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“Songdo’s model may not be the panacea for all the world’s urban ills, but it remains a work in progress”

Aug 26,2014

 
Left: Songdo’s new office towers and residential units rise behind Central Park, a green centerpiece of the 1,500-acre new city modeled after New York’s famous urban park. Above: Children admire deer in the park, with the Northeast Asian Trade tower in the background, now South Korea’s tallest office tower. By Andrew Stokols

Video screens that connect remote residents to medical care and pneumatic tubes that suck waste to be converted into energy – science fiction is becoming a reality for residents of Songdo, the so-called smart city being built on reclaimed land on the muddy Yellow Sea coast of Incheon.

Songdo has been touted as the “city of the future” for its incorporation of new technologies and energy-efficient construction, a symbol of Korea’s technological sophistication and also a model for solving the challenges of rapid urbanization and climate change around the world.

Korean companies like Samsung are also developing “smart city” technology with an eye toward markets in rapidly urbanizing Asia. China aims to move 250 million people to cities by 2025, and India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has announced the lofty goal of building 100 new smart cities.

But building a completely new type of city from scratch isn’t easy, according to experts at the “Eco cities in the Making” conference held last week at Yonsei University’s new Songdo satellite campus. The forum explored the potential of Songdo to serve as a model for future eco-cities worldwide. But it also underscored the limitations of the approach Songdo has pursued.

“There’s no question Songdo has been successful in marketing itself as a compact eco-city,” said Bernhard Muller, a city planner visiting from the German city of Dresden. “But I’m skeptical that Songdo will be the model for future cities.”

Muller added that the high cost of developing high-tech cities will limit their applicability in developing countries like India, where many urban dwellers lack even the most basic amenities like access to toilets, let alone pneumatic waste tubes.

But could Songdo’s innovations be an answer to some of the world’s urban challenges? This is what the JoongAng Daily set out to explore on its tour of Songdo with guides from Gale International, the American developer that, along with Korean engineering firm Posco and the Incheon city government, has been building Songdo since 2004, when they first broke ground on the $35 billion project, now called Songdo International Business District.

“The beauty of a city like this is that everything is built from scratch, the utilities, even the land,” said Scott Summers, the vice president of foreign investment and marketing for Gale International, who oversees the project. “A lot of the things you don’t see – the energy grid, the waste-energy generation plant – these were all laid out by the city of Incheon before we began developing on top of them.”

Songdo, which means “pine island” in Korean, was a stretch of muddy tidal flats until land reclamation paved the way for the 1,500-acre city on the edge of the Yellow Sea, 40 miles from central Seoul.

Summers credits the Incheon Free Economic Zone, a district with special tax and other incentives that was set up by the government in 2003, for conceiving and implementing the vision for Songdo. The idea for a new city began in the 1990s as the national government sought to create an international business hub for Northeast Asia near Incheon International Airport. Delayed by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the project was revived in 2001 when the government brought in Gale, a private firm known for suburban office parks in the northeastern United States. It had never done anything on the scale called for by Incheon’s ambitious city officials.

The idea of turning an economic hub into a new type of “smart compact city” came later, in 2004, when Gale partnered with Cisco Systems, the U.S. Internet technology firm, which would provide the invisible infrastructure that would increase energy efficiency and connect much of the city’s systems to monitoring devices that would allow for better monitoring of energy use, traffic, water and even waste.

Cisco’s innovations in Songdo include the signature TelePresence system, an advanced videoconferencing technology that allows residents to access a wide range of services including remote health care, beauty consulting and remote learning, as well as touch screens that enable residents to control their unit’s energy use.

Incorporating features that improve sustainability enabled the developer to charge a premium on certain units through a Korean law meant to incentivize developers to include green features, according to Summers.

“At the end of the day, if your building is performing better and you’re using less energy, you can pass those savings on to the end user and reduce your operating costs,” Summers says. Ultimately, though, the success of the project’s sustainability depends on the market, he says: whether or not people want to live here, and if they can afford it.

There are 33,000 residents so far, according to Gale, with a total of 65,000 planned for when construction wraps up in 2018, and only about 50,000 employees of a planned 300,000.

Partly due to the 2008 financial crisis, the completion date was pushed back to 2018 from 2014, and as of early this year the project had barely earned a profit besides recouping the initial capital investment, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“I’ll be honest, when we first started I thought, ‘Oh boy, Gale was going to make $400 or $500 million profit in five years,’” said Jonathan Thorpe, Gale’s CIO. “That obviously hasn’t happened … but we believe in the long run we will do very well.

“It’s a legacy project,” Thorpe continued. “But it hasn’t been easy.”

On a weekday afternoon, the wide streets of Songdo’s business district feel eerily empty in the shadow of the newly finished Northeast Asian Trade Tower, which at 1,001 feet, is currently South Korea’s tallest building. Although advertised as a compact city, Thorpe admits that some of the design features were not optimal: “The streets are too wide, I agree,” said Thorpe. This was something that Gale and the architect firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates had little control over due to national building codes mandating street width and fire access.

While the leasing of office space hasn’t been as fast as anticipated, a host of international organizations have recently decided to locate in Songdo, including the Korean branch of the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, the Green Climate Fund and several other UN offices. Songdo is on track to become an international city, but one that is geared toward a specific clientele of younger, well-off Korean families and international businesspeople – the inclusion of a Jack Nicklaus golf course in the plan is a clear indication of that, too.

“Look, Songdo isn’t for everyone,” Thorpe admitted.

“That’s our target demographic,” he waved, pointing to a woman with a stroller walking through Songdo’s 100-acre Central Park, the “green” centerpiece of the development featuring a lake filled with treated seawater, pleasure boats and even traditional Korean-style pavilions, a kitschy contrast to the sleek glass residential towers that front the park.

According to a Gale spokesperson, per capita energy use in Songdo is 40 percent less than the average existing city due to many of the energy-saving technologies – an estimated 80 percent of the buildings will be LEED certified, a rating system for building energy efficiency used in the United States.

Yet despite efforts to project a green image, environmentalists aren’t convinced that Songdo lives up to its claims as an environmentally friendly city of the future.

“The ‘eco-city’ concept is just an excuse for more development,” says Park Eun-seon, an environmental activist and director of the civil society group Listen to the City, who attended the conference at Yonsei. “They got rid of the endangered spoonbill [birds] that used to live in the wetlands before the landfill. … They are trying to say they are protecting nature, but it’s not true.”

Songdo is a very specific model of a new city, one that prioritizes new technology and connectivity to bring about energy efficiency. Whether that will be a viable model to bring to cities facing much more basic problems – like slum-filled Mumbai or polluted industrial areas in China – remains to be seen.

“Yesterday I visited the Songdo tourist office and talked to an employee who works here, but she told me she couldn’t live here because it was way too expensive,” said Muller, the German city planner.

Affordability will be key for new smart cities to achieve social sustainability, in addition to environmental sustainability, he stressed.

Songdo’s model might not be a panacea for all the world’s urban ills, but it remains a work in progress, a kind of urban laboratory that may be able to test whether or not the array of gadgets and monitoring systems really does end up achieving the energy savings and waste reductions it promises, and whether people ultimately want to live in a city that lacks the type of spontaneous vitality found in more traditional cities that developed over many years.

But Songdo has received at least one endorsement from a prominent Korean celebrity: Rapper Psy filmed his “Right Now” music video on one of Songdo’s wide streets, dancing in the shadow of those LEED-certified buildings. It might just be the beginnings of something called Songdo style.

BY Andrew Stokols [astokols@gmail.com]

This Piece originally appeared at the Korea JoongAng Daily