The United Nations projects that by 2050 over two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. That equates to about 2.5 billion additional people moving to cities around the world (United Nations). When constructed correctly, cities have the potential to provide great benefits to society such as providing greater economic opportunity and higher education along with reducing the impact of humans on the environment. Yet, we have not seemed to crack the code on how to create a sustainable city.
More so in the United States than in Europe, cities have been designed around the infamous automobile. As a result, pedestrians and bikers are second-class citizens, and our dependence on cars for transportation has increased carbon emissions furthering the effects of climate change. Cars also allowed for urban sprawl to take place. Urban sprawl is the expansion of low-density residential housing into areas surrounding cities. The process is detrimental to the environment as it further encourages private transportation, adds impervious surfaces which increase flooding and pollutants, and requires a lot of resources to build and transport the supplies to the new development. Additionally, cities have not been equitable. Discriminatory policies have been embedded in the history of American cities. Actions such as exclusionary zoning segregated white families from blacks thus pulling resources out of specific regions in the city. Urban planners such as Robert Moses made it nearly impossible for minorities to access public spaces and economic opportunities. Although it is not as blatant today, minorities are still suffering the consequences. The list of our mistakes goes on and on, but there is hope to correct ourselves as new cities are popping up all over the world. For Americans to remedy this and create sustainable cities, we have to learn from the success and failures of others and their innovations.
Overview of Songdo
Built on 1,500 acres of reclaimed tidal flats from the Yellow Sea, Songdo is one of South Korea’s newest cities, built through a public-private partnership. Since the beginning of its conception in 2001, Songdo planned to be a sustainable, low-carbon, and high-tech utopia while also being a business hub. Songdo is an aerotropolis connected to the Incheon airport. From the city, one can reach most of the major Asian cities with a two-to-three-hour flight, making it attractive for international corporations. Songdo has put considerable effort into achieving its sustainability goals. With over 20 million square feet of LEED-certified space, it has the highest concentration of LEED-certified projects in the world (Poon). Additionally, Songdo has incredible amounts of green space sprinkled around the city with the largest being a 100-acre seaside park modeled after New York City’s Central Park. South Korea as a country has a high level of awareness when it comes to recycling. Koreans are diligent and accountable for separating their recycling into seven different containers. Songdo also is a pioneer in its waste management system. All waste is sucked directly from households through a network of underground tunnels to waste processing centers where it is then automatically sorted (Williamson). The system has its problems such as pipes getting clogged and it is debatable as to whether this reduces the amount of landfill created. However, it does reduce carbon emissions from garbage trucks and makes people more conscious of their waste as there are no trash cans on the street.
But what goes into creating a sustainable city?
Designing a Sustainable City
Alberto Gonzalez Perera is a registered Architect and Urban Planner with over a decade of experience in Europe and Asia. In South Korea, Perera works as an independent consultant on architecture and urban planning projects but also collaborates with the Incheon National University and the Incheon Global Campus, made up of four universities one of which is the University of Utah. At the university, he is an Adjunct Faculty member in their Urban Ecology Department as well as an advisor to the Incheon Free Economic Zone Authority, a main actor in the development of Songdo.
When asked what the main focuses are when creating a sustainable city, he gave three points of emphasis: density, transportation, and soft planning. However, it is important to note that the three, although divided in name, have aspects that are connected in making a city sustainable.
“It is not always about high density, but the right density for your location,” says Perera. That is, in Chapel Hill, it would not make sense to build skyscraper apartment buildings, but instead, density can be created in other ways. In the case of Songdo, skyscrapers are more applicable. High density in cities is important because it promotes more walking and cycling, controls urban sprawl, and reduces the environmental impact of each resident (Kent and Daley). When planning a sustainable city, there needs to be a mindset of conscious growth which is the understanding of what it means to consume more land.
Transportation and Walkability
A sustainable city is people focused thus requiring people-focused infrastructure such as public transportation. Songdo has the goal of being an integrated 15-minute city in which people can reach 90% of their daily activities by bike or public transportation in fifteen minutes or less (Poon). Songdo is one of the few cities in Korea that has city-wide bike lanes and plans to further encourage cycling by rerouting the lanes to be better protected from traffic and improving their quality. However, Songdo has been heavily criticized for its walkability. Automobiles are the greatest threat to pedestrian safety. The city has large city blocks and avenues eight to ten lanes wide. Wider and longer blocks increase the likelihood that cars will speed and crossing such a wide avenue puts pedestrians in a very vulnerable situation.
Soft Planning is an umbrella term that covers aspects such as accessibility to green space, public health, and environmental justice. It is about the well-being of those that live in the city. Perera remarks that sustainability is not just environmental, but that we need to look at the fourth pillar as well: culture.
