Many times when we read about a project we only see part of the story. We read opinions, analyses and some key figures. However, there is always part of the story that is untold or complex to experience from outside. For many years I wanted to walk through the Cheonggyecheon stream restoration project in Seoul. Finally in May, I was able to visit this urban project.
This project has been widely promoted in media as a “successful” urban intervention that transformed a second floor highway for cars into a grandiose public space for the city. Before the intervention this space was filled with 170 thousand cars everyday. Today, the second floor highway doesn’t exist and 10,9 km of public space with a clear stream has appeared in the middle of Seoul. The project generated 113 thousand new jobs along it and the park has 75 thousand visits every weekend.
Even though most articles argue this project is successful in many aspects; others argue that the project didn’t address the environmental issues, it had high cost and generated massive gentrification. Regardless of the contradictory opinions of the project, I happily went to Seoul to experience this project for myself. My intention rather than to contribute to the debate or analysis was to experience this urban space as a normal citizen and try to grasp a bit what it felt like.
The greatest transformation for me after walking few minutes in the Cheonggyecheon stream was not the beauty of the project but the life it produces. In this space I saw children playing in the nature, crossing the stream through step stones and laughing with each other as they played with the water. I also saw couples holding their hands, sharing food and building long-lasting memories in the middle of the urban jungle.
At the same time along the stream, I saw businessman and women with elegant outfits taking off their shoes to feel the water and relax from their busy schedules. For few minutes they could enjoy life without pressure in the city. Next to them there was a group of senior citizens playing games, sharing stories and seeing people walk by the stream. All these interactions made the space alive. From the youngest to the oldest generations the citizens were living and sharing the city.
As you walk all the project stages the most alive spaces are the ones that offer more interaction. These are the ones were citizens’ express themselves through culture, art and music. In the walls there are colorful graffiti, tactical urbanism plants crossing the stream and street markets. In these parts the project’s life is amplified and the space really feels powerful.
As my short visit ended I reflected of the large urban projects we read every day in the news. Are all the projects thinking of the human scale? Will they be able to go beyond a nice render and urban transformation to enable a livable city for all? I think the question is not about the size or magnitude of the project but the life it can produce. It’s about how people’s quality of life will improve. At the end it’s not the infrastructure that makes a city better but the people who live and interact with it.