Travel back in time to 2012 and pick any place in the world you’d want to be. Watch the television, switch to the radio, go clubbing or simply talk to those around you to try and catch up with the latest trends. It will hardly be a few minutes before you yourself jump on the bandwagon and begin grooving to the beats of Psy’s Gangnam Style. 

The song literally broke the internet, forcing YouTube to update their view counter! Watch the video once more, and this time look closely. The exotic locations in South Korea where the song was filmed include Central Park and International Business District Station in Songdo. 

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International Business District Station, Songdo in Psy’s Gangnam Style (https://koreandramaland.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/psy-2012-filming-location-gangnam-style-international-business-district-station-koreandramaland-3.jpg)

Located 30km south-west of the capital city Seoul, Songdo International Business District was established on 600 hectares of reclaimed land along the Incheon waterfront in 1979. Part of Incheon’s Free Economic Zone alongside Yeongjong and Cheongna since 2003, the city houses international businesses relating to Information and Biotechnology and Research and Development. 

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Incheon’s Free Economic Zones (https://www.ifez.go.kr/comm/getImage?srvcId=MEDIA&upperNo=33&fileTy=MEDIA&fileNo=1)

World’s Smartest City

Along with the cities of Anyang, Medellin, Namyangju, Orlando, Pangyo, Rio de Janeiro, Santander, Singapore, and Tel Aviv, Songdo is part of one of the ten international studies developed by the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS), in association with the Inter American Development Bank(IDB). 

Funded by Knowledge Partnership Korean Fund for Technology and Innovation of the Republic of Korea the project was part of the technical cooperation ME T-1254. At IDB, the project was coordinated by the Competitiveness and Innovation Division (CTI), the Fiscal and Municipal Management Division (FMM), and the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative (ESGI) while at KRIHS, the funding was provided by the Global Development Partnership Center and the National Infrastructure Research Division coordinated the project.

The Smart City initiative launched in 2008 is the largest private real estate development with a majority stake of 61% owned by Gale International followed by a 30% holding of Posco and the remaining 9% by Morgan Stanley Real Estate. The plans drafted by the New York office of Kohn Pedersen Fox(KPF) were managed on the ground level by Incheon U-city Corporation, a private-public partnership to secure funding for system operations through an effective business model. 

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Songdo Smart City (https://easyelectriclife.groupe.renault.com/content/uploads/2018/12/songdo-vue-aerienne.jpg)

The ubiquitous city was built with a vision of a sustainable city with a low carbon footprint and high-end technology since the conception of the idea in 2001. The proposal was divided into six major sectors – transport, security, disaster, environment and citizen interaction while developing the infrastructure for housing, business, education, healthcare and cars. The district offers specialised services like smart bike services, criminal vehicle tracking and motion detectors to detect any anomalies. 

The underlying principles for the development include New Urbanism, Smart Growth, Transit-Oriented Development and Green Growth. Songdo maintains its image as a green city with a central park planted with indigenous plants at the heart of the city and 40% of the total area dedicated to parks. 

A Master Planned Utopia

Songdo draws inspiration from other cities globally and brings the best of the world in a single frame – the Songdo Convendis, a performing arts centre situated on the water on the point like the Sydney Opera house in Australia, the Central Park as seen in New York, the man-made canals flowing through the park influenced by the canals of Venice, the boulevards of Paris and garden squares of London. 

The tent-shaped skyline resembles the Manhattan skyline with the density distribution peaking near Central Park and tapering on either side, ending in a hospital on one and a golf course on the other side. 

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Songdo Central Park : Songdo City is planned around the park (https://d1embwjxo27ph2.cloudfront.net/actions/nmcImages/image/generateImage?v=5&height=800&width=800&path=%2FAll-Projects%2FProjects%2FS-Z%2FSongdo-Central-Park.jpg)
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Songdo Convensia (https://www.e-architect.com/images/jpgs/korea/songdo_convention_center_kpf120309_1.jpg)

Accounting for 40% of all sustainable spaces in South Korea, Songdo houses the world’s highest concentration of LEED-certified projects spread across an area of 20 million square feet while also meeting Korean standards for a green rating. With 25km of bike paths, the city is planned to adapt to the mass transit system of buses, subways and bikes instead of the automobile while promoting walkability.

