Seoul: Cheonggyecheon, an Eco-Park at the Middle of the City
As a Manila resident, the first thing that comes to my mind when the word “estero” is mentioned, is the picture of a filthy, polluted estero with lots of garbages. This is a typical scene of the small waterways or canals in Manila. But in Seoul, its esteros are different. One of these is the famous Cheonggyecheon, a stream made into an environment and cultural stream park located right at the middle of the road.
For three straight days we never failed to visit Cheonggyecheon. The atmosphere right at the stream is different. Too bad that we went to Seoul as the winter is transitioning into spring. We were told that the best views of Cheonggyecheon is during spring and summer. Nevertheless, we still enjoyed its environment, especially the cool breeze and refreshing scent. The stream is a perfect place where people can instantly escape from the hectic urban living at the street levels.
But decades ago, the environment along the Cheonggyecheon is very, very much different.
The waterway which was now the Cheonggyecheon already exist as a stream, which is often dry and floods during heavy rains. During the Joseon dynasty, a project was spearheaded to deepen and widen the stream to serve as a drainage, a floodway and also as a sewer (yes, a place where toilet wastes are dumped).
At that time, the stream is named Gaecheon. The stream got its current name during the occupation by the Japanese, who tried to cover the stream but failed to do so due to financial constraints.
The waterway was neglected during the Japanese occupation. And the problem with the stream became worse after the Korean War, when refugees starting to settle along its banks. The stream became so polluted that it is a bane to the people and to the government. At this point, the Cheonggyecheon’s environment was very, very similar to the typical esteros of today’s Manila: filthy, polluted, and lined with slums.
At the same time, as the country started to industrialize on its way to become one of the most prosperous in the world, cars began to clog the streets of Seoul.
In 1955 government decide to cover the stream. Later on, a freeway – or a skyway – was built, and was completed in 1971. The areas around it were developed and modernized. The skyway became the symbol and pride of Korean industrialization and development.
It was not long after Seoulites began soul-searching, as the area around Cheonggye Highway started to die. It has become a shabby, crowded and a noisy part of Seoul, and the structure that was once a symbol of industrialization became an eyesore.
When Lee Myung-bak became Mayor of Seoul, his administration made a bold plan to remove the highway and restore the stream. The project received overwhelming support from the residents. In 2003 the skyway was slowly dismantled, and uncovering and digging work commenced afterwards. To compensate from significant reduction in road capacity due to the skyway’s demolition, the government also invested in mass transportation, establishing the Bus Rapid Transit system as well as constructing additional subway lines. The stream was opened to the public September 2005 with jubilant celebration.
This is a large gamble by the government, which many mayors (especially in the Philippines) would not dare, but it turned out to be a right decision. The place has become a famous tourist destination and a scenic spot. Additionally, the area around the newly-constructed stream park became much livelier, and environmental impact drastically improved. The stream project is a catalyst for reinventing Seoul as an environment and pedestrian-friendly city.
While Cheonggyecheon ends at the mighty Han River, its starting point is at the fountain and artificial waterfalls near Sejong Daero. The system is illuminated at night. Water flows from here all day, pumped from the Han River (you read it right, it gets water from the Han using a pumping system) as well as from its tributaries and the groundwater from subway stations.
There are different themes and designs along different segments of the stream park. There is a mini-theater as well as a mini convention hall beneath one of the bridges. There is also a large copy of the manuscript drawing of the long procession of a Joseon King (which you can see in the National Palace Museum in Gyeongbokgung) as well as a couple of lights-and-sound presentations during the evenings.
During intense rains, Cheonggyecheon also serves as a floodway. Flood doors are strategically placed along the stream, as well as warnings in Korean and English warning people should this stream is used to drain excessive rain water.
The stream and its surroundings are clean, and its waters virtually clear. Aside from some leaves there are hardly any trash along the stream. It shows how Koreans care for their surroundings, and among these things is to place trash only in designated places.
Due to the severe cold of the weather (as little as three degrees celsius!) I can hardly touch the metal part of the tripod even with my gloves on! But we still managed to take many spectacular photos of the stream and its surroundings. I wonder where are those coffee vendos (like the famous PhP5 coffee vendos in the Philippines whose machines actually came from Korea!).
Through the lessons of the Cheonggyecheon, Koreans have long learned that progress is not all about cars and factories. Progress is nothing without giving consideration to the environment. And as our hometown Manila becoming more and more crowded, and traffic becoming a chronic problem even at night, it is high time for our government to look to Seoul for an inspiration.