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New Songdo City and Megacity Developers
Alex Steffen, 12 Apr 05

The developers like to call it the the Hong Kong of the 21st century.

Meet South Korea's New Songdo City, a 1,376-acre (built on a landfill "about the size of midtown Manhattan"), US$25 billion, 500,000-person (about the size of Seattle) extrusion from the megacity of Seoul. It is, by most accounts, the largest real estate venture in the world.

The entire development is being lead by the Gale Company, one of the largest commercial real estate developers in the world. It's explicitly planned as a regional economic hub, a sort of Northeast Asian Venice for the the 21st Century:

The South Korean Ministry of Trade and Finance expects the GDP of Northeast Asia, a region that includes northern China, eastern Russia, the Koreas, and Japan, to account for 30 percent of global GDP by 2020. The development team hopes to create a premier location for multinational firms to headquarter their Northeast Asian operations.

Work began in December, with a number of incentives to promote rapid construction:

"The city will be a 'free economic zone,' with tax incentives, low-interest loans, and friendly permitting processes. There will be international schools, hospitals and pharmacies, canals, a water shuttle, a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, cafes, shops -- even a ''Central Park.'"

As population continues to explode for at least the next forty years, and as we become an increasingly urban planet, the demand for not just new housing, but whole new cities, may in fact require centralized large-scale development. In talks this last year I've been fond of saying that we're building urban areas equivilant in size to the city of Seattle every four days. Recently, though, a demographer who's worked with the U.N. told me I was "totally wrong" -- it's every eight days. Whether we can "organically" build a new Seattle somewhere every eight days is an open question. I expect that New Songdo City is one potential answer: more specifically, I expect it heralds a new kind of real estate business -- the megacity developer.

All this, of course, raises three giant questions.

The first: Are such developments sustainable? Are they Post-Oil Megacities built on bright green principles, or merely large-scale centralized reproductions of the all that wrong with current building practices? There is no explicit mention of sustainability or green building in any of the documents I could find on New Songdo (though green space is emphasized as an amenity), so I'm inclined to fear the worst, here.

That needn't be the case, of course. Building a new city from the ground up presents enormous opportunities to do it right the first time, incorporating not only green building and transit, but a host of other smart planning features. A world of new and increasing sophisticated Vancouvers will be headed towards a different future than a world full of knock-offs of downtown Houston.

The second: Can such developments meet human needs for community and authentic ways of living? Will they have a heart? Or will New Songdo wind up being a sort of free-trade Celebration?

New cities do not need to be inauthentic gated communities. The good folks at INTBAU (the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism), for instance, are doing some amazing work on creating new developments which speak to local history and character, and are consciously aimed at mixing the cutting-edge with the vernacular, such as the Mumbai Mills District development. They may not be perfect, but their concerns show such things are possible -- though they appear to be lacking (except as window-dressing) from New Songdo.

The third: Where are the poor? As Darshini Mahadevia rightly asks:

Urban development that is geared to the needs of global capital displaces or excludes poorer segments of the population and leads to the social and spatial segmentation of the mega-city into citadels and ghettos. How can globalising mega-cities be made pro-poor and inclusive?

That is a question no one has yet really answered, but is absolutely critical to the building of a bright green mega-urban future.

As I've written before, I suspect that the answer to that question lies partially in the creation of a whole new set of tools for planning and building the megacities of the future. I also suspect that the resulting cities will look very little like our current conceptions of developing world communities. Whether megacity developers are part of that set of new solutions, or merely a colossally-scaled replication of our current problems remains to be seen. They may in fact prove to be both.

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Alan Steffen raised the right issues and especially so for the non-material quantum of the equation: happiness. Will the Songdo residents be happy? They would be moneyed and have decent incomes, but would they be happy? what makes for happiness in megacities? The answer is obvious: it lies in th non-work, non-economic activities of the city. Where does one go after work for leisure, for recreation, or just for a quiet evening with friends and family?

Posted by: Emmanuel I. Astillero on 13 Apr 05

What is the Pattern Language of this city? What entities, from the regional to the household, are being created here? Is this something you would like to help build? Is it a place you'd then be happy to inhabit? Whose needs are being served by this? If we kept building places like this, would the world be improved? Who is deciding, on whose behalf, that this is what what should be built?

Posted by: David Foley on 13 Apr 05

In that area the mear fact there is a place you can live that isnt uber crowed is good enough. The rest will come in time as the residents spiff up the place.

Posted by: wintermane on 13 Apr 05

The largest new city I'm aware of is Navi Mumbai, with 11,760 hectares (35,000 acres) earmarked for development and a projected population of 2 million.

Within Navi Mumbai is the "node" (or neighborhood) of Ghansoli. It was planned by new urbanist architects and will have 30,000 dwellings. In addition to being convivial, transit-oriented and mixed use, Ghansoli incorporates a U.N. sponsored "Sites and Services" section where day laborers can construct their own dwellings. See also my essay "Ghansoli Node: TOD By the Bay."

New Songdo City is planned to have 30 million sq ft of residential space. If all the residences are high rise, 1,000-square-foot apartments, that will be 30,000 apartments. Even poor, maligned Celebration, Fla., is planned to have 8,000 dwellings.

Celebration may not be everyone's cup of tea, but most of the people who live there are happy with it. It doesn't have housing for the poor, but its prices are more affordable than in most big East Coast cities. In terms of eco-friendliness, Celebration preserves 7,100 acres (74% of the property) in a natural state. And it has the highest per capita use of electric vehicles in the U.S.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 13 Apr 05

This reminds me of Paolo Soleri's Development out in arizona. Arcosanti is founded on ecological principles and emergent social behavior. Great urban development philosophy.

Posted by: Tim Andonian on 13 Apr 05

I am the AVP of International Operations for Gale International, the US-based real estate development company asked to join Korea on this project. We, along with our joint venture partner POSCO E&C, truly appreciate all the comments and questions raised here; they are good ones.

The Quality of Life amenities are at the heart of what differentiates New Songdo City from other cities. For example, a 150 acre Central Park, complete with Museum and Aquarium, make up the heart and soul of the city.

A Culture Center, geographically positioned on the water and near the site of MacArthur's Landing in Incheon, provides entertainment and recreation.

With the help of our US partners, including Nicklaus Golf, Kitson and Partners, Harvard Advisory and Taubman Centers, we are building the Jack Nicklaus Golf Course of Korea, high-end mall and boutique retail and international schools.

To attract FDI and global businesses, NSC has been designated a Free Economic Zone, providing numerous benefits to these companies.

Physical construction has started on the 1.3 million square foot convention center and our first residential units will be going on sale in early May. A 100,000 square foot marketing center is nearly complete and provides a place for consumers to really experience what the city will be like.

I welcome your questions and comments: And thank you again for your interest in New Songdo City.

Posted by: Trish Theriault on 22 Apr 05



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