A Quick Comment on Urban Planning

This week, I am visiting Songdo, one of Korea’s newest invented cities. I have been here previously before about four years ago, and it is amazing to see how much the region has progressed in just a couple of years. The city is no longer a ghost town – there are restaurants and cars, with people occasionally walking around. Leave the immediate downtown area though, and it quickly becomes quiet.

It’s interesting, but Korea is clearly designing this city with the car at the center of planning. Roads are wide – 4-5 lanes in each direction for almost all of the major roads, and the intersections are few and far between. It can take as much as 10 minutes walking just to get to the next city block. The city has a single subway line, which isn’t all that convenient when the buildings are so far apart.

This really is remarkable. At a time when more cities than ever are trying to grapple with density and rebuilding mass transit, Korea, a country whose record here is world-leading, would seem to be trying to go the opposite way. There are interesting politics to why this city exists in the first place, but at the very least it didn’t have to be planned this way.

I get the supposed allure of the “suburban feel.” However, Korea’s suburbs are just like the suburbs in the west – mostly devoid of random interaction, and merely an agglomeration of buildings waiting for you to visit with your car. It’s all about destinations and not the journey itself, about planning over spontaneity.

I guess this sort of option is needed in Korea, but I hope the country realizes that its future lies in making its cities great, and not sparse utilitarian monstrosities.