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Seoul's Fight For a Better River

The latest renewal plan hopes to see the Han become a cultural icon similar to the Thames or the Seine. But can shopping and sightseeing ferries fix the waterway’s deeper problems?

Violet Kim

Stretching from east to west across 320 miles of the Korean peninsula, the Han River is the navel of South Korea’s capital. Fed into by eastern tributaries, its main artery cleaves through the center of the city in a way that few other major rivers do, bisecting Seoul into two areas named based on their orientation to the river—Gangbuk (north) and Gangnam (south)—before emptying into the Yellow Sea. In the national mythology, it’s a symbol of prosperity and the namesake of the country’s explosive economic growth spurt in the 1960s, “the Miracle on the Han River.”

Today, however, the Han River is one of Seoul’s most intractable city planning conundrums. Half a century of heavy development has taken its toll. And many, like Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, have been calling for measures to restore the Han’s frayed natural beauty. The central government, however, has put forward a radically different vision.

With a record number of 20 million tourists in the offing, and seeking to capitalize on the river’s “abundant potential to become an international tourist attraction like Paris’ Seine River or England’s River Thames,” central government officials want to turn the Han into the capital’s premier tourist attraction. The current joint development plan between Seoul and the central government aims to inject 400 billion won ($360 million) into the Han River by 2019, proposing new tourist amenities for certain sections of the river and environmental initiatives for others. Officials claim that tourism activity will create jobs, boost the economy, and raise the Han River’s global cultural profile, urban planning and environmental experts are leery of the broader consequences.

While it benchmarks the Thames and the Seine—rivers known for their visible cultural heritage—the South Korean government’s approach is one that draws on the new and the manufactured. It’s fitting, in many ways, for the city’s fast-paced, aspirational, and unabashedly commercial reputation.

In addition to a new wharf with a shopping complex, the government hopes to build a pier deck to service an expanded fleet of tourist ferries and river buses, venues to promote Hallyu (Korean entertainment culture such as K-pop), and a pop-up store made out of shipping containers. Better transportation between “tourism belts” around the riverfront is hoped to nudge crowds to nearby duty free stores or high-end fashion districts. 

Yet urban designers are skeptical, arguing that stagy embellishments can have a flattening effect on a major urban space like the Han River, eroding its local character. “Few endeavors are as dangerous as projects attempting to manufacture tourist attractions and landmarks,” says Kim Sae-hoon, an urban design professor with Seoul National University’s Urban Studies and Design Lab. “Once you develop an area in this way, it makes it hostile to smaller changes and freezes out other kinds of social diversities and functions.

A number of similar and costly schemes to emulate Europe’s storied waterways have already ended in ignominious failure. In 2005, then-mayor (and later president of South Korea) Lee Myung-bak, reportedly inspired by Sydney’s white-capped skyline and a visit to the Copenhagen Opera House, proclaimed that Seoul, too, would have a waterside opera house of its own. But in a city not known for a fondness of the opera, and on a inaccessible island inhabited by endangered frogs—the 500 billion won ($450 million) plan was struck down and seen as tone deaf to Seoul’s cultural sensibilities. In 2007, Lee’s successor Oh Se-hoon introduced water taxis to the Han River, promising to “remodel Seoul after Venice’s waterways.” Servicing a meager 17 passengers a day by its final year, however, the fleet sputtered to a halt in 2014. A national audit later condemned the program as a waste of public funds.

If good urban river design tells a compelling story about a city’s identity, the Han River’s design blunders have turned into a problem of narrative. As one government official observed, the Han River lacks “the kind of storytelling that makes foreign tourists want to come back.” But tourism-conscious embellishments seldom make good stories, and those like Kim highlight the need for design that is better suited to the Han River’s own idiosyncrasies rather than imitative of others’.

(Violet Kim)

A large part of this is the unusual landscaping challenges absent in most European urban rivers. “Historically, the Han River has been too wild and too dangerous to keep close,” says Cho Myung-rae, Danguk University urban planning professor and chairman of the Han River Citizens Committee, an advisory body to the city. The Han River has a greater risk of flooding than most European urban rivers: Its "coefficient of river regime” (the ratio of its highest and lowest levels) can reach up to 1-to-300. By comparison, the Thames has a coefficient of about 1-to-8.

Moreover, the river is exceptionally wide—around 0.6 miles in Seoul—and difficult to traverse on foot. “The Han River’s surrounding area has traditionally been seen as marginal—tricky to use, wasteful to throw away—so cheap housing moved in, further distancing the river from people’s lives,” says Cho. “Land use on the riverfront and its surrounding areas has largely been anti-environmental and commercial.”

The result has been a difficult architectural legacy: cookie-cutter high-rise apartments loom over the riverfront from both sides, boxing in the river and challenging human access. Likewise, a network of highways and overpasses form invasive barriers abreast of the water, their pilings often sitting in the river itself. Concrete levees line the banks and despite the presence of 27 bridges, the river is notoriously hostile to pedestrians. As one critic put it, “even if you ride a ferry, there’s nothing worth seeing.”

Such design has profoundly shaped urban life. “Social hierarchies have formed around the Han River, dividing Seoul into the lower income northern district [Gangbuk], and the wealthier southern part [Gangnam],” says Cho. “There needs to be better accessibility and river-centered community cohesion efforts.”

Yet despite the ranging effects of urbanization, the Han River remains one of Seoul’s most unique ecological habitats, which civic groups like the Han River Citizens Committee say is an inalienable part of the river’s identity. The mouth of the river is home to hundreds of native flora and fauna species, including endangered migrating birds. Bamseom, an island underneath Seoul’s Seogang Bridge, is a designated Ramsar Wetlands Site. 

(Violet Kim)

With its sights set on long-term environmental restoration, the committee contends that Seoul’s urban river’s true value goes beyond profitability. “Until this point, the Han River has been seen as another resource to be exploited,” says Cho. “But in a hyper-urbanized city like Seoul, a river of this size is incredibly valuable, with enormous social potential. Now that we are past the industrial age, people are looking for a relaxing natural space.”

The ecological restoration measures outlined in the joint development plan, drafted with the help of the committee, includes partially removing concrete embankments and introducing native plants and wetlands to designated sections of the river. It hopes to increase the percentage of the Han River’s “green area” from 57 to 64 percent. Some of the committee’s recommendations, however, have been lost in the compromise, including the most important one, according to Cho—removing the two weirs that have critically immobilized the natural flow of the water. “A natural flow allows the river to transform itself and its ecosystems,” says Cho. “Much of the seeds of life begins on the river bed, but in its current state it is deadened.”

A more holistic way of thinking can inform design practices, too. Rather than “relying on physical monuments or landmarks or trying to create a finished, themed product,” says Kim, urban river design should first “question who will use this space and in what way, with design and development following after.” The result will likely look nothing like a traditional waterfront city in the style of the Thames or the Seine, says Cho. “But what we can learn from European rivers is how to create spaces that are organically integrated into everyday life.”

Nearly half a century after the economic miracle named after it, the story the Han River tells has undergone a profound transformation. It has become the city’s most beloved natural asset, community space, and what Cho refers to as a “uniquely Korean problem”—a living embodiment of the social, political and environmental ills in Seoul’s post-industrial age.

About the Author

  • Max Kim
    Max Kim is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about tech, business and design.