Guy Sorman has an absolutely fascinating article in the City Journal about Asia’s megacities, and I can’t bear to bury it in a link list. He takes a very negative view of Shanghai, citing its deputy mayor for finance’s candid admission that it’s a “costly facade to maintain,” and blasts Beijing for its never-ending ring roads, among other things.
But halfway through the article, he takes up the issue of Seoul, and each paragraph is more interesting than the last. He describes the transition from military dictatorship to liberal democracy thusly:
Democratization has helped transform Seoul into a more livable city in an extraordinarily short time. Before democracy, the authorities pursued economic growth at virtually any cost: real estate operated with little constraint, the number of private cars swiftly exceeded street capacity, public transportation was shoddy, and public spaces were basically nonexistent. But Seoul’s mayor during the 2000s, Lee Myung Bak—formerly the CEO of the Hyundai Construction Company—understood that Seoulites wanted a city center, plazas, gardens, and spaces to shop and stroll, and he led a dramatic reshaping of the city, preserving what was left of the past but making huge improvements in urban amenities. He won the nickname “Bulldozer” for good reason. Among the projects undertaken while he was mayor: the Han’s banks, formerly devoted to parking garages and freeways, became accessible to pedestrians; an ancient stream, the Cheonggyecheon, which once flowed through Seoul until buried by a freeway, was restored, helping vivify the central city; and rapid-transit buses joined the city’s transportation system. During his mayoralty, too, formerly abandoned industrial areas transformed into gentrified neighborhoods, Korean versions of New York’s Meatpacking District. These popular changes helped propel Lee Myung Bak to the South Korean presidency in December 2007.
From there, it only gets better from a market urbanist viewpoint. This part, at the very end, is emblematic:
Will the towers and sky trains actually materialize? The Korean opposition on the left generally isn’t enamored with any chaebol enterprise. But this isn’t North Korea, which means, as Oh observes, that “eventually, the market will decide.”
Of course, he must be exaggerating to at least some extent – I refuse to believe that South Korea has dodged all of the anti-density interventions of the West and that the market is in complete control of Seoul, but it sure does seem a lot more accepting of density than we are. I rarely (if ever?) hear much about urbanism in Seoul, and I feel woefully uninformed about urbanism in general in East Asia. (Which reminds me – why does the word “Tokyo” appear nowhere in the article?) Embarrassingly enough, before I read this, I knew more about urbanism in North Korea than I did in its southern cousin. Anyway, I can’t recommend the article highly enough – I knew that the world generally overestimates China, but I didn’t realize how much we’re underestimating South Korea.