Interview with Hee Seon Jin: Seoulistic urban regeneration

How did Seoul transit from a period of rapid top-down urban development into a new era of urban regeneration using people-centric approaches, creating a city for the citizens by the citizens? Seoul’s Deputy Mayor of Urban Regeneration Hee Seon Jin explains this remarkable shift – playfully coined as “Seoulistic urban regeneration”, as well as the process involved to make this happen.

Sewoon Makercity
Sewoon is an example of Seoul’s urban regeneration effort carried out in collaboration with residents © Seoul Metropolitan Government

Why is urban regeneration important to the city of Seoul?

Hee Seon Jin (HSJ): Seoul is a historic city of coexistence that possesses remains of an ancient city from 2,000 years ago and a 600-year-old medieval capital. Though a majority of the city was destroyed during the Korean War in 1950, it went through rapid restoration, also known as the "Miracle on the Hangang Riverside", in the midst of an industrialisation process.

The population, which was just 3,420,000 in 1964, increased by more than four times and 2 million houses were constructed to solve the shortage of housing. In fact, 95% of Seoul's current area has been built within the last 50 years.

As side effects of such rapid industrialisation, however, old streets and alleys disappeared and modern skyscrapers brought slumming of antique spaces as only business values were sought without an overall planning of the infrastructure.

Also, an explosive rise in housing prices in newly developed areas has led to instability in citizens' living situations and gentrification of natives, presenting the two extremes sides of development through which local history and communities were painfully disbanded.

Amidst such a process of change, as the world entered the "age of low growth" in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, quantitative expansion of development-oriented cities reached its limit and the global trend shifted to qualitative growth of sustainable cities.

A city that has carried out remarkable economic growth and thus been a model for developing countries in Asia, Seoul also changed the basic direction of its urban policies from "urban development" to "urban regeneration" in 2013 according to the changing trends and, based on mature citizenship, it innovatively converted its political direction to "Seoulistic urban regeneration" that nurtures and develops a city that "citizens" desire by the "citizens" themselves. It was an astounding conversion for Seoul, which had been well used to urban development.

Going beyond the top-down method of the past, the essence of Seoul's urban regeneration policies lies in the residents who serve as the main body in the entire process from planning to execution in order to revive the identity of a region, properly combine hardware (development, repair, preservation) and software (economy, culture, welfare), and implement these in collaboration with public and private governance.

How does Seoul determine the areas for regeneration? What are the criteria?

HSJ: The essence of "Seoulistic urban regeneration" is gradual expansion of areas for regeneration according to the level of maturity in a region's competency through formation of residents' consensus and reinforcement of the promoters' capabilities prior to designation of urban regeneration areas.

In detail, 10 residents of a region that desires urban regeneration gather to conduct various activities such as workshops and resident meetings to think about local issues and find solutions themselves.

In the progress of such activities, regions that show excellent performance are selected as urban regeneration areas and actively promote urban regeneration projects.

When selecting urban regeneration areas among the resident competency reinforcement regions, a selection committee consisting of external specialists in the private sector is formed and a review is conducted in a fair manner by obtaining impartiality and legitimacy on additional selection of vitalisation regions.

Even if a region is not selected as an urban regeneration area, an additional reserve stage is installed to continuously strengthen the residents' capabilities and can be selected as regeneration areas in the future once their competency reaches maturity.

When restoring the Sewoon Shopping Centre, which issues did Seoul face and how did Seoul overcome them?

HSJ: Sewoon Shopping Centre is situated in the historic centre of Seoul where the decline of Seoul's old town due to continuous changes in the urban structure may be seen, from war damage restoration in the 1950s and development and growth between the 1960s and 1970s to development of up-and-coming regions after the 1980s.

Centred on the seven building groups (multi-purpose buildings) constructed sequentially from 1967 to 1972, the surrounding area of Sewoon Shopping Centre grew as the hub commercial district of Seoul and the mecca of downtown industries such as electricity and electronics up to the 1980s; however, the commercial district soon faced an accelerated decline to have become one of the city's most underdeveloped regions concentrated with outdated machines and facilities as well as many small manufacturing companies in printing, metal, machinery, lighting and electricity industries.

