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A ghost town from South Korea that is worth more than $40 billion
The authorities of South Korea decided to build a fantastic city of the future on the shores of the Yellow Sea. The country's government has signed a cooperation agreement with major investors and construction companies to create a project for a huge seaside city called Songdo . More than $ 40 billion was spent on the construction of the world's first "smart" city, but now Songdo looks more like an abandoned settlement than a busy metropolis.
Futuristic Songdo was supposed to be the first "smart" city on the planet, which was planned to be created from scratch. Designers and architects had mind-blowing ambitions when developing a plan for a settlement from the future: for the construction of Songdo it was necessary to drain more than 600 hectares of swamps, on the vacated territory to erect huge residential quarters, which were to be inhabited by about half a million people. The plan included several dozen residential high-rise buildings and office skyscrapers, parks, playgrounds and parking lots. Each of the constructed buildings had to have cameras and motion sensors that would reduce crime to minimum levels and enable services to respond quickly to extraordinary increases: accidents, fires and offenses.
Pedestrian and automobile roads were planned to be built so that in 20-30 minutes the resident had the opportunity to get to any point of the city. The metropolis of the future had to take energy from solar panels and hydroelectric power plants. Planners and architects wanted rainwater collectors to be installed throughout Songdo Square, which would be used to clean up streets and irrigate lawns in times of drought. Throughout the city, they wanted to install pneumatic systems for the collection and sorting of garbage waste for efficient and quick recycling.
However, all the plans that were conceived by the Koreans did not materialize.
Developers promised that they would fully complete the construction of the fantastic city by 2015, but problems arose, because of which the deadlines had to be extended until 2018. The new city was unable to attract a large number of residents, as Songdo did not build museums, amusement parks, recreation areas and shopping and entertainment centers with cinemas, restaurants and shops. What's more, the cost of housing in this empty city was much higher than the national average. Many developers became disillusioned with the project and stopped working on it when they saw that there were few interested Korean citizens in their brainchild. Construction was frozen, and now in Songdo you can see many houses, the work on which is not finished.
Now no more than 100 thousand people live on the territory of the city. This number is extremely low for South Korean megacities: in neighboring Incheon, for example, more than 3 million people live. The city authorities continue to work on attracting residents and tourists to Sondgo, building quarters for foreigners, but the city is unlikely to be able to become the metropolis of the future, which was planned a few years ago.
- Latest Headlines
A glimpse into the future? $39 billion high-tech smart city in South Korea turns into a 'Chernobyl-like ghost town' after investment dries up
- 'High-tech utopia' of Songdo in South Korea was built from scratch and designed around technology
- Residents were promised a city of the future, with remote-controlled doors and pneumatic rubbish chutes
- But eerie photos show that, just over 15 years on from the project's launch, the city is still less than half-built
- It has struggled to bring in companies and investors, halting completion of its developers' wide-eyed dream
- One Songdo reisdent remarked that the city is like 'a deserted prison', while another said it is a 'ghost town'
By Harry Pettit and Chris White For Mailonline
Published: 06:33 EDT, 28 March 2018 | Updated: 13:11 EDT, 28 March 2018
A £28 billion ($40 billion) project hailed as the world's first smart city has faded into a 'Chernobyl-like ghost town'.
The 'high-tech utopia' of Songdo on South Korea 's northeast coast was built from scratch and designed around technology, with computers built into its streets and condos to control traffic and let neighbours hold video chats.
Residents were promised a city of the future, with remote-controlled front doors and pneumatic rubbish chutes that 'sucked' garbage from your home to later be recycled to generate electricity.
But eerie photos show that, just over 15 years since the Songdo project began, the city is still less than half-built, with one citizen remarking it's like 'living in a deserted prison'.
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A £28 billion ($40 billion) project hailed as the world's first smart city has faded into a 'Chernobyl-like ghost town'. The 'high-tech utopia' of Songdo (pictured) on South Korea's northeast coast was built from scratch and designed around technology
The brainchild of property developers and the South Korean government, the vision was to construct a new way of thinking for over 300,000 residents, spread out over 600 hectares of reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea.
Songdo was to push boundaries in the way cities dealt with technology, environment, business and education. Built within 25 miles (40km) of Seoul, it was billed as the antithesis of the suffocating, over-populated capital.
But the £28 billion ($40 billion) project, launched in 2002, has struggled to bring in big companies and investors despite hosting South Korea's tallest skyscraper.
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Completion dates for the city, also known as the Songdo International Business District, have been used loosely. It was meant to be fully functional by 2015, then 2018, and now it's 2022.
Critics have remarked that the city, which is currently less than a quarter full with just 70,000 residents, has a 'Chernobyl-like emptiness'.
Far from giving up on the project, Songdo's developers are now going out of their way to entice foreigners, including Brits, with the construction of 'American Town'.
