Reclaiming Nature in the City: The Restoration of Cheong Gye Cheon

Earlier this month we posted a Design Spotlight of the plaza designed by Mikyoung Kim, that marks the beginning of the Cheong Gye Cheon Restoration project. Well, here comes the rest.

This isn’t the Cheong Gye Cheon’s first nip and tuck, although this time around deserves a most improved award. Over 600 years ago, during the Joseon Dynasty, Seoul was chosen to become the capital city. By the 15th century the Cheong Gye Cheon was widened and deepened to prevent flooding and it obtained several accessories like bridges, dykes, and stone embankments. Eventually, it became a sewage system for urban dwellers for a short 500 years. It endured the long repeated cycles of dredging and building of higher embankments with the continued growth of population. For Koreans, Cheong Gye Cheon means “clear water stream,” but by the Japanese occupation between 1910 – 1945, it was so polluted the Japanese referred to is as Takygyecheon… a.k.a. “dirty water system.”  The Japanese also started covering tributaries in concrete, creating an underground sewage system for the city. After WWII came the Korean War. Refugees moved to Seoul and created shanty towns along Cheong Gye Cheon (pictured below) and continued its pollution. Soon the “clear water stream” became a symbol of poverty and filth, and while the city tried to redefine and redevelop, it was soon completely covered. …Then came the freeways. Cutting through the heart of Seoul, the major freeway, that followed the stream it was named after, was built in the 1970s. Well thank goodness for Lee Myung-bak. The former mayor, and current president, had a vision for a more environmentally-friendly and livable Seoul, and in 2003 the 3.6 mile Cheong Gye Cheon Restoration project began. The project team consisted of Cheongsuk Engineering, Saman Engineering, Dongmyung Engineering, and SeoAhn Total Landscape. The project has been widely accepted as a success and serves as an example for future projects like the  Los Angeles River project. As President, Lee Myung-bak continues to implement forward thinking environmental projects, like the Four Major Rivers Project, which restored the Han River, Nakdong River, Geum River and Yeongsan River, and was completed October 21, 2011.


Mikyoung Kim’s design that marks the beginning of the restoration project:

Remnant pillars to serve as reminders of the former highway:

In addition to improving aesthetic qualities there are some quantitative benefits (from LA Foundation):

  • Provides flood protection for up to a 200-year flood event and can sustain a flow rate of 118mm/hr.
  • Increased overall biodiversity by 639% between the pre-restoration work in 2003 and the end of 2008 with the number of plant species increasing from 62 to 308, fish species from 4 to 25, bird species from 6 to 36, aquatic invertebrate species from 5 to 53, insect species from 15 to 192, mammals from 2 to 4, and amphibians from 4 to 8.
  • Reduces the urban heat island effect with temperatures along the stream 3.3° to 5.9°C cooler than on a parallel road 4-7 blocks away. This results from the removal of the paved expressway, the cooling effect of the stream, increased vegetation, reduction in auto trips, and a 2.2-7.8% increase in wind speeds moving through the corridor.
  • Reduced small-particle air pollution by 35% from 74 to 48 micrograms per cubic meter. Before the restoration, residents of the area were more than twice as likely to suffer from respiratory disease as those in other parts of the city.
  • Contributed to 15.1% increase in bus ridership and 3.3% in subway ridership in Seoul between 2003 and the end of 2008.
  • Increased the price of land by 30-50% for properties within 50 meters of the restoration project. This is double the rate of property increases in other areas of Seoul.
  • Increased number of businesses by 3.5% in Cheong Gye Cheon area during 2002-2003, which was double the rate of business growth in downtown Seoul; increased the number of working people in the Cheong Gye Cheon area by 0.8%, versus a decrease in downtown Seoul of 2.6%.
  • Attracts an average of 64,000 visitors daily. Of those, 1,408 are foreign tourists who contribute up to 2.1 billion won ($1.9 million USD) in visitor spending to the Seoul economy.

I’d also like to point out that this project was completed in 2005. Obviously these environmental projects are a high priority in Korea.

Sources:, KCET, LA Creek Freak, Inhabitat, Landscape Architecture Foundation, Discovering Korea


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