2016 Parks in Seoul

Hyunjoon Yoo

Sloped Parks

Satellite pictures of Seoul show a wealth of green areas throughout the city. This includes mountains such as Namsan, Inwangsan, Cheonggyesan, and Bukhansan. In fact, Seoul was named the capital of Joseon over 600 years ago, in 1394, just two years after the Joseon dynasty was established. At the time, Koreans cut down trees from mountains to serve as their major source of fuel. As a result, cities had to be close to as many mountains as possible. In order to secure drinking water and an effective means of distribution for goods along a river, cities also had to be close to a body of water, too. That’s why Seoul was chosen as the capital of Joseon: It was on one of the country’s longest rivers, featured a large number of mountains, and was relatively close to the West Sea.As its dense population grew, Seoul’s borders expanded. By the modern era, Korea’s capital city had also modernized tremendously. In the midst of this urban expansion, however, city officials and residents alike ran into mountains. To its north, the border of Seoul is demarcated by Bukhansan Mountain and Dobongsan Mountain; to the south it’s marked by Gwanaksan Mountain and Chyeonggyesan Mountain. Parks such as Hyde Park (London) and Tiergarten (Berlin) were originally founded as hunting areas and were only transformed into public parks with the emergence of civil society. Alternatively, Seoul has had few planned parks established since its inception as the capital city. In most cases, park sites have been left as they were because of the highly sloped, mountainous topography, which made it hard to construct buildings on them before they became parks. Several parks, including Bukhansan National Park, Namsan Park, and Chyeonggyesan Park, are examples of this challenge.

Designing parks on sloped terrain creates a number of practical hurdles, one of which is that it imposes a certain “directionality” on people’s behavior. Central Park, for example, is located on flat land. When a park is designed on this kind of ground, people can easily move in every which direction and even gather in a circle, if necessary. This allows for a variety of actions to be carried out. On the other hand, when we are on a sloped mountain, the only options open to people are to ascend or descend. Thus, if we go hiking up Chyeonggyesan Mountain with a friend, we won’t see much more of them other than their back (or nothing at all if leading) the entre time; instead of our friend’s face, we’ll frequently see the faces of other hikers. Furthermore, when it comes to mountains, it’s hard to find somewhere to spend time with the people we’re with and sit down face to face. As such, there are usually many places to eat or grab a quick snack at the entrances to mountain parks in Seoul. Bukhansan Mountain and Chyeonggyesan Mountain are prime examples of this. Only after completing your hike can you actually sit one-on-one with friends as you indulge in Korean pancakes and makgeolli (traditional rice wine). In short, mountain parks allow for little else except climbing up a trail like a line of ants.

That being said, mountain parks are not all bad. For instance, parks built on flat land can’t be seen just a few blocks away, while one designed on a sloped surface can be seen from all around the base. Take New York, which was developed on flat land so that people require landmarks/buildings to serve as visual markers, whereas in Seoul you don’t necessarily need these same things because mountains are visible at any given point in the city. In Seoul, Bukhansan Mountain stands in the distance, while Namsan Mountain surges to the sky in the heart of the capital. It’s no surprise, then, that green areas can be seen in the background anywhere you go in Seoul.

Another unique trait to mountain parks is the dynamic changes that take place in their landscapes. In traditional Japanese gardens, spaces are divided by establishing walls and gates on a small piece of land in order to make them look more spacious. A small hill will be built beside a gate, with trees then planted all around, as well as stone lamps. This gives people the chance to enjoy this kind of landscape as they look around at the hills and trees while strolling through the area. Taking a few more steps, they see stone lamps. A couple of more steps later, they can see part of the back garden through an open gate. Finally, they’re able to see the whole of the back garden upon passing through the gate. Architectural devices like this allow people to dynamically experience changing landscapes with a minimal amount of movement. Seoul’s natural setting is similar to this. In the distance is Bukhansan Mountain. A bit lower in height is Inwangsan Mountain, and then Namsan Mountain, which is not very high at all and located right in the city center between Inwangsan Mountain and the Hangang River. In a way, Namsan functions like a small hill in front of a low wall. There is a wide, open view of the Hangang River behind Namsan, where Gwanaksan Mountain and Chyeonggyesan Mountain are clearly visible. While traveling around Seoul, the high and low mountains of the city make it feel like you’re moving between islands in an archipelago.

Palace Parks and Hangang Park

Gardens and palaces are the most common flat land parks in Seoul. Palaces open to the public, such as Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, also play the role of a park. The reason Seoul has no large-scale flat land parks has to do with the city’s rapid industrialization. The country as a whole, in fact, started to become a capitalist, industrialized nation with the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. Later, after the Korean War (1950-53), much of the country’s population became concentrated in Seoul. During this process, many parts of the capital city were subdivided into individual ownership. The Korean government had no opportunity to systematically carry out any form of urban planning and secure tracts of land for parks. As a natural result of this reality, mountains (which could not be used for farming or accommodation) and palaces (the sudden end of the Joseon Dynasty left them empty) were all that remained to construct park sites. That, in a nutshell, is how palace parks came to fruition.

