Over the past 20 years, Seoul has been striving to improve its standard of living for its residents. Read more in an interview with the city's mayor, Oh Se-hoon.
Over the past 20 years, Seoul, like other cities around the world, has been striving to improve its standard of living for its residents. What do you think have been some of the most successful initiatives that were initiated by your city?
Over the past 20 years, Seoul has pursued numerous policies to improve the quality of life of its citizens. There are many policies that I am proud of, but I am most proud of our Parks & Green Spaces Policy.
In the early 2000s, Seoul severely lacked a sufficient availability of green space per capita. Much of the green space in Seoul, such as parks, were located sporadically throughout the city in an unbalanced manner. We realized that free and equal access to green space was the best possible example of universal welfare, and based on this philosophy, we began improving the urban parks in Seoul, both in the quantitative and qualitative sense — meaning increasing the overall number of parks and renovating the already existing ones.
The following are some of our flagship projects.
The One Million Pyeong Green Space Project (creating approximately 3.3 million square meters of green space) — Creating medium-to-large-sized public green spaces in areas with poor living conditions, utilizing both unused spaces and natural resources; below are the details of the sub-projects:
- The Dream Forest was created by purchasing the site of a closed amusement park and transforming the site into a large-sized forest park. Visitors can enjoy scenic views, various leisure and sports activities, and cultural performances all throughout the year. It is one of the most representative landmarks in the Gangbuk area of Seoul and a must-go destination for picnic lovers.
- The Gyeongui Forest Park was created by renting a part of an old railway line for 50 years and transforming the area into a linear park. It is referred to as “Yeon-tral Park” (a combination of the words “Yeonnam” area and “Central Park”). The Gyeongui Forest Park is an attractive meeting point for young people, and as a result, the area boasts a booming local economy.
- Existing large-sized parks such as the Seoul Grand Park and the Children’s Grand Park were also renovated.
Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project
- The Cheonggyecheon Stream, which had been covered by a highway overpass for 47 years, was restored to its original state. The stream now serves as a popular resting place and travel destination for citizens and tourists. It is also a habitat for various species of birds, fish and plants. The 5.8 km stream also has a walking trail where citizens and tourists can enjoy greenery, lighting and art as well. Bridges, floodgates and other relics along the stream have also been restored to emphasize the historic meaning and value of the stream. UN-Habitat recognized that the Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project had a positive effect on the lives of the citizens by making the city cleaner and greener. It gave Seoul a special award in 2009 for the successful and inspirational Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project.
Han River Renaissance Project — Creating world-class waterfront cultural space by utilizing the Han River, our number one water resource.
- The walking trails connecting the riverside of the Han River and the small streams flowing through the city underwent repair and maintenance work, and bicycle lanes were newly created.
- The Han River parks were transformed into special waterfront cultural parks where people can enjoy cultural activities and leisure and sports.
- The artificial riverbanks were restored to natural riverbanks, reviving the natural ecology to create natural ecological parks.
- Water transportation, such as water taxis and cruise boats (with live performances), began operation.
- The Moonlight Rainbow Fountain was installed on the Banpo Bridge and the Floating Island was created nearby, making the Han River a global landmark.
Through these projects, we not only upgraded the quality of life of the citizens but also created a vibrant city landscape, attracting tourists and generating economic value and restoring the natural ecology of the city and improving air quality as well. The green space and waterfront space created through these projects has provided much comfort and solace to the citizens, especially during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, Seoul is planning on pursuing the Han River Renaissance Project 2.0, focusing on the small streams flowing through the city. We will continue to utilize our potential resources to create even more public spaces that can provide inspiration to the citizens.
As a city decision-maker, what, according to you, have been some of the biggest challenges you have overcome to implement quality-of-living ideas and best practices, creating an attractive city for businesses, residents and tourists?
Since 2006, when I first took office as mayor of Seoul, one of my top priorities was to make Seoul a beautiful city with a clear identity that can be comparable to other culturally attractive cities in the world. Seoul had experienced compressed growth in the past and had endured reckless development over many years.
