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Natural oasis opens in bustling city center : Seoullo 7017 is part of a urban regeneration effort across the capital

May 18,2017
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The night view of Seoullo 7017, a former overpass that has been turned into an elevated pedestrian botanical park, which is slated to open to the public on Saturday. [SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT]
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From left: Late president Park Chung Hee and first lady Yuk Young-soo cutting ribbons at the opening of the Seoul Station Overpass on Aug. 15, 1970; Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon made sure Seoullo 7017 is easily accessible to disabled citizens in wheelchairs; Citizen volunteers have been selected to look after the plants and trees on Seoullo 7017; and Seoul Metropolitan Government holds a tour of Seoullo 7017 for foreign press on Tuesday morning. [JOONGANG ILBO, YONHAP, YIM SEUNG-HYE]
At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 13, 2015, the 46,000 cars that crossed the Seoul Station overpass daily were suddenly no longer allowed in. The overpass, which was constructed in 1970 under the Park Chung Hee government as a symbol of Korea’s rapid industrialization, was doomed to be demolished after a safety assessment classified the outdated overpass as dangerous in 2006.

But Seoul mayor Park Won-soon suggested re-imagining the overpass as the country’s first elevated public park, modelling it after New York’s iconic High Line.

The plan went into action in late 2015 and construction soon filled the bustling area, creating serious traffic snarls for the better part of the last year. But, all that chaos will be wrapped up in few days as Seoullo 7017, the name for Seoul’s newly renovated walkway overpass and a botanical park, is slated to open to the public on Saturday. The new name, Seoullo 7017, is derived from two Korean expressions, “going to Seoul” and “Seoul Road,” which are both pronounced “Seoullo.” The number 7017 represent 1970, when the overpass was first constructed, and 2017, when it was refurbished into a walkway park.

“The establishment of Seoullo 7017 is significant and will draw international attention as we not only transformed the outdated overpass that was ready to be demolished into a pedestrian-friendly park for the public, but also as it sets an example of a transformed philosophy - how a country that rushed towards industrialization tries to think about the environment and the wellbeing of its people,” said Kim Kwon-ki, director of Regeneration Planning department for Seoullo 7017.

When this reporter visited the newly refurbished walkway overpass on Tuesday morning, four days before the grand opening, an official from the Seoul Metropolitan Government said that the construction is 98 percent completed and that it will open to the public without any problems on Saturday at 10 a.m., with an array of opening celebrations, starting with a light show on Saturday evening. The lighting show will continue until June 18.

“We will continue to hold various events throughout the year, such as the Flower Festival which will run until May 27,” said Kim. “Then in August, we will have a water festival called Summer Seoullo, followed by a street art festival in October and light festival in December.”

Seoullo 7017 stretches about 1.7 kilometers from Malli-dong, which is located on the west of the Seoul Station, to Toegye-ro, near Namdaemun Market. Although the Seoul Metropolitan Government named the Malli-dong entrance the “end point” and the Toegye-ro entrance the “starting point,” it doesn’t really matter where one enters, as there are 7 different spots where the public can access the park.

The only time the start and the end points matter is when visitors want to learn about more than 24,000 kinds of plants and trees planted in this elevated botanic park as they are placed in Korean alphabetical order, starting with “ga” from the starting point Toegye-ro entrance and ending with “ha” at the Malli-dong endpoint.

“Although we couldn’t plant grass in this park - because we had to think about how to grow plants and trees on an elevated walkway - we tried to introduce as many plants and trees as possible,” said Kim. “The 24,000 plants here represent over 250 species that can grow on elevated artificial ground.”

Dutch architecture firm MVRDV, which worked on the project, said it will be a “library of the Korean landscape.”

Indeed, the name of every plant and tree is labeled both in Korean and English and there’s a QR code that tells visitors more about each plant when scanned with a smartphone.