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Eerie photos show that, just over 15 years since the project began, the city is still less than half-built, with one citizen remarking it's like 'living in a deserted prison'
Residents were promised a city of the future, with remote-controlled front doors and pneumatic rubbish chutes that 'sucked' garbage from your home to later be recycled to generate electricity. Computers were built into its streets (pictured) and condos to control traffic and let neighbours hold video chats
WHAT IS SOUTH KOREA'S £28 BILLION SMART CITY SONGDO AND WHY IS IT SO EMPTY?
The 'high-tech utopia' of Songdo on South Korea's northeast coast was built from scratch and designed around technology (artist's impression)
The 'high-tech utopia' of Songdo on South Korea's northeast coast was built from scratch and designed around technology, with computers built into its streets and condos to control traffic and let neighbours hold video chats.
The city was supposed to kick-start a car-free world, with 40 per cent green space and dozens of kilometres of cycling routes.
In an attempt to shape a clean-cut version of Manhattan, the city is dominated by a rectangular green space, aptly named Central Park, which is surrounded by cutting edge skyscrapers.
It was planned to contain 80,000 apartments, 50 million square feet (5 million square metres) of office space and 10 million square feet (900,000 square metres) of retail space.
But the £28 billion ($40 billion) project, launched in 2002, has struggled to bring in big companies and investors, halting completion of developers' wide-eyed dream.
The £28 billion ($40 billion) project, launched in 2002, has struggled to bring in big companies and investors, halting completion of developers' wide-eyed dream. Pictured is one of the city's deserted subway stations
The city was supposed to kick-start a car-free world, with 40 per cent green space and dozens of kilometres of cycling routes (pictured). The city is dominated by a rectangular green space surrounded by cutting edge skyscrapers
The district offers luxury apartments with futuristic technology, US and UK-style education and cleaner living.
Currently under-construction, American Town will have three large towers - up to 50-stories high - and two smaller ones, serving 900 apartments and 1,000 businesses over 4 million square feet (386,000 square meters).
Developers also hope to entice people from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand.
American Town was announced in January 2014 with one official stating that 'already more than 1,200 units have been sold to foreign buyers'.
The brainchild of property developers and the South Korean government, the vision was to construct a new way of thinking for over 300,000 residents, spread out over 600 hectares of reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea
Songdo was to push boundaries in the way it dealt with technology, environment, business and education. Built within 25 miles (40km) of Seoul, it was billed as the antithesis of the suffocating, over-populated capital city
It was planned to contain 80,000 apartments, 50 million square feet (5 million square metres) of office space and 10 million square feet (900,000 square metres) of retail space. But a failure to lure in companies and investors means many of the city's building plots are still empty (pictured)
Completion dates for the city, also known as the Songdo International Business District, have been used loosely. It was meant to be fully functional by 2015, then 2018, and now it's 2022
Koam, the Virginia-based real estate consulting firm in charge of the American Town project, toured US cities, especially those with large Korean populations, such as New York and Los Angeles, held meetings with locals and got over a thousand signed letters of intent to move.
New citizens could add over 20 per cent to the current population.
Although CEO Augustine Kim said the primary target was 'people who left Korea for the American dream over 40 years ago', Songdo locals tell a different story.
Some residents claim that the high cost of living is driving local people back into Seoul and the city is being built especially for foreigners.
Critics have remarked that the city, which is currently less than a quarter full with just 70,000 residents, has a 'Chernobyl-like emptiness'
Some residents claim that Songdo's high cost of living is driving local people back into Seoul and the city is being built especially for foreigners
Songdo citizen Shim Jong Rae described the deserted metropolis as a 'ghost town'. He said: 'There are many foreign schools, hospitals, and amenities however, they're all too expensive. Everything is expensive'
In an attempt to shape a clean-cut version of Manhattan, the city is dominated by a rectangular green space, aptly named Central Park, which is surrounded by cutting edge skyscrapers. Pictured is a mall near the park
Songdo citizen Shim Jong Rae described the deserted metropolis as a 'ghost town.'
'There are many foreign schools, hospitals, and amenities however, they're all too expensive. Everything is expensive,' he said.
'Although they might develop the area well in the future, people are starting to leave the city. It's too focused on attracting foreigners that they forget that normal people live here too.
'If they could just get their head around adjusting the cost of living here, Songdo could potentially be not only the best city in Korea, but the world. But development has stalled a lot.'
American Gale International - who own 61 per cent of the project - have been at the forefront and have never doubted its success. The plan was designed by the New York office of architect Kohn Pedersen Fox, while labour and funding has been provided by the metropolitan South Korean city of Incheon, which Songdo is attached to
Gale International admit that concentrating on quality of life meant 'what has probably missed the mark is for companies to locate here'. Pictured are empty bicycle racks in the city
On weekends, the cycle racks are empty (pictured), the area is desolate apart from the odd stray tourist visiting the top of the 65-floor Northeast Asia Trade Centre, now South Korea's tallest building (pictured)
American Gale International - who own 61 per cent of the project - have been at the forefront and have never doubted its success.
