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SPECIAL REPORT

Embracing parks, heart and Seoul

Capital's green revolution grows bigger with latest project to turn highway into a Skygarden

Taking a walk, whether along the Han River or in a park near her workplace, is a weekly ritual for Ms Kim Dong Hee. So it is only natural that her one big wish is for more green spaces in Seoul for people to roam in and enjoy the scenery.

"Seoul needs more greenery. Since starting industrial development, we have lost not only our clean and green environment, but also the rights to enjoy it. It is time to get our rights back and get the green back," said the 32-year-old translator.

Ms Kim's wish is also the city mayor's dream.

Mayor Park Won Soon, elected for two terms since 2011, has been trying to make the South Korean capital greener, more walkable and pedestrian-friendly, continuing the good work of his predecessors. They include former president Lee Myung Bak, who as Seoul mayor restored an 11km-long stream which had been paved over, turning it into a public recreational space.

To fulfil his own green ambition, Mr Park has sought inspiration from various cities including New York, Paris and London.

His biggest legacy is expected to be the downtown Seoul Skygarden, a park being transformed from a disused highway arching over railway tracks running towards the nearby Seoul Station.

Work on the redevelopment started last December and the 938m-long park, which is modelled after New York's High Line and Paris' Promenade Plantee, is slated to open by April.

Planting more trees is also part of Mr Park's greenprint for the city.

"Since my inauguration I have been pursuing the Seoul in Bloom project to plant trees throughout the city, and we would plant 12 million trees by the end of my (current) term," said Mr Park, who was in Singapore in July as a Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellow and to attend the World Cities Summit, an international conference.

The 60-year-old former human rights lawyer said Seoul in Bloom is named after Britain's nationwide horticultural campaign Britain in Bloom, which has been transforming the country's cities, towns and villages with gardening projects in the past 60 years.

"I'm always thinking about how to make Seoul a more walkable and pedestrian-friendly city, and I'm inspired by many cases in cities around the world," added the hiking enthusiast, who heads to the mountains during his free time.

More walking trails have also been created during Mr Park's term, including an 18.6km trail connecting the city's four main gates, which used to mark the north, south, east and west entrances of the capital's ancient fortress walls, and a 157km circular trail linking 12 mountains within Seoul.

These foot trails, as well as enhanced bicycle networks, are part of the city's larger vision to make car ownership unnecessary by 2030. This is in tandem with plans to further develop the city's already comprehensive public transport network so as to encourage residents to leave their cars at home, a pollution-cutting move that is also part of the greening process.

Seoul's green revolution started as early as the 1960s, when then Mayor Kim Hyeon Ok, acting under instructions from President Park Chung Hee, embarked on ambitious plans to turn the muddy banks of the Han River running through the middle of the city into parks.

In 1998, Mayor Goh Kun established the city's first car-free zones in popular shopping belts Myeongdong and Insadong, while Mr Lee created a green space in front of Seoul City Hall in 2004 and, a year later, opened the restored Cheonggyecheon stream.

Last September marked the opening of a 1.3km-long park that had been transformed from a 100-year-old disused rail track in the western Mapo district. And the Gyeongui Line Forest Trail Park, which cost 45.7 billion won (S$56 million) to build, has proved popular with locals and tourists alike for its green spaces and trendy cafes.

Creating parks out of obsolete rail or road infrastructure is a growing global trend. Singapore, for instance, is committed to making a 24km-long Rail Corridor stretching from Tanjong Pagar to Kranji, using space previously occupied by KTM railway tracks.

But, not all green projects necessarily got the residents' green light from the start.

Seoul Skygarden, which was part of Mr Park's 2014 election pledge, faced objections from store owners in the area who feared the redevelopment would have a negative impact on their businesses. He said he made several trips to talk to them personally and to convince them of the long-term benefits of having a promenade instead of a highway.

According to Mr Kwon Wan Taeg of the Seoul Station Area Development Planning Bureau, which oversees the Skygarden project, people started to change their minds when they got a chance to take a walk on the highway after its closure last December.

All in, about 50,000 people turned up over three occasions to see for themselves how nice it would be to have a park in place of the highway.

A mock-up of a section of the Skygarden, which was set up at City Hall and opened to the public in June, also drew favourable comments from media and the public.

Ten companies are involved in the project and over 30 per cent of remodelling works have been completed so far, said Mr Kwon.

When ready, the 38 billion won park will feature a main Rose Square and mini gardens, as well as cafes, observation decks and play areas for children. Footbridges will be added to allow easy access from various points along the park.

Ms Kim, for one, is already looking forward to the opening of the park. "The Skygarden is a good idea and we can get to enjoy the green space. I believe in the (soothing) power of green," she said.


SEOUL'S GREEN PROJECTS

 SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT, CHANG MAY CHOON, TNP FILE
PHOTOS: SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT, CHANG MAY CHOON, TNP FILE

CHEONGGYECHEON STREAM

Restored in 2005, the 11km stream in downtown Seoul has been turned into a public recreational space lined with trees, bridges and water features. The stream starts from a plaza area where a landmark spiral sculpture stands. It is popular for strolls and hosts events like a lantern festival.

 SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT, CHANG MAY CHOON, TNP FILE

SEOUL DULLE-GIL TRAIL

Completed in 2014, this walking trail is 157km long and links 12 mountains found within Seoul. It comprises eight courses and offers easy access to 23 subway stations. Visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the city while trekking. 

 SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT, CHANG MAY CHOON, TNP FILE

OLYMPIC PARK

Built to host the 1988 Seoul Olympics, this 1.42 sq km park in the south-eastern Songpa district features numerous sculptures that pay tribute to the international sporting event. It also houses a fortress wall built during the Baekje era (18BC-AD660) .

 SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT, CHANG MAY CHOON, TNP FILE

YEOUIDO PARK

Opened in 1999 on south-western Yeouido island, this park has often been compared to New York's Central Park. It is best known for its 6km-long cherry blossom path and a traditional Korean tree forest. Visitors often pitch tents along the riverside segment of the park to enjoy the outdoors.

 SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT, CHANG MAY CHOON, TNP FILE

GYEONGUI LINE FOREST TRAIL PARK

Transformed from a 100-year-old disused rail track in Seoul's western Mapo district, this 1.3km-long linear park was opened in September last year. Some parts of the park retain its rail history.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Embracing parks, heart and Seoul'. Print Edition | Subscribe