USC Price School of Public Policy

A Stream Flows Anew in Seoul

Global Reach:

A Stream Flows Anew in Seoul

By Cristy Lytal

Korean Transport Institute MOU Keith Hwang, left, president of the Korean Transport Institute and SPPD alumnus, signs a memorandum of understanding with SPPD Dean Jack Knott at Lewis Hall
Photo by Tom Queally

With the help of Keith Hwang MS ’83, Ph.D ’92, the Cheonggye stream – buried for more than a half-century beneath six kilometers of elevated highway – is flowing again in downtown Seoul.

Hwang, president of the Korean Transport Institute, recently visited USC to give a presentation on the stream restoration and sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Jack H. Knott, the C. Erwin and Ione L. Piper Dean and professor at SPPD.

Hwang, who received his Ph.D. in urban planning at SPPD, served as a senior research fellow and director of the Research Center for Cheonggye Stream Restoration at the Seoul Development Institute, the think tank for the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

He led the development of the master plan for the stream restoration and central business district redevelopment.

“I am quite amazed by what you’ve been able to accomplish in Seoul and in South Korea,” said Knott, who expressed his hopes for student exchanges, faculty collaboration and sharing of expertise while signing the memorandum.

Genevieve Giuliano, senior associate dean for research at SPPD and director of the METRANS Transportation Center, introduced Hwang to the faculty, students and professionals who attended the presentation.

“Keith has actually implemented many of the ideas that we all talk about here,” she said. “And this is to me is a really fascinating project — uncovering a stream that was underground and taking down an entire urban freeway in order to create some open space and a very pleasant pedestrian environment in the middle of Seoul.”

Hwang gave a brief history of the stream’s importance to Seoul, which was selected as the capital of Korea 600 years ago by a king of the Choson Dynasty.

“In the Korean style of location theory, we like our mountains behind us so we can block invasions, and then we always have to have water in front,” Hwang said. “And so the stream was a very good reason to put the palace here [in Seoul].”

During the rapid industrialization that took place after the Korean War, the stream had become a polluted open sewer, which subsequently was entombed in concrete under an elevated expressway. The resulting pollution and traffic depressed the surrounding neighborhood, which suffered from crime, low land values, narrow streets and deteriorating buildings.

According to Hwang, residents of Seoul began to realize that they had prioritized economic growth at the expense of their environment and legacy.

“We had to shift our paradigm from development to conservation,” he said. “We surveyed about 1,000 Seoul citizens prior to the stream restoration, and 90 percent said they liked it.”

Lee Myung-bak, a former leader of construction companies at the Hyundai Corp., was elected Seoul’s mayor in 2002 on a platform of removing the old roads — some of which he helped to build — and reviving the stream.

“He’s a very different leader,” Hwang said. “He’s from the private sector. So his decision making is very quick and very, very challenging.”

Earning the nickname “Bulldozer,” Lee completed the stream restoration project in October 2005 and, due in large part to this success, became South Korea’s president in 2008.

Today the stream’s cool, green banks attract 90,000 pedestrians on an average day. Real estate values have soared, air pollution has decreased and summer temperatures surrounding the stream have dropped significantly.

Despite the removal of the elevated highway, traffic has been affected minimally, since people have modified their behavior, relying more on public transportation.

To prevent the stream from drying up after the summer rainy season, seven miles of pipeline deliver 120,000 tons of water a day to the head of the stream from the nearby Han River. Critics complain that this is costly and unnatural, but the project remains popular.

The stream restoration has inspired wider efforts to raise the quality of life in downtown Seoul by demolishing unsightly flyovers that block mountain views, repurposing car lanes to create pedestrian-friendly plazas in front of the palace and city hall, restoring castle walls and old streets, preserving modern architecture, developing walking trails, crosswalks and green spaces, and expanding public transportation.

“The restoration of the stream had vast, extensively positive effects,” Hwang said. “The restoration is not the end and an urban stream renaissance is going on all over South Korea.”