The plan was designed by the New York office of architect Kohn Pedersen Fox, while labour and funding has been provided by the metropolitan South Korean city of Incheon, which Songdo is attached to.
Around the perimeter fence of the American Town there's the slogan 'Dream of Incheon, vision of Korea.'
But people aren't coming and neither are businesses - less than 50 big brands have bothered - and public transport is a pain, it's a near two-hour connection to downtown Seoul.
The streets, footpaths and cycle lanes are strangely empty for such a large city, there's no presence of culture - no museums, theatres or cinemas
Blogger Ian James, writing for Korea Expose , said it reminded him more of Chernobyl than the best example of future living. He said: 'Songdo is a new kind of city: Completely artificial, painstakingly designed, without a hint of decay or poverty, and nearly empty. It's a human desert'
Far from giving up on the project, Songdo's developers are now going out of their way to entice foreigners, including Brits, with the construction of 'American Town' (pictured). The district offers luxury apartments with futuristic technology, US and UK-style education and cleaner living
Gale International admit that concentrating on quality of life meant 'what has probably missed the mark is for companies to locate here'.
One resident described it as 'living in a deserted prison'.
The streets, footpaths and cycle lanes are strangely empty for such a large city, there's no presence of culture - no museums, theatres or cinemas.
On weekends, the cycle racks are empty, the area is desolate apart from the odd stray tourist visiting the top of the 65-floor Northeast Asia Trade Center, now South Korea's tallest building.
Blogger Ian James, writing for Korea Expose , said it reminded him more of Chernobyl than the best example of future living.
Currently under-construction, American Town will have three large towers - up to 50-stories high - and two smaller ones (pictured), serving 900 apartments and 1,000 businesses over 4 million square feet (386,000 square meters)
Developers also hope to entice people from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand. American Town was announced in January 2014 with one official stating that 'already more than 1,200 units have been sold to foreign buyers'. Pictured left is the complex's larger tower, while the right image shows one of its smaller structures
Koam, the Virginia-based real estate consulting firm in charge of the American Town project (pictured), toured US cities, especially those with large Korean populations, such as New York and Los Angeles, held meetings with locals and got over a thousand signed letters of intent to move. New citizens could add over 20 per cent to the current population
'The fact that 1,500 acres of Yellow Sea marshland, home to several endangered bird species, was devastated for this "green" city is another matter,' he wrote.
'Songdo is a new kind of city: Completely artificial, painstakingly designed, without a hint of decay or poverty, and nearly empty. It's a human desert.
'There is an oppressive, Chernobyl-like emptiness here. The shallowness is awesome, in both the modern and traditional sense of the word; you can almost feel that these huge buildings are only years away from being completely abandoned.'
But developers are adamant that everything is going along fine, with Scott Summers, vice president of Gale International, telling NPR in 2015: 'It's a great place to live. And it's becoming a great place to work.'
Songdo, also known as the Songdo International Business District, is part of the South Korean city of Incheon. It sits around 25 miles (40km) from captial city Seoul
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- Songdo: No Man's City | KOREA EXPOSÉ
- A South Korean City Designed For The Future Takes On A Life Of Its Own : Parallels : NPR
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Building a City from Scratch: The Story of Songdo, Korea
- Written by Kaley Overstreet
- Published on June 11, 2021
What does it take to build a smart city from nothing ? Or maybe the better question is, what does it take to build a smart city from nothing and make it successful? For over a decade, architects and urban planners worked hand in hand to create Songdo , a brand new business district that sought to represent South Korean advancements in technology and infrastructure. Songdo was once a model for how we would live in cities of the future- but now, the reality of what this smart city quickly became has us rethinking how the combination of technology and community might have gone wrong.
Seeking suburban sprawl away from an overcrowded Seoul , Songdo was constructed out of nothing, built on nearly 1,500 acres of land that was reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. Technically, Songdo is considered an extension of Incheon, a large international transportation hub that allows the city to be easily accessible by foreign and domestic travelers. Songdo was conceptualized in the early years of the 21st century as a completely sustainable, high-tech city, that would plan for a future without cars, without pollution, and without overcrowded spaces. It was essentially a utopia that offered everything that Seoul didn’t, and was positioned as a new global economic center, with the right talent and business that would allow it to compete with other Asian markets.
To accomplish these rather lofty goals, some of the world’s most advanced urban technologies were utilized. The streets that connect the district are lined with sensors that measure energy use and traffic flow as a means of quantifying sustainability to support its highest concentration of LEED-certified projects in the world. Songdo also features a massive seaside park outfitted with self-sustaining irrigation systems to provide ample public space. At the level of individual residents, trash tubes take garbage away to a central plant where it is automatically sorted into recyclables and waste to be burned. Even homes are operated by cellphone apps that control everything from heating and air conditioning, to artificial light levels.
There’s no doubt that Songdo is revolutionary and is by far the most technologically integrated city in the world. But what it forgets in its vision for the city of the future, is that cities are designed for people, not for fancy AI features and sensors. Many critics and inhabitants alike say that living there is “cold” and “deserted”, with some going so far as to compare it to the ghost town of Chernobyl. With a population of just over 80,000, and with the first major phase of development soon coming to an end, it’s hard to tell just how successful and desirable Songdo will be.