Design in cities is important not only because of convenience functions and aesthetic reasons, but also because it helps drive and strengthen the growth engine and cultural power of cities. That is why in 2009, we pursued the Design Seoul project. Based on the philosophy of “design is about making the city more liveable,” we strived to incorporate design in all aspects of city administration — from large-scale infrastructure projects to small details in the everyday lives of the citizens. As a result of these efforts, in 2010, UNESCO designated Seoul as a ‘Creative City for Design.’
Each sub-project of the Design Seoul project is meaningful, but most meaningful and most recognized by the world would be the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) project.
The DDP area used to be a thriving commercial area in the past, but had been slowly deteriorating in recent years. The creation of the DDP was our attempt to revive the local economy, build a memorable landmark and create immeasurable added value for the city. There were many obstacles that we had to overcome in the process of creating the DDP, such as the conflict of interests among various stakeholders, the discovery of historic relics, such as a floodgate built during the Choseon Dynasty — not to mention preconceived notions and concerns that design projects were a luxury and only focused on fixing the exterior appearance of a building.
However, by engaging in continuous discussions with the residents and small business owners in the area as well as with experts, we were able to come to a reasonable agreement. After the official opening of the DDP, we received praise from both domestic and foreign media outlets. Today, the DDP has become a world-class landmark and is generating enormous economic and social value for Seoul. The DDP is a good example of interpreting traces of the past in a modern light and preserving both the past and present elements. Many architecture students from around the world make the so-called “pilgrimage trip” to Seoul to see this landmark, which resembles a futuristic spaceship. I am certain that many more people working in the fashion, design and beauty industries will be flocking to Seoul to see the DDP.
Given how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit most cities around the world, what do you think are the most important areas that cities need to address to continue being both attractive and competitive?
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities around the world are faced with new challenges and an uncertain future. Seoul is no exception. All of us are witnessing a “sea change” in civilization, which we have never seen before, and experiencing a “new normal,” which we have never experienced before. The future, which had seemed so distant, has suddenly drawn near us.
Most cities are struggling to contain the transmission of COVID-19 and revive the economy at the same time. What makes the situation more difficult is the fact that we also have to make preparations to adapt to what the future society might look like as well. That is why it is important that cities quickly accept the changes brought about by the pandemic, apply technologies to meet these new demands, and become a stronger, more attractive city that is resilient to disasters like pandemics and that can maintain robust economic activities.
I view the recent events as not a crisis that threatens our existence but an opportunity through which we can gain a much-needed momentum for economic recovery. The more a non-contact way of life becomes the norm and the more digital technologies become evolved, the more the online, virtual, metaverse and digital economy-based industries will become mainstream. We will see technological innovations particularly in the future transportation, energy, water supply and sewerage, and other infrastructure fields. And this will open up new business opportunities, startup opportunities and job opportunities.
But to ensure that these predictions do indeed come to fruition, we need to do more than just set goals. We need to aggressively invest in education. A city can have the most advanced technologies out there, yet if it cannot make use of these cutting-edge technologies and create business opportunities through them, then it will most certainly lose its competitive edge.
Besides, the pandemic will only widen the already existing digital divide, educational divide and income divide in society. Even if a city has a high standard of living, if only a small number of elite citizens are able to enjoy a high standard of living, then that city will not be a good city to live in, and if it is not a good city to live in, then less and less people will be inclined to live there.
In a changed world, in the post-COVID-19 era, it is essential that we invest in digital education and talent training.
Due to the pandemic, has Seoul and its decision-makers reviewed the city’s short-, medium- and long-term vision? If yes, what are those?
The very first task that I sought to do after taking office as mayor of Seoul again was to come up with a master plan for the city, with a particular focus on preparing for the fourth Industrial Revolution —especially after the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end. With the overarching goal of elevating both the quality of life of the citizens of Seoul and the global competitiveness of the city, we convened experts, citizens’ committees and public servants to come together and contemplate the future of Seoul. Over the course of 105 meetings, we came up with the Seoul Vision 2030 master plan.