Each tree and plant has been planted inside a concrete pot, which has drawn some criticisms for its design, with some saying a walkway lined with plants and trees in potted plats cannot be deemed a park. But according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, these concrete pots are the “optimized system of tree planting for artificial ground.”

Inside each concrete pot, there’s a waterproofing layer on the bottom, then drainpipes and an irrigation system comes above it, then covered with soil that goes as deep as 90 centimeters.

“The concrete pots can also act as benches where visitors can sit and rest,” said Kim. “Among the 645 pots here on the walkway, about 150 can be used as benches.”

Near the Malli-dong exit, there is also a Gardening Learning Center for visitors who want to learn about the plants at Seoullo 7017.

“To some people, this walkway will simply act as an elevated shortcut over a busy area of central Seoul, but we hope that all of the facilities there, complementing the stretch of greenery, improve the quality of life of Seoulites.”

Walking along Seoullo 7017, visitors will find several cafes, five takeout restaurants selling Korean food, a visitor’s center, a foot bath station, as well as several stages for small performances.

There’s also a small puppet theater for kids as well as two small trampolines called “Bangbang Playground” near the Seoul Square building.

For Mayor Park, there were two important criteria in turning the overpass into a pedestrian park - safety and community.

To assure citizens that the outdated overpass will be reinforced, the city government spent a little less than half of its total budget of 59.7 billion won ($53.3 million) on safety.

“We have spent about 25 billion won solely on safety, installing tempered glass railings, removing corroded areas, reinstalling floor plates and more. It can even withstand earthquakes,” said Kim. “Also to really build Seoullo 7017 with the citizens of Seoul, we had more than 600 discussions to hear people’s opinions, concerns and criticisms of the new establishment.”

There have been concerns and even protests ever since Seoul announced its Seoullo 7017 plan. Many pointed out about the terrible traffic congestion, especially the merchants in the neighborhood and Namdaemun Market, who argued that the congestion will delay the time it takes them to deliver their goods, which is critical to their survival.

After discussions with the merchants, the Seoul Metropolitan City said it came up with “mutual cooperation strategies” to ease the merchants’ dissatisfaction.

An MOU was signed to help expand Namdaemun market into a global market and to extend the end of the bridge entrance near Toegyero so that it starts or ends right in front of the market.

Moreover, the city government selected a diverse group of citizens and frequently took them on on-site inspections and adopted some of their opinions to the construction plans where necessary.

“For example, some mothers voiced concerns over their children’s safety while using the trampoline, so we decided to install a tall shield to protect children from jumping off of the trampoline,” said Kim.

Over concerns that the homeless community may make Seoullo 7017 their home, the city government set up an ordinance prohibiting smoking and drinking on the overpass.

“If you go to the Cheonggye Stream, you don’t see homeless there because it’s become illegal to drink and smoke. But when it was under construction, many people were also concerned that it will be dominated by homeless people,” said Kim. “We’ll manage Seoullo 7017 similarly to the Cheonggye Stream so that these concerns can be resolved.”

Seoullo 7017 also prohibits people on motorbikes, bicycles and electronic scooters. Additionally, dogs must be leashed. There are 111 multipurpose poles installed with CCTV cameras to monitor movement on the overpass, including possible suicide attempts as well as those who throw objects off of the overpass. These multipurpose poles will be Wi-Fi spots, offering access to free Wi-Fi anywhere on the overpass.

“Seoullo 7017 may have caused heavy traffic jams below as cars had to take detours, but the Seoul Metropolitan Government believes that we should slowly turn Seoul into a pedestrian friendly city, expanding more areas for the pedestrians,” said Kim. “That’s the philosophy of Mayor Park and the city and we believe the opening of the Seoullo 7017 is not the end, but signals the start of the city’s plan to slowly turn Seoul into a greener and pedestrian-friendly city.”

For more information on Seoullo 7017 and upcoming events, visit seoullo7017.seoul.go.kr.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]