What the designers and planners of Songdo should have done was design around the perspective and needs of a human being first with technology acting as the supplement, instead of designing for technology, with humans being just in the peripheral. It’s easy to automate many processes, and collect infinite amounts of data- but is it necessary to ensure that a city is performing? Are all aspects of urban performance quantifiable, or can it be described through less tangential measurements like the overall happiness of its residents? Songdo is proof that high-tech cities don’t always equate to high-impact communities.
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I spent a week in the city of the future - and I’m not sure it's the future we want
It’s 9 p.m. on a Friday evening, and the streets of Songdo are eerily deserted.
Lights are coming on in the high-rise apartment buildings that tower over me, hinting at the existence of human life – although in this city, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether it’s people who control the lights. It could also be an algorithm.
As it’s getting chilly, I am looking for a place to sit down. It’s a task that proves harder than you would think in a modern city at the start of the weekend.
I walk past a brightly lit restaurant that captures my attention with its sleek and minimalist interior design, but I can’t tell if it’s open or closed. It looks strangely empty. The only two discernible figures are a Korean boy and girl in their early twenties, standing motionless behind a counter with their eyes firmly locked on their smartphones.
Tired, I make my way back to my hotel, taking a nightly stroll through a park that looks like it was to meant to emulate Central Park in New York City, surrounded by skyscrapers reminiscent of Manhattan. But again, I seem to be one of the few living souls around.
I doubt whether this is what Songdo’s urban planners had in mind in 2003 when they set out to build the world’s most advanced smart city.
By now, 300,000 people were supposed to populate this high-tech, sustainably designed metropolis near the South-Korean capital of Seoul. Yet so far, only 100,000 have actually moved in. With one critic calling it a “Chernobyl-like ghost town”, Songdo hasn’t exactly lived up to the stellar expectations.
Yet with a bold and forward-looking vision to construct the city of the future from scratch, surely Korea’s urban masterminds got some things right?
I spent a week in Songdo to find out for myself.
A brave new world
Whatever faults you may find in this pioneering urban project, a lack of ambition is not one of them. Carrying a hefty price tag of 35 billion dollars, Songdo was built from the ground up over the past fifteen years on a 600-hectare parcel of artificial land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. A massive bridge spanning 21 kilometres takes you straight from Seoul’s Incheon Airport into the heart of this brave new world.
Ironically, one of the main goals of the project is to eventually eliminate the need for cars. All residential buildings in Songdo were built within 12 minute walking distance from bus and subway stops, with tens of kilometres of cycling paths. 40% of the city is green space. But that’s just where its eco-friendly intentions begin.
You won’t see garbage trucks driving around in Songdo. Household waste is collected via an underground network of pipes, driven by a pneumatic system that sucks people’s garbage straight from their homes into processing centres. 75% of the garbage is recycled into biomass, and heat from the recycling facility is redistributed throughout the city.
Don’t expect to be able to manually open or close your windows in this high-tech city. There’s a digital control system for everything, which you can operate with the click of a button – as I found out after two warm nights with closed windows and a dozen increasingly desperate attempts to open them the old-fashioned way.
After a week, I was a bit disappointed the windows hadn’t started to think for themselves yet, anticipating my desire for a cool bedroom.
To be fair though, in many ways this city already is the epitome of smartness today. And I’m not just referring to the music that starts playing automatically when you enter a public toilet, providing a soundtrack to your most private moments.
Sensors are all around you in Songdo. They collect data and feed it into intelligent systems that analyze the data in real time. Street lighting adjusts according to the numbers of passers-by. Car movements are tracked to regulate traffic flows. Residents can even compare their energy and water use with the average of their neighbors – creating a nifty incentive to finally shorten that morning shower. If not to save the planet, then at least to outrank the couple next door.
While you may not run into many fellow humans in the streets of Songdo at night, there’s no need to look behind your back. Someone else will do for it you. With hundreds of interactive security cameras that are constantly monitored via the city’s Integrated Operations Centre, I’ve never felt as safe walking around with a bag full of photography gear.
Alone in Sim City
Yet for all the comfort, safety, and ecological benefits that Songdo’s ubiquitous technology brings, I felt a gaping void at the center of this new urban utopia.
What Songdo boosts in technological wizardry, it lacks in soul, culture, and character. Everything feels strangely sterile and dehumanized.
Many of Songdo’s half-empty apartment buildings are barely distinguishable from each other, with blocks of concrete stacked on top of each other in Tetris-like fashion, reducing communities to numbers.
This is a world far away from the quaint cobblestone alleys of Paris or Florence, where the scent of history lifts up the spirit, where many a couple kissed for the first time throughout the ages, and where every corner fills you with anticipation of what you may find next.