In the next 10 years, Seoul will strive to become a co-prosperity city, a global leading city, a resilient and safe city, and a future-vibe city. We will pursue 16 strategic goals and 78 policy initiatives. The following are details of the Seoul Vision 2030.
- Co-prosperity city: A city with no gender discrimination; a city where young people can feel empowered to begin their own startup businesses; a city were senior citizens aged 50 and up can thrive; a city that prepares for an aging society through the use of smart technologies; a city that develops in a balanced manner
- Global leading city: An economic hub of Asia; a startup hub; a culture- and tourism-focused city; an innovation and industry convergence city
- Resilient and safe city: A city that is resilient to disasters; a city that provides safe housing, welfare and health services
- Future-vibe city: A city with unique charm; a city with smart transportation and green spaces; a city with digital technologies
Since the Seoul Vision 2030 was established while the pandemic was ongoing, the following two key initiatives are particularly worth noting:
- The “Seoul Smart Healthcare System”: According to experts, cities in the future — especially after the pandemic — will have to become smart healthcare cities equipped with advanced medical systems and disease-control systems. Cities that fail to highlight the importance of smart healthcare will fall behind in the race to lead the new civilization. Since citizens are becoming increasingly more interested in non-contact healthcare and digital healthcare; we need to heed these experts’ advice and establish an ICT-based self-health monitoring system so that we can become a resilient and safe city where citizens can manage their own health.
- The “Seoul Metaverse Platform”: The transition to a non-contact way of living, accelerated by the fourth Industrial Revolution and the COVID-19 pandemic, will require our city administration to undergo sweeping changes. That is why it is important to establish a “metaverse platform” through which we can provide administrative services regarding economy, education, culture and tourism. The year 2030 will see Seoul become a global leader in the healthcare and digital fields.
What do you believe should be the main priorities for Seoul over the next 20 years?
Seoul is one of the few megacities in the world with abundant opportunities and immense potential. Its world-class information technology and fintech competitiveness as well as its talented human resources make it an attractive location for foreign financial companies and a promising global financial hub.
Therefore, one of our top priorities over the next 20 years would be to aggressively attract global financial institutions and recruit foreign talent so as to become a top-five global financial hub in the world.
We will create a special digital finance zone within the Yeouido area and establish a Seoul Investment Agency, in charge of foreign investment and corporate support, and provide one-stop services such as consulting, incentives and language support for foreign investment companies.
Furthermore, we will get rid of any regulations that hinder innovation and also improve the startup ecosystem so that many startups related to artificial intelligence and big data can grow into unicorn companies.
Through these strategies, we hope that Seoul can become a city that attracts talent, capital and information; a city that can look ahead into the future; a city where its citizens can enjoy a high quality of life.
If you could give some general tips for cities that are already thriving on how to improve their quality of living even more, what would you say?
Each city has unique characteristics that form its identity, and each city has special assets that it has accumulated over a long period of time. I believe that if a city can utilize this to create more unique and special attractive elements, then it most certainly can raise its quality of life.
I also believe that cities need to continuously invest in innovation and the future.
The following are a couple of tips that I would like to share:
- Set a long-term vision, and build a system through which that vision can be realized without any obstacles.
- Create an environment in which people from different generations and those with different nationalities and different ethnicities can live harmoniously.
- Make the gradual transition to a digital-based smart city.
- Invest in technology development to strengthen urban resilience, which has become all the more important due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Increase the number of green spaces and open spaces.
Would you agree that a city’s talent pool and business attractiveness tend to correlate with higher living standards?
I most certainly agree. Cities that are attractive for talent and companies tend to have higher living standards. And the higher the living standards of a city, the more foreign talent and global companies tend to flock to it, making it an even more attractive city.
That is why since 2006, when I was serving my first term as mayor, Seoul has been striving to create a better living environment for both citizens and foreigners. In particular, we have been focusing on making Seoul a city where foreigners, particularly foreign mothers, want to move to and live in and do business in.
The following are some of the policies that we have pursued.
