Posted by: Erin O'Melinn | April 3, 2011

Reduced highway allows daylighting of stream: Seoul discovers its soul

Cheong Gye Cheon Stream, Seoul
Photo: Kyle Nishioka

Review: Keeyeon Hwang presents at SFU Urban Studies March 29, 2010.

In the 1960s Seoul, South Korea wanted to show its new found strength, and demonstrate its prosperity and development to the world. To do so, in good modernist fashion, they built freeways …and lots of them. Kilometres of concrete were poured, linking major neighbourhood centres and urban settings and even covering entire waterways.

Four decades later, and the result was the same grid-locked mess that can be found in other highway-intensive cities.  Things were at a tipping point.

Approaching an incumbent mayor that was the former CEO of a highway building corporations, a fellow named Keeyeon Hwang made an unlikely pitch:  tear down the overhead highway that covered the Cheong Gye Cheon Stream. His hope was to improve

  • Congestion (Cars on the freeway were already averaging the speed of pedestrians – 5km/h)
  • Air pollution (Respiratory illness was on the rise)
  • High maintenance costs (The city was spending $100 million a year on maintaining the 6 km of freeway)
  • Declining quality of life downtown (Decreasing number of children and schools, exodus to suburbs)
  • Decreasing land values downtown
  • And utilize the excellent public transit system (70% of the population taking that mode regularly already).

A bold pitch – especially given that the mayor’s former company built the particular elevated roadway in question.  But it worked.

The mayor in question was re-elected one a platform that called for the highway’s removal.  Of course, that’s when some of the real challenges began, starting with the need to appease 220,000 angry merchants and factory owners situated along the neglected dumping ground that the shrouded stream had become.  And then, there were the fears about lost driving opportunities and the removal of roadspace.  In a city where 2.5 million people are trying to get around daily, and where 73,000 firms call the Central Business District home, transportation considerations are paramount.

But the project pushed ahead.  A formal decision was made to dismantle the highway in 2002, and work started a mere year later.  Thanks to an ambitious political agenda, the project was fast-tracked.

As part of the deconstruction work, remnants of the former highway were left as visual legacies so as not to forget lessons learned.  Freeway pillars remain in the middle of the stream, symbolic of the past.  The big move paid off in the form of a number of other legacies, including a decrease in micro-climate temperature by 2.3 degrees Celsius and a big boost (30)0% in adjacent land values. Most importantly, a river has been restored, providing wonderful contribution to the city’s public spaces.

The design team responsible for the daylighting effort made sure to leave spaces for people to sit, experience the renewed feng shui of the area, dip their toes in the revitalized stream, and enjoy it on hot summer nights.  Even the local City Hall was scripted into the design changes – a nearby a multi-directional intersection was replaced with plaza to link the civic centre to this new landscape.  The new gathering place serves as a spot for public events and sporting celebrations.

Hwang’s presentation showed an inspiring change – with pictures of children splashing in the stream, adults bustling along the shores in the evenings, and the nearby neighbourhoods that saw the results of the Cheong Gye Cheon remediation and started to demand that their overhead freeways be torn down.

Best of all: no significant traffic issues have arisen.

A similar, though smaller-scale, discussion is taking place in Vancouver about the fate of the Georgia Viaducts.  Should they stay or be removed?  Can they be re-purposed for something else – like the Highline Park in New York? Let us know what you think.



  1. I lived near there in Seoul 2002-2005 & bought rollerblades at the Carrefour to skate home from school where I was teaching English- good memories.

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