Shadow #2

Shadow #2 © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Skylight at Central Park Station. Incheon, South Korea. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
“We want cities that work well enough, but are open to the shifts, uncertainties, and mess which are real life.” – Prof. Richard Sennett1

A city in harmony with people – or is it?

Songdo International Business District (Songdo IBD) is a smart city or “ubiquitous city” built from scratch on 6 km(600 hectares) of reclaimed land along Incheon’s waterfront, 65 kilometres (40 mi) southwest of Seoul, and connected to Incheon International Airport by a 12.3-kilometre (7.6 mi) reinforced concrete highway bridge, called Incheon Bridge. Along with Yeongjong and Cheongna, it is part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone.

Screenshot of video by Changmok Kim (Standard YouTube Licence)

Inspired by New York’s Central Park, Songdo Central Park is the centrepiece of the green space plan of the Songdo IBD. With over 400,000 m2, the park covers almost 10 percent of the district’s total area.2 The above photo was taken inside the lobby of Central Park Station, a subway stop on Line 1 of the Incheon Subway. You can spot the building in the video by Changmok Kim (click image to enlarge).



The Korean government promotes Songdo as “a city embracing the future” and Songdo IBD’s promotional video describes it as “a city in harmony with people”. Is it, though?

In the conclusion to her article, “A Model Korean Ubiquitous Eco-City? The Politics of Making Songdo”, Dr Sofia T. Shwayri3 highlights the pros and cons of the new city:

“The master plan of this new city is based on a combination of sustainable design principles such as sustainable modes of transport and a mix of open and green spaces, earning it in 2008 the Sustainable City Award sponsored by the Financial Times and the Urban Land Institute. Meanwhile Korea’s technology corporations are experimenting with developing ubiquitous computing for the creation of networked environments. Its advanced technological sector draws in Cisco Systems to implement its created smart and connected communities in Songdo, based on the collection and sharing of information anywhere and anytime, encouraging the efficient use of resources for the promotion of sustainable living. Smart city technologies coupled with sustainable design principles aim at creating a unique city type commonly referred to by the Koreans as u-eco-city. It is an innovative city for a utopian future.

The city of the future is, however, built on inherent contradictions. Like Incheon City, Songdo is built on the destruction of precious wetlands, home to some of the rarest species on the planet, causing the disappearance of some. Once reclaimed, its developers have pursued sustainable building practices, applying guidelines and materials that promote efficient energy use, and recycling 75 percent of construction waste. On completion, measures are put in place that guarantee its operations once inhabited as an eco-city. This flagship u-eco-city is supposed to be an international city, designed mostly for foreigners to enjoy a quality of life paralleling those of their home (Western) cities, a home away from home. Locals working for foreign corporations would be allowed to live in Songdo but only in small percentages. Legislation was passed and incentives were offered to attract foreign investment only to be reversed when it failed to materialize, thus changing plans for key features of the city. Its brief history over the last two decades has been repeatedly shaped by government policy with periods of support and periods of indifference. Auspicious conditions with various support measures from the different stakeholders have often coincided with national, regional, and global goals, accompanied by elaborate visions. This fluctuating support may have contributed to the diminishing enthusiasm by foreign investors and corporations in the new city, leaving it largely to the Korean conglomerates to build, market, sell, and rent the spaces of the city to wealthy locals, a process that could eventually see Songdo becoming the richer suburb of Incheon city or simply another Korean city. The different guidelines and standards applied by the enactment for FEZ led to higher costs in planning and design. The subsequent making of Songdo as a ubiquitous eco-city has seen adverse effects by producing significant price contrasts that in effect only allows the affluent class to avail themselves of the newly emerging city.”

American sociologist Richard Sennett, quoted above, put it a tad more bluntly in his article for the Guardian, “No one likes a city that’s too smart”:

“Songdo represents the stupefying smart city in its architectural aspect – massive, clean, efficient housing blocks rising up in the shadow of South Korea’s western mountains, like an inflated 1960s British housing estate – but now heat, security, parking and deliveries are all controlled by a central Songdo ‘brain’. The massive units of housing are not conceived as structures with any individuality in themselves, nor is the ensemble of these faceless buildings meant to create a sense of place.

Uniform architecture need not inevitably produce a dead environment, if there is some flexibility on the ground; in New York, for instance, along parts of Third Avenue monotonous residential towers are subdivided on street level into small, irregular shops and cafes; they give a good sense of neighbourhood. But in Songdo, lacking that principle of diversity within the block, there is nothing to be learned from walking the streets.”

While one might indeed learn not much from walking the streets, a lot can be learnt about those walking them, as British author and journalist Steven Poole explains in his article for the Guardian, “The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy’”.

“As citizens stumble into a future where they will be walking around a city dense with sensors, cameras and drones tracking their every movement, … there is a ticking time-bomb of arguments about surveillance and privacy that will dwarf any previous conversations about Facebook or even, perhaps, government intelligence agencies scanning our email. Unavoidable advertising spam everywhere you go, as in Minority Report, is just the most obvious potential annoyance. … The smart city might be a place like Rio on steroids, where you can never disappear.”

As Dr. Rem Koolhaas4 points out in his article, “My thoughts on the smart city”, it is important not to leave urban planning in the hands of the private sector.

“Architecture used to be about the creation of community, and making the best effort at symbolizing that community. Since the triumph of the market economy in the late 1970s, architecture no longer expresses public values but instead the values of the private sector. … Smart cities and politics have been diverging, growing in separate worlds. It is absolutely critical that the two converge again.”

While living in Incheon, I do now and then head to Songdo, for a walk in Central Park or to see my excellent dentist, and I’ve taken a fair amount of photos of the area and wouldn’t mind living there for a while. Then again, I agree with Richard Sennett: It’s the shifts, uncertainties, and mess which are real life.

Did you know?


Only 2 scenes of the famous “Gangnam Style” video were actually filmed in Gangnam, whereas all other scenes were filmed at locations far from Gangnam, in places like Gyeonggi Province or Songdo in Incheon, including at  International Business District station, one stop away from Central Park.

Related post: Shadow

Dr Richard Sennett OBE (*1943) is the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and former University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. He is currently a Senior Fellow of the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University. Sennett has studied social ties in cities, and the effects of urban living on individuals in the modern world. Sennett’s literary hobby is writing about music, including novels with musical themes. He has been married to sociologist Saskia Sassen since 1987.

Source: Wikipedia

Dr Sofia T. Shwayri is at work on a manuscript, “The Spaces of the Syrian War (2011-present),” a study of Syria’s military conflict and its emerging urbanism. Prior to her arrival at Berkeley, Sofia was an Associate Professor in International Planning and Development at Seoul National University in South Korea, a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University, and an Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow at the John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program at New York University. Sofia earned both her M.S. and Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, where she was also an Instructor in Peace and Conflict Studies and the Department of City and Regional Planning. Her research on conflict, cities, and post-conflict reconstruction springs from her early life in wartime Beirut, where she witnessed more than 15 years of simultaneous destruction and reconstruction.

4 Remment Lucas ‘Rem’ Koolhaas is a Dutch architect, architectural theorist, urbanist and Professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Koolhaas is the founding partner of the Dutch architectural firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), and of its research-oriented counterpart AMO, based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s