There were a few cases where sites other than palaces became parks, though. One of these was Seosomun, a minor gate through which corpses passed outside the area surrounded by Seoul’s traditional four main gates. Outside of Seosomun Gate was an area where people used to be executed. Consequently, certain places people historically didn’t want to visit were left to become parks in modern times.

At the same time, there were other parks created as an offshoot of civil engineering projects aimed at harnessing and controlling water pathways. For instance, the Hangang River, which bisects Seoul, used to overflow every summer. The width of the snake-like winding river would often change dramatically, with many sandy beaches along its route featuring slow-moving parts of the river. It was only when the width of the river was made consistent in an effort to prevent floods in the late 1980s that the riverside of the present-day Hangang River was formed. This area is now called Hangang Park and may well be the most visited park in Seoul today. This raises the question of why so many people come to this park every year. The reason, it turns out, lies in safety.

Although New York’s Central Park is a world-famous park ─ a veritable forest in a city center ─ 85 percent of the park’s interior (everything except the border area that can be looked down at from nearby buildings) can’t be used when it becomes a blind spot, literally and figuratively, after sunset every night. Although Central Park is a stunning piece of nature, it’s really only usable during the day. On the contrary, Hangang Park may not be a large plot of land featuring a relatively small number of trees, but it’s well-equipped with a wide range of different facilities and is safe 24 hours a day. And it’s safe because the park is constantly being watched. Seoul has even more apartment buildings than other large cities in Korea. Huge apartment complexes have been developed in Yeouido, Banpo, Jamsil, and Apgujeong-dong over the years, all of which are located on the riverside. The reason this occurred had nothing to do with the great views of the Hangang River. Indeed, most major apartment complexes were located along the Hangang River, especially on the south side of the river, because that made them close to the old center of Seoul. In the 1970s, there were just a few bridges over the Hangang River, but in an area where bridges could be constructed to allow smooth movement to the south of the river, large-scale housing sites were soon developed, with one high-rise apartment complex after another going up. With this urban planning model in place for the city, Seoul’s population was largely concentrated along the riverside. By the late 1980s, Hangang Park was finally completed.

The synergistic effect of Hangang Park and its attendant riverside apartments has been labelled “surveillance function.” Through high-rise apartments and the lights from Olympic Highway and the Gangbyeon Expressway, CCTV-like surveillance is made possible in and around Hangang Park. In addition, only a small number of trees were planted in Hangang Park so that they wouldn’t hinder the flow of river water when the park was flooded. Today, this long, narrow plot of land can be looked down at from innumerable apartment complexes and riverside roads. As a result, Hangang Park is constantly filled with couples on dates after work as much as it is by older people taking a walk at night and families who create little homes of their own with tents. Hangang Park now provides a great deal that mountain parks can’t, and that — in and of itself — makes it a truly unique landmark in one of the world’s busiest, most densely populated cities.

Parks Made of Industrial and Military Facilities

In recent years, abandoned industrial facilities in Korea have often been turned into parks. Well-known cases include Seonyudo Park (a closed water purification plant), Gyeongui Line Forest Park (a deserted railway that was turned into a park), Danginni Power Plant Hangang Park (a park designed right above Danginni Power Plant’s original underground site), and Seoul Station Elevated Park (made after closing Namdaemun’s elevated road). What seems clear is that parks created in Seoul over the past several years are made by remodeling previously built facilities. As a result, they are often leftover architectural relics rather than natural places with a plethora of trees, like London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park. One of the most recent additions to Seoul’s roster of parks is Gyeongui Line Forest Park, which is vastly different from any other industrial facility-cum-park in terms of its relationship with surrounding urban structures. Other facilities such as a water purification plant and an oil storage base are located quite a distance from residential areas due to health and security concerns. Alternatively, Gyeongui Line Forest Park is intimately tied to residential structures in the city center.

What’s special about this park is that alleyways are narrowly connected along the lengthy railway. Throughout the years, areas located near rail lines were typically neighborhoods that people didn’t want to live near because of the noise. No surprise, then, that low-income families lived in these parts of the city and land was naturally divided into small lots. With respect to Gyeongui Line Forest Park, it suddenly emerged beside old urban structures consisting of small houses, the two entities becoming beautifully harmonized in the process. While high-rise apartments appeared beside Hangang Park, there are still today many two-story houses close to Gyeongui Line Forest Park. Seniors who’ve lived there for decades, many of whom relax on low wooden benches in the evening, remind us of warmly inviting alleyway scenes from a bygone era.

