Dealing with Global Rapid Urbanization: Sharing Seoul’s Experience

With global urbanization rapidly increasing, it’s hard not to wonder what can be done to help the struggling cities combat their problems.  Recently, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has created the Global Urban Partnership Division to facilitate the sharing of ideas with these cities.  To make the city’s policies easier to understand and more fun to read, this division has released a cartoon entitled “Policy Sharing Makes Cities Around The World Happier,” explaining how Seoul plans to share their expertise.

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If anyone or any city is interested in Seoul’s rags to riches story, they can just read this cartoon.  It explains not only how Seoul became the thriving metropolis that it is today, but also how they are sharing information with others to make the same possible in cities around the world.  From their innovative use of technology within their government to how they have made their public transportation easy to use and eco-friendly, this booklet explains it all!  Like CityNet, the Seoul Metropolitan Government is striving to help cities improve not only their sustainability, but also many other aspects of life for their citizens, and this is how they are doing it.

For more specific information on policies, the Global Urban Partnership Division has also created four other booklets.  These booklets discuss the Seoul tap water system, public transportation, Seoul’s subway system, and their e-government system.

If you are interested, the cartoon and the other four booklets are available online for free on the Seoul Metropolitan Government website.

To check it out, please click on this link, where you can download it or simply view it online:


By Caitlin Weaver
Intern at the Global Urban Partnership Division
Seoul Metropolitan Government

CITYNET Partner Event: ULI Asia Pacific Summit

cropped_Website_Banner (2)Join more than 500 ULI members and real estate industry professionals, from around the world and across all sectors, for the 3rd Annual ULI Asia Pacific Summit “What’s Next? The Dynamics of the Future” from 20-22 May 2014 in Hong Kong SAR, China.

For the first time in history, more people are living in cities than in rural areas. Rapid urbanization brings our industry both new opportunities and significant challenges, particularly here in Asia. As the single largest and most widespread financial asset class in the world, real estate, and the land-use decisions associated, are central to the global economic recovery and to the sustainability and competitiveness of our cities. ULI and its members are uniquely positioned to take stock of existing real estate markets and to look forward into the next era of urban development to identify trends, evaluate opportunities, and promote solutions.
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For more details, please visit our website,

The Urban Land Institute provides leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. ULI is an independent global nonprofit supported by members representing the entire spectrum of real estate development and land use disciplines.

Profle-Picture croppedStephanie Ng
Director, Membership and Events, Asia Pacific
Urban Land Institute

Seoul and the Apartment Complex II: Form Follows Function

In South Korea, apartment complexes look very simple and undecorated. From the street, they seem to be a series of boxes. Truthfully speaking, every building is slightly different from its neighbor. A building’s height, design, and proportions are regulated to maintain the appropriate density in urban areas. But from the perspective of residents and citizens, it is hard to spot these differences. In Seoul, you might hear descriptive phrases such as, ‘apartments like matchboxes’ or ‘apartments like a folding screen’ to describe the homogeneous and repetitive shape of housing complexes.

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What makes the form of apartment?
‘Form follows Function’ Louis H. Sullivan(1856-1924)
The apartment complex is a very honest building. On the outside, there are open green fields and parking lots. This open space is possible because each unit is built vertically, not horizontally. On each floor of an apartment complex there are multiple units. These units share one elevator, stairway, water supply, electricity and internet connection. As you see on the picture on the right above, every apartment concentrates those vertical elements together, which looks like outstanding tower in the middle. On one side, there are the rooms that access water utilities, such as kitchens and toilets, and have less exposure to sunshine.

The final form of an apartment complex is a mere repetition of every unit. While apartment complexes and their layout did not originate in Korea, they have perfectly adjusted to the Korean lifestyle after a long process of adaptation and experimentation. The evolution of apartment complexes means that now only the fittest ones have survived in the fierce jungle of urban Korea. While many factors influence the form of Korean apartments, cultural and institutional factors contribute heavily.

Koreanized Apartment Design

Left: Korean Apartment Plan Right: Japanese Apartment Plan

Left: Korean Apartment Plan Right: Japanese Apartment Plan

Every unit is designed for a nuclear family of 4 people. Two bedrooms for children are right in front of the entrance. The master bedroom for the parents is placed in the deepest room and has a separate bathroom. The living room is located in the center of the unit, integrating the other rooms. Balconies, which mostly face the south, provide extra sunshine and outdoor access. There might be little variation from this plan, but it is very rare.

Considering that this is the result of a long period of adaptation, the main characteristic of a Korean apartment is the ‘living room centered plan’. This is a reflection of the ‘madang centered plan’ of hanoks, or Korean traditional houses. Compared to other urban housing, like the Japanese apartment that you see on the right above, the main difference of the plan is the openness of the living room, which makes the house look bigger and brighter. Moreover, it is the place where many family activities take place such as watching TV, ancestral rites, and receiving guests. It is also important to note that in Korean culture the living room plays a role in reinforcing patriarchy. For example, when the whole family watches TV, the person who controls the remote is the one who controls the family. Funny, but it is often quite true.

Policy Determines Volume
The plan you see above is of 85㎡ (25PY), which is the standard size of so-called ‘People’s housing’ (국민주택). This policy of the Korean government has promoted the supply of this type of housing by providing a value-added tax (VAT, 10%) exemption to buyers. Apartments do come in multiple sizes, such as 60㎡ (18PY), 85㎡ (25PY), 102㎡ (30PY) and 135㎡ (40PY), however these 5 sizes are usually the only options available because the government closely regulates apartment purchases through a ‘housing subscription policy’.