The 2545 apartments in the first residential towers, New Songdo City First World Towers helmed by Kunwon Architects, housed 7000 of the 65,000 residents in 2011. Abiding by the principle of a walkable green city, the First World Towers include a pedestrian-scaled street grid, continuous street walls, and figural open spaces. 

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First World Towers (https://d1embwjxo27ph2.cloudfront.net/actions/nmcImages/image/generateImage?v=5&anchor=top&height=1108&width=798&path=%2FAll-Projects%2FS-Z%2FSongdo-First-World-Towers%2FSongdo-First-World-Towers_P1L.jpg)
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First World Towers (http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/1299766104-13-songdo-canal-housing-ph-kpf-528×351.jpg)

Heerim’s Northeast Asia Trade Tower stands the tallest not only in Songdo’s skyline but is also the tallest building in South Korea. The mixed-use tapering volume includes offices, hotels, and service apartment components, each with its own entrance lobby. A symbol of the International Business District in Songdo, the building offers views of the Yellow Sea, Incheon city and the surrounding mountains. 

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Northeast Asia Trade Tower (https://images.skyscrapercenter.com/building/northeastasiatradetower_exterior-main_(c)kpf.jpg)
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Mixed-use Northeast Asia Trade Tower (http://static.dezeen.com/uploads/2014/07/Northeast-Asia-Trade-Tower-by-KPF_dezeen_7_1000.gif)

The Songdo International School by KPF incorporates the traditional Korean interplay of solid and void through stepped sections. With a capacity to impart education to 2000 students from Kindergarten to the 12th grade, a variety of materials is used to give a unique identity to each student community from various backgrounds while bringing them together. 

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Chadwick International School, Sangdo (https://www.vir.com.vn/stores/news_dataimages/dinhthuy/062020/24/10/in_article/chadwick-makes-official-debut-in-vietnam_3.jpg)
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Chadwick International School, Songdo (https://d1embwjxo27ph2.cloudfront.net/actions/nmcImages/image/generateImage?v=5&anchor=top&height=1110&width=803&path=%2FAll-Projects%2FA-F%2FChadwick-International-School%2FChadwick-International-School_P2L.jpg)

An escape from urban life

The world-class infrastructure is accompanied by state-of-the-art technological facilities including motion sensors, pneumatic garbage disposal system, reuse of greywater and electric vehicle charging stations among others. Pneumatic tubes send garbage directly to the underground disposal units for segregation and recycling, eliminating garbage and garbage trucks. Indoor comfort is just a touch away allowing the residents to control the light and temperature through control panels connected to their phones. It’s as if the city is straight out of a sci-fi movie. 

To attract more people to rehabilitate in Songdo, the government offers tax incentives to foreign companies and investors and international schooling. Three foreign university campuses were inaugurated including the first overseas university in Korea, the State University of New York, Stony Brooks. George Mason University came up with a physical campus while the University of Utah launched a satellite campus. The developed infrastructure is aided by the connectivity of the city. 

At just an hour’s distance from Seoul, buses and trains connect the two cities. The proximity to the Incheon Harbour and the hub airport of northeast Asia, the Incheon Airport, invites foreigners as well. For the Koreans, it provides all facilities as in Seoul but is an escape from the capital’s choking air, cramped sidewalks and roads flooded with automotive traffic. It also aims to welcome immigrants who moved to other parts of the world to return home for retirement. 

The International Business District offers lucrative deals to foreign corporations looking to expand their market in Asia, competing with the business giants in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

“The city aims to do nothing less than banish the problems created by modern urban life,” as one 2009 story declared.

