Seoul peels back concrete to let a river run freely once again

Chonggyechon River, paved over amid rebuilding after the Korean War, offers a respite from the busy streets of Seoul.

On a beautifully sunny day, crowds thronged the walkways lining a newly exposed stream that runs through central Seoul as if it were a lifeline to this hustling capital's health and prosperity.

In a sense, many have come to believe that the river, known as Chonggyechon or "pristine stream," is just that.

"I am so excited," said an elderly man, Kim Byung Soo, almost in tears as he watched the stream cascaded over rocks hauled in as part of the project. "It's a great achievement."

Just 25 feet wide and two or three feet deep, Chonggyechon's fast-flowing waters seem to be the tonic that Seoul's 10 million citizens need as they stroll along its 5.8-kilometer-long course.

"I don't think there are many places to go associated with nature," said Chang Sang Eun, an office manager. "Where are the parks and playgrounds? We don't have so many of them."

Mothers with babies, retirees with time to spare, and young couples holding hands jostled among hordes from nearby offices for space on the walkways that are just inches over the swirling current. Above walls on either side, still more crowds leaned over fences bordering sidewalks at street level, drinking in a scene that clearly provides visual as well as spiritual respite from the high-pressure pace of the world's 12th largest economy.

Seoul's Mayor Lee Myung Bak, a one-time construction magnate, campaigned three years ago in part on his promise to restore the stream. He acknowledges that, as a rising executive at Hyundai Engineering and Construction, the country's biggest builder, he had much to do with the project that covered the stream in 1961 with concrete and an elevated expressway.

"Back in the 1960s, our first priority was on jobs," says Mr. Lee. "Now we focus on citizens." Lee, who aspires to run for president in two years, counts on the popularity of the Cheonggyechon project, accomplished in just over two years at a cost of $360 million, as his most visible achievement.

If the stream adds a touch of beauty and serenity to central Seoul, however, the city has far to go to make up for the helter- skelter construction after the Korean War, from which Korea emerged as a major economic power. Apartment buildings have sprung up like matchboxes and glistening glass and aluminum office high-rises appear to bear little relationship to their surroundings.

The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy ranks Korea 122nd, between Liberia and Angola, in an environmental sustainability index that takes into account pollution, population density, resource management, and "potential to avoid major environmental deterioration." The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in a recent report ascribed Seoul's air pollution to a population density of 16,000 people per square kilometer, more than that of Tokyo or Mexico City, as well as increasing energy consumption and reliance on motor vehicles.

While business people lobby to build ever more apartments and office buildings, Lee is proud of having warded off the complaints of those opposed to opening up the stream.

"During the initial stage, nearby merchants complained that they would lose business and customers," he says, "but with the river restored, nearly all business will attract more customers." The river, he says, "has created a space where they can make money."

Now Lee looks to new vistas, all to show Seoul is not just a center of commerce and power.

"Our goal is to make Seoul a modern city," he says, "but a city that has a human face."

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