It is telling that the one building in Songdo that looks authentically Korean, a seemingly century-old palace constructed from beautiful Honok-style wood, is in fact a luxury hotel. According to reviews, the breakfast is supposed to be really good.
Walking around in Songdo feels like entering the virtual realm of Sim City, where every street follows an orderly designed grid, where every tree was positioned in exactly the right place, and where humans are nothing but bits and bytes in a continuous stream of data.
But can all aspects of life be algorithmically optimized?
As one resident said in an interview , “I felt something cold when I arrived here”, lamenting the lack of warmth in neighbourhood interaction. She went on to add that there is an online forum where people share their complaints. “But only on the internet – not face to face.”
The future we get to build
I am not writing this to be skeptical or dismissive of smart city initiatives. On the contrary, one can only applaud attempts to pioneer sustainable modern living.
Yet maybe we can also learn from Songdo’s struggles.
As smart technology gets embedded into every corner of the street and into every building, what else is needed to bring a city to life and make it an enjoyable place for people to reside or visit?
And while there is undoubtedly benefit in connecting technology, do we spend enough time thinking how to preserve and foster human connections?
The city of the future may be smart, but that in itself does not make it a human city.
This article reflects my personal opinions. I was not compensated for my trip to Songdo in any way.
Further reading about Songdo and the smart cities of the future
- ‘The next era of human progress’: what lies behind the global new cities epidemic? (The Guardian)
- The promise and perils of “smart” cities (CityJournal)
- Sleepy in Songdo, Korea’s smartest city (CityLab)
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Wow, what an almost dystopian story! And these pictures pull you right into the Great Emptiness – where technology has taken over human connections. Powerful, really like your photography style and this post does make me want to visit that place…
It does feel a bit like the city was built around technology rather than around people. I’d like to go back one day and explore this city in more depth. To be honest, as a visitor, you only get a limited view of any place you visit.
Nice piece Tristan and great shots! It’s quite spooky right, we all seem to love our tech, but deep down…do we really? Anyway, no way escaping it. Keep up the interesting work.
Thanks for commenting! Indeed, our everyday relationship with technology is often ambiguous these days.
Hi Tristan, Interesting point of view and the pictures sure make it a strong case I live in Songdo and while is does carry the heavy tag city of the future it also has room for small creative offices for families and youth. The comparisons are also hard to parallel, Florence where I lived and Paris where I visited again and again are sedimented cities over centuries you can find the beautiful river sides restructured into the urban life and wrongly picture it has always been like that. It has not Same with songdo and deeply connected with the vision of a life style. Either way is responding well to a pandemic of the “present” with its extremely convenient ways of living and services it made a good pint on living in the future Songdo, like many cities it’s far from perfect but it’s not made for machines
Love your sharp eye for photography
Hi Pedro, Thanks a lot for your comment and apologies for my late response – my website notifications were not working properly. It’s great to hear the perspective from someone who lives in Songdo. And to be fair, I hope I didn’t paint too negative a picture of your city – it has a lot of positive sides too. I hope to go back one day and immerse myself more deeply into Songdo’s daily life. You’re absolutely right: every city needs time to develop its ‘soul’, and that often starts with small creative initiatives. Thanks! Tristan
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$40 Billion City In South Korea Becomes A Ghost Down As Investment Runs Out
The world’s first smart city with a $40 billion budget looks anything but smart. It lies abandoned now and has turned into a ghost town. Songdo on South Korea’s northeast coast was built from scratch and was designed around technology with computers built into streets and condos to control traffic.
The residents were promised a futuristic city where front doors would be controlled by remote controls and pneumatic rubbish chutes would suck in garbage directly from your homes to be recycled later on to make electricity. 15 years have passed since the Songdo project began and the city is less than half built and it feels like a deserted prison.
The $40 billion dollar project aimed to construct a new way of thinking for 300,000 residents but it has failed to bring in big companies and investors despite being home to South Korea’s tallest skyscraper. It was initially meant to be completed by 2015, then 2018, and now it is said that it will be completed by 2022.
The city is less than a quarter full with just 70,000 residents and has been remarked to have a “Chernobyl-like emptiness”. Songdo’s developers are not giving up hope and plan to construct “American Town” to bring about foreign interest.
The district will have US and UK-style education and will have three large towers and two smaller ones and will serve 900 apartments and 1,000 businesses over 4 million square feet. Koam, the Virginia-based real estate consulting firm in charge of the American Town project, toured US cities, especially those with large Korean populations, such as New York and Los Angeles, held meetings with locals and got over a thousand signed letters of intent to move.
Although CEO Augustine Kim said the primary target was “people who left Korea for the American dream over 40 years ago” , Songdo locals tell a different story. They say that the cost of living is so high that the local people are being forced to move back to Seoul.
Songdo citizen Shim Jong Rae described the town as: “There are many foreign schools, hospitals, and amenities, however, they’re all too expensive. Everything is expensive. Although they might develop the area well in the future, people are starting to leave the city. It’s too focused on attracting foreigners that they forget that normal people live here too. If they could just get their head around adjusting the cost of living here, Songdo could potentially be not only the best city in Korea, but the world. But development has stalled a lot.”
