Riverlife News

Other Cities, Other Waterfronts: Seoul’s Cheong Gye Cheon

Part of our series exploring great urban waterfronts

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Those lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” have been used to summarize a lot of unpopular (and often unsuccessful) urban development over the past several decades.  

The beauty of urban development and the transformation of cities is that sometimes we learn from our past mistakes and have a second chance to make it right. Seoul’s Cheong Gye Cheon is an example of removing that proverbial parking lot (in this case, a massive highway) and creating a paradise in the heart of the world’s seventh-largest city.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

During the 1970’s, an almost 3.5-mile highway was built through Seoul to replace the urban decay and shanty towns that had sprung up on the banks of the Cheonggyecheon River.

For decades the highway transported tens of thousands of cars each day through the downtown area.  The project was initially considered a successful urban development, though the long-term traffic congestion and pollution it created caused many to wonder if there was a better solution.


Above: The Cheonggyecheon Highway before the river restoration began. Image from The Infrastructurist.

In 2002, then-mayor Lee Myung-Bak announced a dramatic plan that sent shockwaves throughout the city: the highway would be removed and replaced by a restored river lined by pedestrian riverfront parks. Business owners and commuters were worried – would this create unimaginable traffic jams in other parts of the city while also taking away business from the retailers that were located along the road? Also, the cost (around $380 million U.S.) and construction challenges of replacing the highway with a waterway led many to question whether the project was worth it.


Above: After 620,000 tons of concrete were removed and recycled, Seoul revived the river and surrounded it with pedestrian-friendly paths and walkways. Image from The Infrastructurist.

Turns out, it was. Constructed between 2002-2005, the modern Cheonggyecheon (which means “clear stream creek”) is a dazzling example of creating green space in the middle of an urban environment. It’s proven to be extremely popular with residents and tourists, with over seven million visitors enjoying the Cheonggyecheon’s unique riverfront parks and paths in the first year alone. The surrounding business owners, once wary of the project, now embrace the increased pedestrian traffic to the area.

The benefits and results of the new green space are staggering. The average summertime temperature of Seoul has dropped several degrees, as the Cheonggyecheon acts as a natural air conditioner running through the city. Many birds, fish, insects and plants have returned to the city.

Even more amazing: traffic congestion actually went down with the removal of the highway. To deal with traffic displacement, Seoul invested in public transportation alternatives like added bus lanes and pedestrian walkways. Commuters began changing their transit habits and those nightmarish traffic scenarios never happened.

The success of the project has had a ripple effect as other cities like Tokyo and Shanghai reevaluate their highways as potential locations for greenways and river restoration.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Read more about the incredible transformation of the Cheonggyecheon in this article by the Guardian U.K., and at great blog sites like L.A. Creek Freak and The Infrastructurist.

Related: Other Cities, Other Waterfronts Baltimore, Cincinnati

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Recent Comments

By Stephan on September 24, 2010

Very cool project! It reminds me in some ways of New York’s High Line Park, which is a great example of taking a former transportation link (in this case, an elevated railroad) and turning it into a beautiful park.

Makes me want to visit Seoul now!

By Pham on September 2, 2012

Reading the topic about highway’s deolmitions I got very happy realizing that rulers,  with the civil society support, are opened to new ideas and concepts about urban planning all over the world.I’m a brasilian architect and urbanist and my final graduate work was the propose to demolish a highway in the city of Rio de janeiro. This element was built at 70 s decade to resolve the traffic and now we have an empty and sad space around it. I would appreciate a lot if I could sent to the blog this study to discussion, because here in Brasil is still dificult to make people understand our thoughts.

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