Governments can build cities but until people see them as worthy places to live with opportunities, they are just a bunch of concrete boxes. So, the question becomes “How do you attract people and build a community?” Songdo has faced its fair share of challenges but overall, Perera views it as a success. One way in which Songdo has attracted people is through attracting business. The city has created a “bio cluster” of clean biotechnology and bioengineering companies that have set up factories for research and development. Samsung Biologics and the Green Climate Fund are headquartered in Songdo. The Green Climate Fund is the largest fund focused on adaptation and mitigation projects to counter climate change. Furthermore, Songdo has created a good mixture of academia and business as there are three large university campuses with foreign influence. Academia and job opportunities are certainly important in getting people to Songdo, but you also have to build a culture that makes them want to stay.
Part of culture, in my opinion, is inclusivity. Unlike the United States, Korea is a monoethnic, homogeneous country. Thus, it has not had to deal with racially discriminatory actions in urban planning. That is not to say that South Korea does not have its racism issues, but that it is not comparable to the United States. However, there are still varying socioeconomic levels that the city has to balance. Songdo has managed to attract younger Korean families who are not ready or willing to pay the real estate prices in Seoul which can be equivalent if not more than Manhattan. In comparison, real estate in Songdo is approximately 30% cheaper than Seoul and 10% more expensive than the surrounding Incheon area. With housing prices in Korea soaring recently, affordable housing is becoming more of a conversation in the government and has announced construction plans. However, most of the action is taking place in Seoul.
The Open City
Above all, it is my opinion that the most sustainable cities are those that have the potential to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing needs of society. Evolution is all around us. Humans have evolved from apes, Apple headphones have evolved to Airpods, and regular ovens can be replaced by microwaves, so why should our cities not adapt as well? Richard Sennett similarly describes this as an Open City. When addressing mistakes of cities of the past, he states “Today’s ways of building cities – segregating functions, homogenizing population, pre-empting through zoning and regulation of the meaning of place – fail to provide communities the time and space needed for growth” (Sennett). Instead, he describes an Open City to be “a bottom-up place” because it belongs to the people. Although Sennett does not see Songdo to be Open, Alberto G. Perera does believe in Songdo. Songdo is currently only 60% completed which leaves a lot of room for future opportunities. Songdo has evolved through many versions. First was sensory madness in which sensors monitor temperature, energy use, and traffic flow. This transitioned to the idea of partnering tech and municipalities. Currently, Smart City 3.0 is citizen-driven and data sets are analyzed to improve people’s lives. Also, Songdo has put great efforts into creating a startup park to encourage innovation, demonstrating the prevalence of the growth mindset. Additionally, because Songdo has such wide avenues, they were able to incorporate a plan to bring a light tram. Perera notes, “At a block level there are things that can be much more flexible- perhaps that’s the idea, that city planning should be broken down into smaller grains.” Of course, there is tension between top-down and bottom-up. However, in terms of infrastructure, flexibility should always be an aspiration.
The glaring difference between Songdo and cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, or even smaller like Chapel Hill is that we are not starting from scratch to create sustainable cities. However, that does not mean that we cannot look to them to see how we can improve and be more Open. From Songdo, we can see the importance of high-density and mixed-use buildings in cities and how that benefits the wellbeing of citizens and reduces the need for private transportation. We can easily look to incorporate more green space in our cities. And although their waste system may not be worth replicating, we can aspire to improve our system. For example, in Songdo’s spirit of sensors, it could be beneficial to monitor the levels of trash in bins so that garbage trucks know whether to collect or not. This Smart system would make the process more efficient as well as reduce carbon emissions. Most importantly, with Songdo’s new citizen-driven approach, we see that sustainable cities put people first. All changes are attainable, but it is up to whether or not Americans are willing to put in the effort. So, the final questions then become: Is creating a sustainable city a mindset and is it one that Americans can achieve?
This article was written by Alyssa Abraham, Business Administration, Class of 2023. *Author note: Special thanks to Alberto G Perera for taking the time to speak with me on this topic.
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Kent, Jennifer, and Michelle Daley. “Higher-Density Living Can Make Us Healthier, but Not on Its Own.” The Conversation, 3 June 2020, theconversation.com/higher-density-living-can-make-us-healthier-but-not-on-its-own-34920
Poon, Linda. “Sleepy in Songdo, Korea’s Smartest City.” Bloomberg City Lab, Bloomberg, 22 June 2018, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-22/songdo-south-korea-s-smartest-city-is-lonely.
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Williamson, Lucy. “Tomorrow’s Cities: Just How Smart Is Songdo?” BBC News, BBC, 2 Sept. 2013, www.bbc.com/news/technology-23757738