American Gale International owns 61% of the project and never doubted its success. But, people and businesses don’t share their beliefs and less than 50 big brands have bothered. Gale International admit that concentrating on quality of life meant “what has probably missed the mark is for companies to locate here” .
The large city has no culture, no museums, theatres or cinemas. The city is empty on the weekends except for a couple of tourists that come to visit South Korea’s tallest building.
Blogger Ian James, writing for Korea Expose, said it reminded him more of Chernobyl than the best example of future living. “The fact that 1,500 acres of Yellow Sea marshland, home to several endangered bird species, was devastated for this ‘green’ city is another matter. Songdo is a new kind of city: Completely artificial, painstakingly designed, without a hint of decay or poverty, and nearly empty. It’s a human desert. There is an oppressive, Chernobyl-like emptiness here. The shallowness is awesome, in both the modern and traditional sense of the word you can almost feel that these huge buildings are only years away from being completely abandoned.”
The developers still refuse to believe that and are still pushing forward for its development. The next couple of years will make the situation completely clear, whether it is going to thrive or will it be completely abandoned. We will have to wait and find out.
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Could Songdo be the world’s smartest city?
South korea’s purpose-built ‘smart city’, songdo international business district, is the largest private real estate development in history. the price tag currently stands at over $40bn. rita lobo wonders whether it has all been worth it.
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Seoul, in South Korea, is one of the ‘smartest’ cities in the world; it boasts the most cutting-edge infrastructure as part of daily life. The metro is not only the most extensive subway system by length, but also boasts ultra-fast Wi-Fi. The transport network itself is meticulously timed, with arrival and departure times displayed clearly on laser panels outside stations and bus stops. But a new development 40 miles outside of the South Korean capital is so advanced that Seoul will look positively medieval by comparison. The Songdo International Business District , constructed on a new embankment on the Incheon waterfront, is a purpose-built ‘smart city’, designed for efficiency and convenience.
Songdo by numbers
Cost of the songdo development (to-date), area dedicated to outdoor spaces, outside seoul.
Building a city from scratch to fulfil a specific need is not a new concept; Canberra, Brasilia and Abuja were all built in the last 60 years as functional capital cities. But Songdo is unique, being built as an integrated hi-tech environment. Developers describe Songdo as a ‘global business hub’ and ‘home to a variety of residential and retail developments’, but at a cost of over $40bn, is Songdo just a glorified model neighbourhood?
The smart city occupies 1,500 acres of land ‘reclaimed from the Yellow Sea’, making it the largest private real estate development in history. But it’s not the geographical space that makes Songdo remarkable. The district was built as part of former President Lee Myung-bak’s drive to promote low-carbon and sustainable growth as the principal avenue for development in South Korea.
For over half a century, the country’s economy has been dependant on exports and South Korea has become known for its hi-tech industry. When the global economic crisis struck in 2007 and 2008, and foreign demand for South Korean products slumped, the government launched a stimulus package aimed at developing the country’s own infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on green investments.
Lee launched the Framework Act for Low Carbon Green Growth, a $38bn economic stimulus package, 80 percent of which was earmarked for green and sustainable investments. In 2010 the National Assembly of Korea increased the value of the Framework Act to over $83.6bn, to be invested over five years.
Songdo has been a huge part of the move towards sustainable growth. The city is a novel model – 40 percent of its area is dedicated to outdoor spaces. By comparison, Seoul and other South Korean metropolises are densely populated with few open-air areas for residents. Songdo is unique, offering city inhabitants something they have never had access to before: green space for leisure. The district has been heavily promoting its 16 miles of bicycle lanes, its central park, and its waterways, which are based on New York City’s Central Park and Venice’s canals, respectively.
Business and leisure While South Koreans might not have been wooed by the district’s state-of-the-art urban infrastructure, it has certainly been a selling point for international investors. Songdo is the first district in Korea to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accreditation, and the largest project outside the US to be included in the LEED Neighbourhood Development Pilot Plan.
This means the entire development adheres to the strictest environmental standards for energy consumption and waste. According to developers, over $10bn was invested in the design and build of the 100 main buildings in the district, including the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, which will be Korea’s “tallest building and most advanced corporate centre,” according to Songdo’s promotional material.
In many ways Songdo is a living organism. The city’s infrastructure contains sensors that monitor and regulate everything from temperature to energy consumption and traffic
Because the district was built from scratch, it has given developers the opportunity to invest heavily in technologies that have yet to debut in conventional cities. Take Songdo’s smart rubbish disposal system, a futuristic bit of hardware that spans the whole complex. No rubbish trucks will ever roam the leafy streets of Songdo, instead all household and office waste is sucked through a network of underground tubes to vast sorting facilities where it is all processed, deodorised and treated. The aim is to eventually convert all this sorted and treated waste into energy for the community, but the system is not yet fully operational.