In the process of Seoul's rapid policy changes, the area surrounding Sewoon Shopping Centre has experienced a number of ups-and-downs, including a near-demolition. In line of the trend for development in 2009 to increase the value of real estate, the plan to establish a broad north-south green axis, demolish and redevelop the surrounding region was finalised but it was soon faced with various social problems such as the destruction of homes and workplaces of existing small traders and store owners, and subsequent conflicts among residents.

Sewoon Shopping Centre
The rejuvenated Sewoon Shopping Centre © Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore

As the construction business continued to shrink and the real estate market went into a recession, the need and duty to maintain the urban industrial ecosystem, respect the value of historic and cultural downtown, and reduce excessive burden on the residents reached a consensus and, therefore, the plan switched from the previous complete demolition and redevelopment to a sustainable urban regeneration in June 2013.

However, the urban regeneration projects faced many difficulties in the beginning as residents lacked not only understanding of urban regeneration but also trust in the city's policies.

Seoul needed the efforts from administrative and field activists to turn back the hearts of the residents and, under the principle that “urban regeneration must be carried out by collaborating with the residents and be centred on field administration”, started by listening to the opinions of the residents.

Also, residents, experts and Seoul city administrators put their heads together day and night to devise a plan and determine execution for an urban regeneration of Sewoon Shopping Centre that would satisfy everyone, Sewoon Shopping Centre was gradually transformed by fulfilling commitments made with residents and overcoming difficulties despite voices of concern over the course of the project, which ultimately led to the successful launch of the Sewoon Again Project on September 19, 2017.

As the hub of 7,000 companies and more than 20,000 engineers, Sewoon Shopping Centre is changing into an innovation base to lead the revival of the urban manufacturing industry in this age of the fourth industrial revolution, and young people with new technology and creative ideas head over to Sewoon Shopping Centre through the Sewoon Again Project through which such creativity of the youth, know-how of technical masters and future technology of new industries are connected to ultimately establish the “Sewoon Platform” and lead the fourth industrial revolution. To operate a variety of programmes such as this, continuous discussions and attempts are being processed.

Residents sign coexistence agreements themselves and operate a residents’ committee for urban regeneration to autonomously and voluntarily plan and implement the urban regeneration projects. The projects that began from administration are now being carried out by the residents who have protected and will continue to develop the region.

“Going beyond the top-down method of the past, the essence of Seoul's urban regeneration policies lies in the residents who serve as the main body in the entire process from planning to execution in order to revive the identity of a region, properly combine hardware and software, and implement these in collaboration with public and private governance.”
Is Seoul considering urban regeneration in other regions? If yes, what is the importance of regenerating those regions?

HSJ: For 7 years since urban regeneration was first promoted, things that had been believed to be impossible in Korea began to take place for change.

In detail, 133 urban regeneration projects are being carried out actively throughout Seoul, and an old overpass that had been a path for cars has been transformed into a walking path for people, thus becoming one of the city’s newest landmarks used by 10 million citizens while its impact even influences private development in surrounding regions.

Also, Sewoon Shopping Centre, which had been the centre of urban manufacturing industries in the modernisation period in the 70s and 80s, faced the risk of being demolished but, through urban regeneration, was reborn as an innovation base of the fourth industrial revolution.

Such changes in Seoul’s urban policies have not only spread throughout the city but also have been applied as one of the central policies of the nation, and is firmly believed to be a “new urban regeneration model” for Asian cities that are about to become advanced countries through global exchanges beyond domestic markets. O

This article was first published in August 2019. All images contained within this page are used with license/permission and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.

Hee Seon Jin

Hee Seon Jin
Hee Seon Jin is Deputy Mayor of Urban Regeneration in Seoul Metropolitan Government. He has been in charge of city planning and urban regeneration in Seoul since 2008, and is currently leading urban regeneration policies. He hopes to make Seoul a sustainable city by means of People Powered urban policies; hence, he has a profound interest in the citizen participation in urban regeneration. He gained master degree at Iowa State University, and Ph.D. degree at Yonsei University both in urban planning.