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Creative Clusters 2006, Newcastle: The Cheonggyecheon Restoration

A New Vision for the Mega-City

The dominant 20th century vision of the city, repeated in a thousand novels and films from Zola to Blade Runner, tells us the city is a place of fear that will overwhelm the individual, and make human creativity impossible.

The Cheonggyecheon restoration offers another vision: that a city can both be the world’s fifth largest metropolis, and at the same time respect the needs and aspirations of individual people. It confidently asserts that intimacy and creativity is still possible in the mega-city.


Korea’s capital, Seoul, was originally built on the banks of a stream called Cheonggyecheon. Fifty years ago, this ancient waterway was buried, and a four-lane elevated motorway built above it. But now, in a world-class example of an urban regeneration project addressing cultural, physical and environmental issues, the motorway has gone and the stream has been restored to the people.

Dr Soo Hong Noh , professor of environmental engineering at Yonsei University,South Korea, will be presenting a case study on the redevelopment of Cheonggyecheon at the Creative Clusters Conference in Gateshead Nov 6-8th 2006.


October 1st 2006 marks one year since restoration was completed on the Cheonggyecheon stream
in downtown Seoul, unveiling to the public a stunning example of urban regeneration and with it, bringing to life the 600 years of Seoul’s history. The stream has undergone numerous transformations since Seoul became the capital of the Republic of Korea six centuries ago, but none have been as spectacular – or perhaps controversial – as this.

After years of neglect and being used as a dumping ground for waste, the Cheonggyecheon was culverted shortly after the Korean War. By 1958 the stream was completely buried cheap oakleys beneath concrete. With the addition of a 6km elevated highway in 1971, the area became one of the busiest in the capital, bringing in hundreds of thousands of vehicles each day.

The modernisation during the ’70s and ’80s was a reflection of more prosperous times, with office buildings and commercial outlets replacing the overpopulated shanty towns that had once crowded the banks of the stream.

Ultimately though, there was a price to be paid. The environment and subsequently, the health of the inhabitants, suffered under the constant strain of the heavy traffic, which raised air pollution to dangerously high levels. Critically for the capital, Seoul was failing to secure its place as a major competitor against other northeast Asian counterparts.

Economy, Culture and Environment

The project to uncover and restore the Cheonggyecheon Stream was inaugurated by Seoul Mayor Lee Myung Bak in July 2002. This was to be a pioneering project, placing economic interests on an equal footing with environmental and cultural concerns.

The vision was to create a focal point of both historical significance and aesthetic appeal, with the Cheonggyecheon triggering long-term economic growth, attracting cheap oakley sunglasses tourists and investors alike, and at the same time restoring people’s pride in Seoul.

Though not without controversy, it seems to have worked. The stream and its new transport infrastructure have given a huge boost to property development along its 6km length, with major building projects still taking place to renovate markets, build new shopping and leisure centres, and provide new zones for cultural and other enterprises.

The work took just two years, and cost an estimated 390 million Won (US$408 million). There was major disruption to traffic to contend with, concerns for the future of local traders and serious charges of corruption amongst several politicians.


Despite these issues, it is still an impressive project. Mayor Lee and his team took a crumbling, filthy motorway, turned it back into a river and reclaimed the area for pedestrians. New contemporary bridges and walkways were built, and the banks of the newly-revealed stream was animated with public artworks.

There are now marsh-plants and ducks, running tracks, clean waterfalls where children can play, and a park replaces the old clover-leaf intersection. There is a new museum, and an events programme which attracted upwards of ten million visitors within three months of the project’s completion. The first Cheonggyecheon Art Festival in the summer of 2006 was themed “The Flight of the Ugly Duck”, drawing parallels between the Hans Christian Anderson tale and the stream’s transformation.