The Geography of Seoul

Walking around any city, I learn various things about the city’s characteristics; the skyline, transportation, vegetation, the way people dress and behave, and even the feeling of the pavement and air. Based on these simple indicators, we can discover the distinct personality of a particular city.

What is your impression of Seoul?

Seoul is a city with a long history. Nonetheless, compared to other big cities, Seoul seems very trendy and new. On one side, traditional buildings such as the Royal Palace and Royal Ancestral Shrine are preserved, but on the other side, relatively new 30 year old apartment buildings are broken down and replaced with even taller ones.

In bustling areas like Hongdae and Gangnam, the speed of circulation is beyond belief. Moreover, people are everywhere. Considering that one fifth of the entire Korean population is concentrated within the Seoul metropolitan area, the physical area looks amazingly cramped. But the infrastructure of Seoul manages to accommodate citizens’ needs somehow so that people can live a decent life. For example, the subway system efficiently connects different parts of Seoul and serves 6,670,000 citizens, and water is sucked up from the Han River and supplied to more than ten million citizens.

So what was my initial impression of Seoul? Since I used to be stranger here too, at first I thought it was very vibrant and compact. What is your impression?

What makes Seoul Seoul?

As I said, Seoul is a city with a long history. Even thousands of years ago, Seoul was the symbolic center of the Korean Peninsula. Because Seoul was surrounded by mountains and contained a river, it ensured the safety and survival of citizens. For these reasons, the three ancient kingdoms of Korea (BC57~AD668) were eager to take over this territory, and there were many power shifts during that time period. But after the unification of the three kingdoms, no matter how much time passed, the way people viewed the geography of the land did not change that much.

There is a certain theory that choosing a building’s location brings fortune or misfortune. When the royal palace was planned during the Joseon Dynasty, its location was selected for the good energy that results from having mountains behind the palace and a river in front. This idea and urban planning philosophy still influences contemporary Seoul to this day. The Presidential House is right behind the Old Palace, and the avenues that connected the palace and major shrines still play an important role. Even the ports along the river that were previously used to collect tribute have now been turned into bridges. So even though Seoul has changed drastically since the Joseon Dynasty, the basic shape of contemporary Seoul can be attributed to its surrounding geographical features.

wonseok croppedBy
Wonseok Jang

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