- We opened the Seoul Global Center and are providing one-stop services for foreigners in Seoul.
- We are providing rental housing for foreigners that need to live in Seoul on a long-term basis.
- We have established international schools for foreign children (Yongsan International School, Dulwich College Seoul, etc.)
Thanks to these efforts, Seoul moved up the scale in various global cities indexes. In particular, its ranking on the Global Financial Centers Index rose sharply from 43rd in 2007 to 11th in 2011.
Unfortunately, however, Seoul’s ranking for global competitiveness has fallen over the past 10 years. I believe that the reason behind this is the lack of policies and budget to attract foreign talent and global companies.
Nevertheless, it is not too late to change this. Seoul now has a firm direction of transforming itself into a city that can satisfy citizens, talent and companies both domestic and global.
Our long-term vision is to make Seoul a leading global city. We will raise Seoul’s urban competitiveness, financial competitiveness and future competitiveness so that people and investments flock to Seoul, reviving the economy and creating jobs, ultimately becoming a city with one of the best living standards in the world.
Cities are striving to implement a range of new technologies and modern infrastructure in order to improve their residents’ living standard. At the same time, with globalization, gender equity and diversity are all equally important components of the city’s future. How important are these issues for Seoul? Why are they important?
Seoul is actively investing in building infrastructure utilizing new technologies to improve the living standards of the citizens.
In our Seoul Vision 2030, which I mentioned above, we have a goal to make Seoul a world-class smart mobility city that connects the land, the skies, the waterways and the underground.
For this, we are planning to create 32 mobility hubs by 2030. These mobility hubs will be equipped with future transportation means such as UAM (urban air mobility) and PM (personal mobility), and also distribution centers and community facilities as well. We will also reopen the waterways in the Han River and allow water taxis to run again. We will also continue to revert the ground railways to the underground to link disconnections and create new urban spaces.
Seoul is investing in not only hardware to improve the convenience of the citizens but also software to consider globalization and diversity. Achieving gender equality in Seoul and making the city a happy place for everyone has been one of my main priorities since long before.
Gender sensitivity reflects the standard of a city. Policies to make the lives of women in Seoul happier will indeed improve the living standards of everyone in Seoul. Ensuring women’s safety, making sure that their careers are not cut off due to pregnancy or childbirth, supporting them with childcare and realizing gender equality cannot be overemphasized.
Would you be able to provide a few examples of how the city of Seoul tackled gender parity, ethno-cultural diversity and social-cultural diversity to improve the living standard of its residents (for example, increased security for women, dedicated infrastructure, etc.)?
Gender equality and cultural diversity are essential in strengthening the value and competitiveness of individuals, cities and nations and in ensuring sustainable growth in the future. Seoul, with its goal of become a leading global city, is actively pursuing policies that allow all members of society to enjoy equality and participation.
Seoul already launched a project called the “Happiness for Women” project 10 years ago. The aim was to realize gender equality by increasing public childcare facilities, expanding women’s participation in economic activities, and creating a women-friendly and safe urban environment. In 2010, this project received worldwide recognition for its achievements, and Seoul was awarded the UN Public Service Award.
Gender equality policies reflect the changing trends of a particular period in history and are reinforced and upgraded over time.
Recently, we have launched a Seoul-type Public Daycare Center, which is a new type of daycare center in which publicly run and privately run daycare centers work together to provide joint childcare programs and services. We have also launched Seoul Public Kids Cafe, Seoul Women’s Internship and programs to help women who have been cut off from their careers to return to work. All of these policies and programs are our efforts to help women participate in the workforce.
Also, to ensure a safe urban environment, we have begun services like the Safe Home Set for Single-Women Households, Safety Sheriffs, Safety App, Safety Scouts and Safety Package Delivery, etc.
Seoul is a city with a population of approximately 10 million — 460,000 of which are foreigners. To help support the smooth settlement of foreign residents, we have established the Seoul Global Center and the Seoul Global Village Center. And we have also created 18 Foreign Residents Support Centers and 25 Multicultural Families Support Centers in areas with a high population of foreigners to provide services such as Korean-language training courses and information on childcare, school admissions, medical facilities, tax payments, driver’s licenses and more.
