With one of the highest densities of population, about 51 million, South Korea is among the highest-ranked countries on the Human Development Index worldwide. It has made a place for itself on the global scale through various mediums ranging from technology to entertainment, cosmetics to tourism, and cuisines to fashion trends. The ever-increasing growth of a nation rises from the centre and lets the ripple create the difference that needs to be made in the lives of its citizens and vice-versa. But what happens when this centre reaches a saturation point in its bid to excel? At what point does a nation realize that a holistic approach to growth is the way to go? What makes urban growth worth it if the longer consequences are at the cost of people’s lives? How does South Korea deal with the global epidemic of worsening environmental conditions that erupt from the pollution of growth?

Urban Pollution: South Korea - Sheet1
Seoul, South Korea_©Kim Bundo

Onset Of Metamorphosis

With the migration of populations from rural areas to urban areas after industrialization in the 1950s, the 1970s saw a boom in the industry and manufacturing sectors of South Korea. Seoul, the rural city with a population of 2.4 million in the 1960s, had turned into a mega-city with a population of 10 million in three decades. To house this urban growth, policies were undertaken for top-down development, investing in manufacturing, exports, real estate developments, and megaprojects, focusing mainly on growth management rather than any sustainable urban development policies.

Urban Pollution: South Korea - Sheet2
Urbanization of Seoul_©www.thesmartlocal.com

Since urban growth was exorbitant, South Korea was destined for the fate of every urbanized city. A dense population, vehicular dependant transportation, increased reliance on technological products, manufacturing industries, urban waste generation, and change in the region’s natural terrain all led to the form of pollution unique to urbanized centres of any region. Seoul, the capital city with a culture and history of 2000 years, was now taking its turn to exacerbate the worsening environmental conditions through its carbon emissions.

A Place Too Tight

With the increasing migration of the rural people into the urban centres, the land use space decreases, the densities of the population increase, and thus, the real estate prices shoot up too. With congestion within the Seoul Metropolitan Area (SMA), demand for housing has stimulated residential land development on the urban-rural fringe giving rise to urban sprawl. High traffic concentration areas in and around the high-rise make up for a significant pollution-inducing cause. While these mixed-land use and urbanized centres exude air, water, soil, and land pollution, a variety of other factors contribute to these elements too.

Urban Pollution: South Korea - Sheet3
Urban Sprawl, Busan city_©Markus Leo

No Place To Breathe

A major chunk of air pollution that puts the health of the citizens of South Korea at risk is caused by power plants and automobiles. While another cause that points directly to urban pollution is the source of construction equipment, heating, and air conditioning, and the infamous ‘yellow dust’ which takes form when slow air currents carrying fine dust particles from the region of China come into the nation in the colder months and combine with domestic air pollutant to form a smog-blanket, causing a rampant of respiratory diseases during these months. Another natural cause contributing to this is the Asian Dust storm which originates from the dry desert region in Western China and Inner Mongolia.

Urban Pollution: South Korea - Sheet4
Nationwide Emissions Determinants_©www.unescap.org

Water pollution can be directly linked to domestic sewage, industrial wastewater, and agricultural/livestock wastewater. The increased land use and high population densities result in domestic wastewater being accounted for 60% of the pollution caused. These wastewaters containing pollutants cause the lakes, rivers, and water bodies in which they are disposed of to be contaminated and further end up causing more damage to the health of residents as well as ecological damage. 

A Breath Of Fresh Air

With government policies to revive the degrading environmental conditions, a ray of hope can be seen in the disaster of natural resources. Urban redevelopment projects carried out to revitalise deteriorating public spaces and natural resources have been under full measure. Within the city, the implementation of greenways like Sejon-daero, Seoullo 717, and Chheonggyecheon-ro have not only helped give life to the dying ecological resources but also helped create healthier public spaces. 

Cheonggyecheon Stream_©Sin Yeoul

Other policy shifts include the SeoulTransport Vision 2030, which aims to “put people first” by creating universal mobility and prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists. Another sustainable development plan is the development of the  U-city or Ubiquitous city concept, where the infrastructure, waste management system, transportation, etc. will be developed with information access to all residents to create general awareness among the citizens and the part they play in the process. Another example of the waste management system is the Nanjido dumpsite which reached its saturation point and was led into a clean-up project, where residents around the site now use the electricity that is produced by converting the waste into methane. The site was also able to revive a vanished frog specie, as well as serves as a park for cyclists and pedestrians combined.

The Will to Change

From these urban changes, it is visible how the characteristic of a city is determined and influenced by the built area around it and the architects’ sensitivity around the structures. A prior thought involves community participation, public well-being, and ecological preservation as its base preserves nature, the city, and its residents to make the development a holistic change. Administration policies and the political will to create change for sustainable infrastructure take the development to new horizons. 


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  3. Environmentandurbanization.org. 2022. Megacity Seoul: Urbanization and the Development of Modern South Korea | Environment & Urbanization. [online] Available at: <https://www.environmentandurbanization.org/megacity-seoul-urbanization-and-development-modern-south-korea> [Accessed 9 September 2022].
  4. Jecheon.go.kr. 2022. 수질오염의 피해사례 – 환경사업소. [online] Available at: <https://www.jecheon.go.kr/jcstp/contents.do?key=1080> [Accessed 9 September 2022].
  5. Cho, J., 2005. Urban Planning and Urban Sprawl in Korea. Urban Policy and Research, 23(2), pp.203-218.

Tahoora, with a knack for writing, is in love with written words of all forms. She aspires to write about architecture to make it accessible, and more community driven to envision a world where the use of every brick, stirs up a conversation about its mindful place in the world.