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Songdo International Business District (https://www.bginvestors.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/NEATT-1.jpg)
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State University of New York, Stony Brooks (http://news.fitnyc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/SUNY-Korea-slider.jpg)
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George Mason University, Songdo (https://www2.gmu.edu/sites/g/files/yyqcgq291/files/styles/feature_image_medium/public/2020-09/Mason_Korea_Campus_0.jpg?itok=yr4Toa3O)

All that glitters is not gold

On paper, this city built from scratch is closest to the idea of utopia that man has been able to attain. However, the smart city is practically deserted. Built to house 300,000 people, the city was able to attract only a third of the expected goal and even half of those live in the business district. The wide roads and rows of half-empty apartments give off a mundane vibe. 

Most of the workers live in Incheon where housing is cheaper and beyond the business district, there isn’t much activity. There’s an online forum in place to cater to any of the residents’ complaints but there is no human interaction in this process. High-density mixed-use high rises are thronged by shoppers downtown. The cramped streets with haphazardly parked buses and cars transport you to Seoul virtually and are the source of life in this town. 

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Lotte Mall and Officetel (https://libeskind.com/wp-content/uploads/mall_05-c-baum-2280×1612.jpg)

Even with all the tax incentives and the technology it boasts of, only a few universities and foreign investors came around. Paik Dae-Il, a resident of Songdo for over a decade working in the hotel industry says “Projects for big offices often get cancelled. Instead, it’s been apartments, apartments, apartments.”

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Development Plan with large space assigned to residential complexes (http://i.imgur.com/eLbsutI.jpg)

For a city that strives to be automobile-free, Songdo has made progress in terms of connecting subways to the Incheon and Seoul rail networks and plying buses to university campuses, neighbourhoods and posh Seoul locales. Activity centres like shopping malls, and convention centres are at a 15-minute walking distance from Central Park while there is a bus stop or subway station within 12 minutes of every neighbourhood. Yet cars are a common sight in Songdo. 

The 10 lane wide roads are partly a result of the Korean standards that mandate the width of roads and fire access and partly an attempt to replicate the wide tree-lined boulevards of Paris,  “The city is responding to a modernist paradigm in urban design” says urban architect Alberto Gonzalez, a citizen of Songdo. 

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Bike lanes alongside wide roads (https://i1.wp.com/kojects.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/songdo2014_13.jpg)
Automobile Traffic in Songdo (https://www.businessdestinations.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Songdos-impressive-infrastructure.jpg)

Originally slated to be completed within 10 years in 2018, the city moved closer to its goals only in 2020 and parts of Songdo are still a work in progress. Even so, the city has served as an inspiration for the upcoming tech-savvy development of cities. The human aspect has been lost somewhere in between the high-tech facilities and the attempt at a ‘perfect’ city. 

Songdo is still in the race and can come out at the top by the time it is completed provided it works on spreading human warmth in the technologically driven world. 

References

  1. En.wikipedia.org. 2021. Songdo International Business District – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songdo_International_Business_District> [Accessed 9 April 2021].
  2. Henry, C., 2011. Songdo International Business District / KPF. [online] ArchDaily. Available at: <https://www.archdaily.com/118790/songdo-international-business-district-kpf> [Accessed 9 April 2021].
  3. Poon, L., 2018. Bloomberg – Are you a robot?. [online] Bloomberg.com. Available at: <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-22/songdo-south-korea-s-smartest-city-is-lonely> [Accessed 6 April 2021].
  4. Pollock, N., 2010. [online] Architecturalrecord.com. Available at: <https://www.architecturalrecord.com/articles/11999-new-songdo-city-south-korea#:~:text=The%20defining%20elements%20of%20the,preparation%20areas%2C%20and%20support%20spaces> [Accessed 6 April 2021].
  5. Lee, S., Kwon, H., Kim, J. and Lee, D., 2016. International Case Studies of Smart Cities, Songdo, Republic of Korea. Inter-American Development Bank, [online] (IDB-DP-463). Available at: <https://publications.iadb.org/publications/english/document/International-Case-Studies-of-Smart-Cities-Songdo-Republic-of-Korea.pdf> [Accessed 6 April 2021].
Author

Saisha is a student of architecture who believes that buildings are an integral part of civilization, affectinghumans in more ways than can be commonly comprehended. Born and brought up in Delhi, she has a keen interest in architectural writing and photography and aspires to promote sustainable development while preserving heritage.

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