How Seoul Transformed a River of Concrete into a Beautiful Stream

Ceonggyecheon Stream

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When an urban society and the rural world clash, mother nature tends to get the short end of the stick. Mankind has leveled forests, carved through mountains, and drained lakes in its endless push toward urbanization. Every once in a while, though, a society will take a step back, admit that it might have taken things a little bit too far, and help to restore the local ecosystem.

Ceonggyecheon stream (what a mouthful) in Seoul, South Korea is a perfect example of that. This beautiful stream had been hidden under layers of concrete for half a century until somebody decided that the city would benefit more from a beautiful, bubbling stream than another highway.

Ceonggyecheon Stream in Seoul

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The 5-mile Ceonggyecheon stream runs across downtown Seoul, dividing the the city into northern and southern halves. The stream was part of the city’s identity until around the 1950s, when government officials covered the stream with concrete in order to convert it into a highway. The stream was still running, it was just hidden away in the murky, sunless depths where nobody could enjoy it.

The stream waited in darkness for about 50 years until Lee Myung-bak, the then-mayor of Seoul and current president of South Korea, initiated a massive urban renewal project aimed at improving old buildings and restoring green spaces to the city. At the top of the to-do list was peeling away the concrete covering up Ceonggyecheon stream. The city successfully demolished the highway and carried off all of the rubble, but the long-neglected stream had been reduced to a mere shadow of its former glory. The stream had almost run completely dry, and it was a muddy, stagnant mess because it couldn’t sustain any wildlife without access to sunlight.

Seoul River Park

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They gave the stream a helping hand by pumping in 120,000 tons of water from the nearby Han River, kind of like hooking a sick person up to an IV. From there, the city planted trees and other plants along the banks of the stream to promote wildlife growth and generally beautify Ceonggyecheon. If you ask me, I think it looks even better now than it did before.

Probably the best part about the whole restoration project was that the city reused about 75% of the demolished concrete. They built walkways, fountains, and bridges that create an even mix of natural, green gardens and urban artwork.

A Family at Ceonggyecheon Stream

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The stream reopened to the public in September 2005, but humans weren’t the only creatures to be excited about the Ceonggyecheon. Fish, birds, insects, and other wildlife began flocking to the area. Together with the verdant plant life, these critters maintain a flourishing ecosystem that keeps the stream vibrant and healthy.

The return of the stream has also dramatically improved the life of nearby Seoul residents. The stream cuts the average temperature of nearby areas by as much as 3.6 °C when compared to other areas in Seoul, and the removal of the highway has significantly reduced the amount of pollution-producing traffic. Citizens who live in the area are more likely to travel by foot, bus, or subway than people in other parts of the city.

ChonGae Sunken Stone Garden

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The most popular spot along the whole stream is the ChonGae Sunken Stone Garden, which serves as a public gathering point and centerpiece that raises awareness about the environment. The curved blocks allow visitors to gauge the current water level, which changes based on the season and the time of day. It’s also a favorite spot for public art shows, festivals, concerts, fashion shows, and other events. And let’s not forget about all of those weekend picnics!


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