Bringing Nature Back into the City

Urban Crossroads #95

 

 

The restored Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul, South Korea (source: Wikipedia).

The New York Times recently has been featuring a series of interesting and relevant articles on urban issues. The idea for my Urban Crossroads column for June came from reading an article there on the car-free German town of Vauban, and the idea for this column comes out of another article that presents the story of the Cheonggyecheon, which is the main water stream of the South Korean capital Seoul.

The Cheonggyecheon had been an integral and important part of Seoul for over 600 years. By the 1950s, however, it had become an open sewer and was converted into a covered concrete tunnel buried and forgotten beneath the city’s expanding traffic network of expressways. About four years ago, the city of Seoul carried out a project that restored the Cheonggyecheon, liberating it from its concrete encasement and giving it back to the city as a public green corridor. The project also included removing a few kilometers of elevated expressways that used to cover the stream’s path.

Projects for restoring urban waterways, or what is known as “daylighting,” are being conceived and implemented in cities in different parts of the world, ranging from Los Angeles to Singapore, and are partly inspired by the example of Seoul. Its city officials in fact are being invited by cities in other countries to present this pioneering project.

The success of the project has been phenomenal. Its environmental benefits are numerous. Such open watercourses generally handle flooding rains better than buried sewers. They also tend to cool urban areas, which usually are overheated as a result of the sun hitting its asphalt surfaces, and they allow greenery to grow, which in turn attracts wildlife. Accordingly, temperatures along the stream now are a few degrees cooler than in nearby areas. Also, the number of fish species in the stream has increased from 4 to 25, bird species around it have increased from 6 to 36, and insect species from 15 to 192.

The removal of the elevated highway along the stream’s corridor has substantially cut air pollution there. Small-particle air pollution therefore has dropped from 74 micrograms per cubic meter to 48. Interestingly enough, in spite the loss of some vehicle lanes, traffic now moves more smoothly because of related transportation interventions such as expanded bus service, restrictions on car movement in the area, and higher parking fees.

The benefits do not stop there. The value of homes located close to this new walkable greenway has increased drastically after years of selling at bargain prices because of their proximity to the expressways. Additionally, while the owners of the thousands of businesses located within the vicinity of the preexisting road system initially opposed the project in fear of losing car-driving customers, they now are among its supporters and also are among those who enjoy its benefits. In fact, an average of 90,000 pedestrians visit the stream banks every day.

The other side of the coin, however, is that such projects are expensive. Opponents of the project emphasize that its price tag was over 380 million dollars. They add that the water in the stream does not naturally flow through it, but is pumped from the Han River through seven miles of pipes. Still, it seems that the majority of Seoul’s 10 million inhabitants believe the project is well worth its price tag.

I expect that for anyone with even a basic knowledge of the history of Amman, the story of the Cheonggyecheon is a reminder of the fate of the Amman Stream (known in Arabic as Sayl Amman). The stream was historically a very important part of Amman on the geographic, visual, and economic levels. For example, it is mentioned by Yaqut al-Hamawi in his early-13th-century encyclopedic work Mu’jam al-Buldan, where he spoke of its abundant waters. When Amman was settled by the first wave of Circassian immigrants in the 1870s after being deserted for about five centuries, the stream was its lifeline providing its residents with drinking water and irrigating the crops they planted along the stream’s banks. Moreover, the city grew along the stream.

As with the Cheonggyecheon, however, the fortunes of the Amman Stream declined. The increased water needs of a growing population meant that most of the water flowing through it was pumped out of it. And as with the Cheonggyecheon, by the middle of the twentieth century, it ended up as not much more than an open sewer. Moreover, the stream marked the center of the city, and since the city grew along the stream’s banks, it was there where building and traffic density were highest. As a result, much of the stream was converted into concrete tunnels during the 1950s and has been buried under the city’s street network for over half a century now. The only memory of the stream that survives for those not old enough to remember it or for those who have not read about it or seen images of it is in the popular name of the street that passes over it in the Amman downtown area, Saqf al-Sayl (Ceiling of the Stream).

Admittedly, bringing back this most important component of Amman’s urban geography is a very difficult task to accomplish. It will be costly and will involve a considerable redefinition of traffic patterns and land uses in the areas along the path of the stream. Still, cities around the world are beginning to embark upon such challenging undertakings and feel that the benefits of such projects are well worth the costs, whether it is in preserving the city’s heritage, memories, and history, greening the city, providing areas for relaxation and recreation, improving environmental conditions, or elevating the quality of pedestrian life. It may not be possible to bring back the Amman Stream in the immediate future, but the idea should definitely be kept alive and should be part of future plans for the city.

One final thought. In thinking of solutions for the modern urban challenges facing the cities of this region, guidance mainly has been sought from models in Europe and the United States. The Cheonggyecheon project in Seoul, however, is just one of many interesting, thoughtful, and high-quality urban projects taking place in East Asia. There is much to learn from these countries, particularly as many of them have made very impressive transformations within the time-span of a single generation, taking them from impoverished agrarian societies to affluent industrial and post-industrial powerhouses. Moreover, the world’s center of economic gravity clearly is moving there from the West. It therefore is time to start examining their experiences, in urbanism as well as in other fields, far more carefully and seriously.

Mohammad al-Asad

August 06, 2009

 

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