As Seoul becomes a more multicultural, multiethnic society, the need for social unity becomes all the more important. So, we are also providing educational courses for children and teenagers to improve the perception of cultural diversity as well.
What other city has done a great job improving its living standards for residents over the past decade? Could you name few and say why?
Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, has made remarkable achievements recently.
I understand that the city government of Hanoi is planning several new town projects and is strengthening its urban transportation network and other types of social overhead capital. For this, it is making efforts to attract many foreign companies and investments. Many Korean companies, which have similar experiences of rapid growth, are actively participating in these projects and sharing its expertise and know-how.
When Hanoi opened its first metro line earlier this month, after more than 10 years of construction work, it made headlines around the world. Photos of the citizens happy with the city’s first-ever metro was indeed very inspiring to see.
Moreover, Vietnam’s GDP growth rate recorded 2.91% this year and the country’s GDP amounted to approximately $343 billion as well, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. It is only one of the very few countries that have achieved growth amid the global economic downturn.
With this momentum, I am certain that Vietnam, driven by the success of Hanoi, will soon be able to join the ranks of the advanced nations.
It is relatively easy for emerging cities like Hanoi to produce results and bring about positive changes, especially if the city’s policy decision-maker (usually the mayor) is determined to do so, since the base for the existing environment and policy systems are somewhat weak.
Well-established cities like Seoul, with already existing orders and complicated relationships among the stakeholders, have a relatively challenging time bringing about changes. So, Seoul’s competitors would be fellow well-established cities like Tokyo, London, Singapore and New York. These cities have experienced truly amazing innovation over the years.
Tokyo’s innovative way of developing its old city center, London’s job creation in new industries, Singapore’s good quality and affordable housing supply, New York’s improvement of its urban environment — all of these cases have required an all-encompassing agreement among stakeholders with different interests, a mature sense of citizenship and the insight of a visionary leader.
How would you summarize Seoul in 2021 (pre-COVID-19), and where would you like to see it in the future?
Due to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Seoul, like many cities around the world, is trapped inside a long tunnel.
Korea’s ladder for social mobility has broken, and conflicts between generations and those between classes have escalated. It is urgent that we restore a sense of fairness and co-prosperity in the society.
I feel a deep sense of duty, as I was elected once again to the position of mayor of Seoul by the citizens of Seoul, during these times of crisis, to take care of issues that have been forgotten and to improve the quality of life of the citizens and raise the competitiveness of the city.
In this regard, the year 2021 was a year in which Seoul established a new foothold to not only tackle the challenges that we are faced with, but also prepare to make the leap as a global leading city.
One of the first steps we took was to formulate a master plan for the next decade, which we refer to as the Seoul Vision 2030, with the overarching goal being ‘Seoul, Up and Running Again as a Fair City.’ This year, we focused on a number of projects. The Safety Income program is a welfare program in which households with an income of 85% or less of the standard median income are paid 50% of the income amount below 85% of the standard median income every month. The overall idea is to be ‘generous below and stingy on top.’ The Seoul Learn platform is an online platform that offers free educational contents and lectures for students from low-income and multicultural families. The aim is to provide fair opportunities for learning. The Safety Watch project is a project that takes care of the health of the citizens and ultimately helps save medical bills and increase disposable income.
What I envision for Seoul in the next decade is as follows:
- A hopeful city in which the citizens can have the chance to climb up the social ladder and dream of a better life than they currently have.
- A smart city that is able to attract talented human resources, companies and investments and gain the upper hand in future industries.
- A safe city with a strong resilience to climate change, fine dust, accidents and disasters.
- A beautiful city that spreads its unique attractiveness, style, taste and entertainment value throughout the world.
- A globally competitive city that is the global standard city for many other cities.
It will be difficult to bring about immediate results. And there will be the need to communicate and cooperate with various stakeholders with different, sometimes conflicting, interests. However, this is a task that must be done. And I believe that I am going in the right direction.
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