This is a cool story that my friend Jeremy shared on Facebook.
The story of the Cheonggyecheon (pronounced chung-yay-chun) started hundreds of years ago during the reign of the Joseon Dynasty, when the kingdom’s castle was considered the “head” of Seoul and the river the “body”. That was its glorious past.
By the early 20th century, as Seoul was burgeoning into the megacity of 10 million it is today, the river was bordered by a slum and used as a dumping ground, resulting in an eyesore of polluted water. As Dr. Hwang said, “sometimes it was blue, sometimes black, sometimes red.” It seemed a logical decision, then, to cover it up and build a freeway over it in the 1950s. By 1976, the four-lane elevated Cheonggyecheon Freeway — similar in form to Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct — was standing as a symbol of successful industrialization and modernization of Korea.
What followed, however, was not only traffic, pollution, and the decline of downtown Seoul — which the river and then the freeway ran through the heart of — but also decades of horrible luck that befell a succession of Korean leaders. Some were shot to death, others imprisoned for bribery. It became known as the “Cheonggyecheon Curse.”
Fast-forward to 2001. As Dr. Hwang said, “some crazy people got together” and dreamed up the project. Hwang developed a traffic model to see what would happen if they took out what was considered a vital traffic artery carrying 168,000 cars per day. In the model, he included adjustments to other streets and increased transit to see if Seoul could survive without the freeway.
The project had it’s opponents. Business owners were afraid business would drop, more than 3,000 street vendors made a living selling goods to people stuck in traffic, and others worried that traffic would increase without the freeway. In anticipation of these hurdles, the mayor had implemented programs and staff to engage the public and opponents and propose solutions to their concerns. With that engagement, the project was able happen.
The results were nothing short of spectacular. The pictures tell the story better than any words can. In place of a blight-perpetrating freeway, the mayor created an astounding public amenity. A 3.6-mile linear, green river park that beautified downtown Seoul and gave its residents a spectacular setting in which to walk, splash, linger, and truly enjoy the city. (Read more about how the demolition helped the city here).
As always, thanks for reading!