In many ways Songdo is a living organism. The city’s infrastructure contains sensors that monitor and regulate everything from temperature to energy consumption and traffic. Essentially, the city can interact with residents on a one-to-one basis. Smart grids and meters are already fairly common in Europe and the US, but the technology in Songdo is more pervasive than anything in the West. Because it was designed to this specification and not converted later like most ‘smart cities’ in the rest of the world, Songdo is completely geared towards sustainability; even the water pipes are designed to stop clean water, suitable for human consumption, being used in showers and toilets, and all of the embankment’s water goes through a sophisticated recycling system.
Everything in Songdo might have been meticulously designed, but there is one key element that has not gone according to plan. Since it’s official launch in 2009, the sustainable district remains woefully under-occupied. Despite it’s enviable location close to Seoul and it’s international airport – “just 15 minutes driving time from Incheon International Airport and three and a half hours flying time to a third of the world’s population and regional markets such as China, Russia and Japan,” reads the brochure – less than 20 percent of the commercial space in the district has been occupied.
Ghost town Pre-planned cities have been around for centuries, and they always face the same challenges: how to attract residents and businesses to a new, untested, and unpopulated area. China has faced this problem as the building boom of the early 2000s encouraged developers to invest in new cities and shopping districts that ultimately failed to attract buyers. Songdo is very well connected, and the business facilities are second to none, but attracting inhabitants may still be a slower process than developers hoped for.
In order to speed up the population process, developers have been investing heavily in top-quality international education centres. The hope is to entice a diverse international community. Before the end of 2014, four universities will inaugurate campuses in the business district, including the first overseas university to open a campus branch in Korea, the State University of New York, Stony Brook, as well as George Mason University and the University of Utah, all sponsored at least in part by the Ministry of Knowledge Economy. There is also an enormous, exclusive international school catering to children from kindergarten to high school.
Songdo is the city of the future; all that is missing are the residents
And while Songdo is not yet a hit with the international business community, young professionals have flocked to its leafy boulevards looking for a better lifestyle than the hectic streets of Seoul can offer. The district offers over 22,500 new housing units built to different specifications – from garden houses to sleek high-rises – all connected to the district’s energy, water and waste facilities.
But businesses may soon follow, attracted by the skilled workforce provided by the universities, the sustainability credentials and the tax breaks. “It’s the occupants who make a city,” Jonathan Thorpe, CIO of Gale International, the American developer behind Songdo, told the BBC . “You’re trying to create a diversity and a vitality that organic development creates, in and of itself,” he explained, “so it’s a challenge to try and replicate that in a masterplan setting. At the same time, with a masterplan you have the ability to size the infrastructure to make sure the city works – now and in 50 years’ time.”
And the brains behind Songdo have thought carefully about financial incentives for businesses. Companies relocating to the district will have access to tax reductions, estate support and subsidies. No property tax will be levied for 10 years, followed by three years where businesses need only pay 50 percent of taxes due; small- and medium-sized companies will also be considered for rent reduction; and employees of companies with over 30 percent international investment will be able to claim a variety of perks – from location subsidies to promotion results compensation.
For South Korea, Songdo is more than a hi-tech business district, but a template for future developments. It is the prototype for the green investment the government wants to build the economy on in the future. It is all designed to appeal to foreign investors, but its manicured gardens and glassy towers also give it an unmistakable air of luxury. This is the aspirational South Korea where everyone is wealthy and your mobile phone controls the temperature in your apartment. Songdo is the city of the future; all that is missing are the residents.
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“Songdo, we have a problem!”: Promises and Perils of a Utopian Smart City
by Cluster Urban Regional Development | Dec 8, 2020 | The Urban Media Lab
By 2050, the UN estimates that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. For this reason, the European Green Deal calls for the transition of cities to smart cities – cities which, by leveraging technological strategies, manage to make public services more efficient and thereby improve the quality of life.
Throughout the world, many urban projects have claimed to be exemplarism of green smart cities, but are they really under every point of view? One of the grandest and daring innovations is known to be the Songdo International Business District. This is a $40 billion smart city project developed by Gale International and POSCO E&C in collaboration with Cisco and other international tech companies. It has frequently been touted as a smart, green, low-carbon city, which istechnologically efficient and saves large amounts of energy at one time. Songdo IBD was built following a high-tech utopian dream, but unfortunately the results have not exactly been up to expectations. In fact, Songdo not only is still partly incomplete, but also is very sparsely populated. This is not only due to the low number of citizens, but also for the relatively little relevance given to the so-called “human factor”.
If smart cities are conceptually devised with the only focus of implementing cutting-edge technology for more efficient services, there is the risk of creating an environment prone to the alienation of citizens. Hence, a pivotal aspect to take into consideration is the necessity of preventative and thorough ethical assessment to be carried out when developing smart city projects. A plausible path forward may then be that of giving precedence to human-centred design in any smart city project. In fact, by emphasising the human factor, there would be greater chances of containing the excessive intrusiveness of technological surveillance, a-moral automation and techno-control.
