MA advisory, LH, various evaluations, and engineering companies for construction documents over more than five months, the Wangsuk2-Namyangju which is in the approval process by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is no longer relaxed. Its roads are straightened and widened, and the blocks were expanded to follow a straight outline. The number of housing increased by more than 15% compared to the competition entry, and the park with the Design Campus became just a retrogressive reservoir. It is claimed that this was right at the time of competition, but it feels wrong when you proceed. The process and system behind realising urban ideals always seems as if they aim to eliminate new things; they try to make a city of zero defects rather than a city of lively advantages.

 


A City that Cannot be Satisfied

History shows us that infectious diseases and Industrial Revolutions have fundamentally changed cities time and time again. Facing the era of the 4th Industrial Revolution and this new global health crisis, the city will soon change whether we want it to or not. What I felt while participating in the 3rd Generation New Town plan was that the trigger for a new city is still very temporary and trivial, and the biggest driver of a city is in fact efficiency and profitability rather than imagination and the goodwill of the many urban designers who participate in the process. As Henri Lefebvre noted decades ago, a city’s intrinsic festivity▼3 is inevitably suppressed in the process, and it is regrettable that it will be difficult for a city or its inhabitants to at last find satisfaction.

 

 

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1  A typical example is stabilising house prices in Seoul and metropolitan area.

2  Social-mix should be based on anonymity, but Korean apartments are based on the size of the unit. As the situation is completely exposed, governed by the attitude that ‘low-income people have small apartments, and high-income people have large apartments’, the situation becomes distinction and division rather than natural mixing which inevitably leads to discrimination. In the US, units of the same area in an apartment house are randomly selected and offered at different prices (low-income units, market-rate units) to encourage social-mix.

Henri Lefebvre’s concept in his book, The production of Space published in 1974.​
Zo Hangman
Zo Hangman studied at the Department of Architecture at Seoul National University and the Graduate School of Architecture at Columbia University. After working at KYWC Architects, iarc, and GreenbergFarrow in New York, he participated in the establishment of H Architecture and oversaw the design. Since 2013, he has been serving as a professor in the Department of Architecture at Seoul National University, and has been working as a co-principal of TAAL Architects with Seo Jiyoung. His major works include Sejong Public Administration Town Master Plan, Government Complex Sejong 1-1, 2-2, 2012 Yeosu Expo International Pavilion, and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Gyeongju Artist Convention Center. In addition, he won the 2010 WAN Building of the Year Award, AIA NY Design Awards (2009, 2010), Kim SwooGeun Preview Awards (2016), and the Main Award for the Completion of the Korean Wood Conditioning Festival (2018).

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