On top of industrial facilities being transformed into parks, there are also military facilities being redesigned into parks. The most famous case is most definitely Yongsan Park, which is scheduled to be completed in the near future. Comparable in size to New York’s Central Park, this area between Namsan Mountain and the Hangang River has historically been occupied by the most powerful ruling force on the Korean Peninsula of the day ─ whether foreign or Korean ─ over the last two millennia. During the Three Kingdoms Period, Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla took turns occupying this stretch of land when each was at its acme of power. In terms of foreign forces, the Mongolian army was based there a thousand years ago, then the Japanese army from the turn of the 20th century to the end of World War II, and now the U.S. 8th Army, which has been stationed there from Korea’s liberation in 1945 to the present day. Thus, it’s not surprising that the adjacent Yongsan neighborhood is a very strategic location. The Seoul Metropolitan Government is currently in the process of finalizing its plans to establish a park in the city center when the U.S. armed forces complete their move to Pyeongtaek. I actually submitted my own park proposal for the design competition, which the government opened up to the public. My idea was to prevent people from entering the area for the next 50 years and to observe how nature recovered along the way. Sadly, it seems that Seoul can’t wait to make it a park, as residents have been clamoring for a flat land park for eons, it seems. When Yongsan Park is fully developed, officials will need to find a solution to the problem of blind spots after sunset.

Apartments and Parks

Over the past few decades, Koreans ─ especially citizens of Seoul ─ are demanding more parks than ever. The reason is that more than half the city’s population moved into apartments over this period. Up until the 1970s, the majority of people in Korea’s capital lived in houses with yards. As they were able to connect with nature through these same yards, many did not have a great yearning to see parks built. Back then, alleyways weren’t occupied by cars like they are today, meaning there was an abundance of outdoor spots where residents could go to and simply gaze up at the sky. However, starting in the 1970s and well into the 1980s, most people in Seoul moved into apartments. The vast majority of apartment buildings in Korea were constructed in an architectural style based on the German architect Ludwig Hilberseimer’s concept of “flat-type apartments” and the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s concept of a “shining city.” The idea behind the shining city was to build high-rise apartments and then create green areas between them. Unfortunately, the empty spaces between and among apartment complexes built in the 1970s and 1980s were mostly used as parking lots. This reality soon inspired people’s desire to have more parks.

In New York, parks are often located within a seven-minute walk from residential areas, with parks themselves situated about a 15-minute walk from one another. Seoul’s parks, on the other hand, are located approximately one hour’s walk between each one. Sadly, the private sector is addressing this dearth of parks issue by doing nothing but putting up park-like apartment complexes. In many of today’s complexes, which are being redeveloped into “super-blocks,” parking lots are generally being constructed underground, while the ground above is redesigned into park-like landscapes. Yet “parks” such as these can be clearly seen by neighbors from surrounding buildings, and the truth of the matter is that a park without anonymity cannot provide the rest and relaxation city dwellers so desperately want. If “discovering freedom in nature” is one of the main goals of a park, then it needs to reach a particular size before it can be considered something besides one’s own yard. A certain freedom arises when visitors to a park see people they don’t know and have never met. As it turns out, Seoul is still searching for a solution to offer its residents this kind of freedom.

Future Parks

What is a park? Ever since societies were transformed from agrarian economies to industrialized nations, people have effectively been cut off from nature. Only with the rise of democracy did the masses gain an audible voice and their demands for improved living conditions quickly become louder. Today, we live in a society where parks are designed and provided for urban residents through a variety of meetings with and among authorities. After all, a park is meant to usher nature into a city for people who have been separated from it. Lately, however, architects like Toyo Ito are trying to bring about a new concept of parks, one that goes beyond the existing notion of merely seeing greenery. For instance, Parque de la Gavia, which was designed by Mr. Ito, is a park that doubles as a source of water purification, something that defies the traditional idea of a park to simply provide natural landscapes. Since we are currently living in an era of widespread environmental pollution, there was a concerted effort to help improve the environment in the design of Parque de la Gavia. Moreover, many architectural projects recently, mainly in Southeast Asia, feature three-dimensional parks in microform, a concept similar to flower pots. In essence, a park is an architectural solution designed to complement the gap between human beings, which have evolved at a relatively slow speed, and an environment created by rapidly developing technology. That gap is only widening and so we must come up with an innovative park, now more than ever, as we move forward.

Hyunjoon Yoo

Hyunjoon Yoo (A.I.A.) is a principal of Hyunjoon Yoo Architects, professor at Hongik University. He studied architecture at Harvard, MIT, and Yonsei University. He practiced at Richard Meier & Partners. He was awarded as Korea Best 7 Architecture Award, Kim Swoo Geun Architectural Preview Award, Grand Prix of Korean Space Culture Award, Korean Young Architects Award and other numerous international awards. His book How the City Live By (2015) is a bestseller in Korea.