What is a “smart city”? For some, it is defined as a city which, by combining architectural and technological strategies, manages to create innovative and optimal solutions for public services. For others, it is an ambition towards more democratic and sustainable communities. By 2050, the UN estimates that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. For this reason, some supranational policies such as the European Green Deal call for the transition of cities to smart cities. In these terms, a smart city is often seen as a hub of sustainable innovation and social inclusion. For instance, a study undertaken by McKinsey Global Institute found that smart city technology can enhance quality of life by 10% to 30%.
Throughout the world, many urban development projects have claimed to be exemplarism of green smart cities, but are they really under every point of view?
In this respect, one of the grandest and most daring innovations is known to be the Songdo International Business District. This is a $40 billion smart city project aiming at the creation of a completely smart, green and low-carbon city. Interesting to notice is the fact that, only 10 years ago, it was just a pile of sand, and that the location choice was mainly based on the distance from crucial business areas in the greater city, not giving much attention to the local communities’ needs. The project was developed by the Manhattan-based Gale International and POSCO E&C of Korea, who have engaged world-class experts in international architecture, engineering, design and technology such as Kohn Pedersen Fox, Arup and smart city leader Cisco.
To this day, the city is more than halfway through construction and hosts around 70’000 people, even though the project is still partly incomplete due to some difficulties in getting off the ground.
The promise is to dedicate at least 40% of land to green areas equipped with self-sustaining irrigation systems, such as a 101-acre Central Park (yes, like the one in the Big Apple!), and to be the city with the greatest number of green buildingsin the world. The city has already achieved the milestone of constructing 22 million square feet of LEED-certified spacein 118 buildings. It is impressive to notice that, by end of this year, the city should also manage to achieve a 76% rate of waste recycling. This would amount to yet another significant “sustainable” accomplishment, also taking into account that the overall energy use per person in Songdo IBD (40%) is up to 40% less than in other cities.
However, the city of Songdo was built following a high-tech utopian dream. The urban environment, packed with highly sophisticated sensors which capture pollution levels and even citizens’ movements, resembles a sci-fi movie set. In fact, the city hosts fewer citizens as compared to those originally expected. Some overly critical people have even compared it to Chernobyl for its sense of emptiness (Pettit and White, 2018).
Here is how Songdo represents a radically new concept of city: designed with extreme efficiency, totally artificial, apparently without poverty or degradation.
The Songdo project is a revolutionary one in the smart cities’ scenario, in its peculiar attempt at realising “the city of the future”. However, Songdo is still seen as a “cold” city by many of its inhabitants. This is not only due to the low number of citizens, but also for the little relevance given to the “human factor”. In fact, along with significant improvements in the urban technological infrastructure (e.g. sensors, IOT’s, AI devices), we should consider at the same time the quintessential role played by the citizens’ community in the urban environment. If smart cities are conceptually devised with the only focus of implementing cutting-edge technology for more efficient services, there is the risk of creating an environment prone to the social alienation of citizens, who may gradually get used to pervasive technological control and lack of human interactions. Hence, a pivotal aspect to take into consideration is the necessity of preventative and thorough ethical assessment to be carried out when developing smart city projects. A plausible path forward may then be that of giving precedence to human-centred design in any smart city project: by emphasising the human factor, there would be greater chances of containing the excessive intrusiveness of technological surveillance, moral automation and techno-control.
This article has been written by the students of the Luiss new Msc in Law, Digital Innovation and Sustainability in the context of the class of Law and Policy of Innovation and Sustainability taught by Professor Christian Iaione. The cluster “Urban regional development” is composed of the following students: Piero Inghirami, Benedetta Pontecorvo and Francesca Vetturini.
Bernard, M. (2020). ‘The Smart Cities of the Future: 5 Ways Technology Is Transforming Our Cities’, Forbes . Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2020/07/02/the-smart-cities-of-the-future-5-ways-technology-is-transforming-our-cities/
Pettit, H., & White, C. (2018). ‘A glimpse into the future? $39 billion high-tech smart city in South Korea turns into a ‘Chernobyl-like ghost town’ after investment dries up’, Mailonline . Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5553001/28-billion-project-dubbed-worlds-Smart-City-turned-Chernobyl-like-ghost-town.html
James, I. (2016). ‘Songdo: No Man’s City’, Korea Expose . Available at: https://www.koreaexpose.com/songdo-no-mans-city/
Park, J. (2014). ‘Incheon Free Economic Zone pursuing deregulation to speed up growth’, The Korea Times . Available at: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/biz/2014/08/123_163373.html
Poon, L. (2018). ‘Sleepy in Songdo, Korea’s Smartest City’, Bloomberg CityLab . Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-22/songdo-south-korea-s-smartest-city-is-lonely
White, C. (2018). ‘South Korea’s ‘Smart City’ Songdo: not quite smart enough?’, This Week in Asia . Available at: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/business/article/2137838/south-koreas-smart-city-songdo-not-quite-smart-enough
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