The purpose of this policy is to regulate prices and speculation. According to the policy you should open the apartment-application deposit and pay the designated amount of money depending on the size that you choose. As a result, the sizes of apartments are tightly regulated.

Unavoidable Homogeneity
These fixed-size apartments are the unexpected side effect of the Korean government’s current housing policy, and apartment layouts are correspondingly limited. Based on the generic nature of apartment design, people usually treat apartments as assets that can be converted into cash. Apartment owners tend to appreciate hearing the news that property value will increase in their neighborhood, or that their complex is slated to undergo redevelopment. Even though high property values mean higher taxes, and redevelopment means relocation, apartment owners see their housing as a cash asset and welcome these changes.

When renovating or enlarging an apartment, it is common to encroach on the balcony area. Living rooms and bedrooms will become extended to the balcony. I remember when I was traveling in Paris, I saw a variety of dwellings that enriched the street with rhythmical elevation and diverse construction materials. But in Seoul, where I live and work, sadly the streets are filled with generic, homogeneous apartment complexes.

The companies who construct these identical buildings, want to make their product unique from others by strengthening their brand name. They attach their brand emblem on the outside of the boxy building and make the gate of the apartment complex elaborate and distinct. Believe it or not, they also provide smartphone applications that allow residents to manipulate the electricity devices and gas valves of their apartment remotely.

After this long history, the Korean apartment complex has become amazingly standardized and automated. Consequently people’s lives reflect this. Despite the complaint of a boring urban landscape, apartment complexes continue to contribute to the housing problem in Seoul. From another perspective, it is the realization of modernism.

This image is Ville Contemporaine (Contemporary City, 1922) that Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modern architecture, drew. I find it similar to Seoul’s landscape. The description is as following.

“The centerpiece of this plan was a group of sixty-story cruciform skyscrapers built on steel frames and encased in curtain walls of glass. The skyscrapers housed both offices and the flats of the wealthiest inhabitants. These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the center of the planned city was a transportation hub which housed depots for buses and trains as well as highway intersections and at the top, an airport.”

It is 100 years after Le Courbusier dreamed of this urban landscape. If he was alive, he would say Seoul is the utopia that he had dreamed. But would it be still a utopia? Is the apartment complex still the best option for Seoul’s citizens? There are so many questions behind urban housing, and there are also as many experiments for better housing around the world. However, whether it is good or bad, the apartment complex will not perish in the near future. Instead it will change little by little, adapting to the evolving urban jungle. And hopefully we will see another utopia in the future.

wonseok croppedBy
Wonseok Jang

Disclaimer: The posts and comments on this site do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CITYNET or its members.

Case from Bogota: Sharing Experiences to Solve Common Problems

According to some authors, globalization is the development of the world economy through the concentrated services, industry, infrastructure and real estate development of global cities. Authors also argue that those cities are regulated by similar process and urban problems.

However, global cities are located on different continents, have different languages, cultural identities, economic conditions, geography and climates. With this in mind, how different is a Latin-American City from an Asian or European city even when they have the same area, GDP or population? Are our cities’ problems really different? Or, could we share experiences that solve similar problems even though our cities exist in different contexts?

photo (4)I am an architect and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia, one of the main cities in Latin America. Bogota’s has a population of 7.6 million, a GDP of U.S. $82 billion, an economic growth of 6.2% (2011) and an area of 1,605 square kilometers . Despite being the capital of the country and one of the eight biggest Latin American business hubs, the city has suffered from many common urban problems; inefficient public transportation, peripheral slums produced by the migration of rural populations, land scarcity for housing projects in the center of the city, and the loss of natural green-space.

In order to solve these problems, national and municipal governments have created land and cultural identity policies, transportation systems, urban development laws and housing policies. These policies have improved the city development over the last two decades.

photo (5)For example, the main bus transportation system “Transmilenio” has almost 150 bus stations, 1400 buses and 770 kilometers. Nowadays the system covers the entire Bogota urban area. Social housing projects in the periphery known as “Porvenir” have also been developed. The Porvenir project was developed with the cooperation of public and private sector, using land and market policies that decreased the price of the land in the area. It has created almost 1000 housing units and schools, and provided dedicated public space and infrastructure.

Although the development of those policies and programs are important examples to share with other agencies and governments, if the government of Bogota wants to face some of the city problems in a more effective way, it is going to be necessary to cooperate with other cities and agencies that show different ideas.

For example, Bogota can learn from the experience of Seoul as a city that reinvented itself in the a few short decades, creating a unique transportation system and developing urban projects, providing an example of efficient urban management. Bogota can also look to the experiences of other cities in Asian and Europe countries that are creating resilience policies and programs to face climate change and transportation, or urban projects related to the preservation and management of historic areas.

The challenges that cities face in the developed and developing world such as the unsustainable growth of urban areas are part of a complex and common agenda. In order to response to those problems, the cooperation between governments of different countries and the net-working between cities could be part of the answer. For that reason, the existence of organizations like CityNet with a mission to help local governments build of sustainable cities is important. CityNet, and organizations like it, provide an opportunity to learn about the experiences of different cities and share with different agencies solutions for similar urban problems. The balance between the identity of the city and the application of policies from different cities, is from my point of view, one of the most interesting challenges of urban management.

Vanessa's shotGuest Post by:
Vanessa Velasco Bernal
Architect, Urban planner, Urbanite
Student IUDP, University of Seoul

Disclaimer: The posts and comments on this site do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CITYNET or its members.