New Songdo City
New Songdo City has been hailed as one of the first truly “smart” cities of the 21st century. The cutting-edge technology present in every square meter of this development is testament to the developer’s dreams of a high-tech, futuristic city. The real innovative aspect of this project, however, is the fact that the city is being sold as a package. For the first time ever, interested parties can buy a “City in a Box”, and know exactly what they are getting—down to the door handles and hinges. Every component is included in a one-time purchase, making construction infinitely faster and more streamlined. China has already purchased two Songdos, and Middle Eastern buyers are said to be interested.
Built on the Song Do tidal flats, 64km southwest of Seoul, New Songdo City is ambitious, even by New Town standards. The city is constructed on 6km2 of reclaimed land jutting into the Yellow Sea. The land was created in a style similar to the manufactured Dutch polder landscapes: flat, gridded land slowly materialized from beneath the sea. The landfill project began in 1996, initiated jointly by Daewoo and the Korean government. In the optimistic years preceding the Asian financial crisis, Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) was brought in to draw up a masterplan for the entire Songdo area, as well as the New Seoul International Airport (later called Incheon International Airport) on Yeongjong Island. The massive proposal covered 42 km2 and provided housing for 200,000 residents.
That plan, though reinterpreted by subsequent designers, is still clearly recognizable in aerial images. Filling the tidal flats gave OMA as close to a tabula rasa starting point as possible. Design decisions were not threatened by geographic limitations, and the office came up with an imaginative plan that used a network of overlaid programmatic bands to form an integrated whole.1 A wide canal running parallel to the 3rd Gyeongin Expressway further removed the New Town from the southern edge of Incheon, creating an island rather than a peninsula. OMA’s involvement in the project ended in 1998, after the Korean won failed and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) organized a bailout for the foundering country. The Songdo project went into stalemate, and Daewoo declared bankruptcy in 1999. That same year, officials from the City of Incheon Urban Planning team made contact with Korean-American former US Representative Jay Kim, who then contacted Gale International, an American real estate and development company led by the charismatic Stanley Gale. The project brief presented to Gale suggested that he could borrow $35 billion “from Korea's banks and its biggest steel company [POSCO E&C], and use the money to build from scratch a city the size of downtown Boston, only taller and denser, on a muddy man-made island in the Yellow Sea.”2
Gale snapped up the unwanted land for a pittance, and in accordance with Korean investment policy, the project eventually materialized as a 70% - 30% joint venture between Gale and POSCO E&C, respectively. Which means that, unlike many of its contemporaries, New Songdo City is completely privately financed. Songdo’s $40 billion price tag also makes it one of the most expensive private real estate development in the world.3
Indeed, the Songdo project has emerged largely unscathed by the more recent global economic crisis, due in part to Stanley Gale’s impressive ability to secure loans in excess of $35 billion and a personal investment of $100 million.4 As he freely admits, “I’m a risk taker.”5 The claim is almost an understatement. Gale’s ultimate goal is to mass-produce copies of Songdo across Asia, constructed at twice the speed and half the price. So far, two Chinese municipalities have signed contracts, Chongqing and Dalian; and one offspring is already in the works. As Greg Lindsey writes in an article for Fast Company magazine, “New Songdo's first clone will break ground this year on the outskirts of Changsha, a provincial capital larger than Singapore. The Meixi Lake District will be larger than New Songdo and just as dense, smart, and green—and eerily familiar. This and every subsequent city will be standardized around Gale's partners' products: the same light fixtures, traffic signals, elevators, fuel cells, central air-conditioners and TelePresence screens.”6 The TelePresence screens are part of Cisco’s contribution, and other technology contracts have gone to 3M, LG, GE and Otis, among others. In the same article, Executive Vice President of Cisco Services Wim Elfrink confirms Songdo’s global ambitions: "We're trying to replicate cities, but we have no standards. Every city is a new project, a new process, a new interface; you shouldn't spend time on an elevator [thus the Otis contract]. You shouldn't spend time on lighting [ditto the LG contract]."7 Elfrink’s claim should come as a shock to contextualists: the audacious proposal offers a pre-packaged ‘city in a box’ for $40 billion a piece.8 Clearly, there are standards, or at least, standard contracts. In a more recent article from Wallpaper magazine, Gale himself goes a step further, saying “We want to crack the code of urbanism, then replicate it. We want to build at least twenty Songdos ourselves: the G20—Gale 20.”9
Like all major cities, neighboring Incheon (pop. 2.76 million) has faced increasing urban sprawl over the past three decades.10 New Songdo’s urban design and adjacent location is meant to combat the city’s slow spread and simultaneously combine the best of all worlds within a 6 km2 area. When Gale secured control of the project, they brought in the American design firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) to reinterpret OMA’s plan. KPF reused much of the existing plan, maintaining the basic triangular shape and extensive grid. The business district (angled at 30 degrees to the grid), various green spaces and an interior lake, are also still present in the original plans.
Ironically, while OMA’s design was intentionally laid out to avoid “the single function conditions found in bed-towns or business parks, and the traffic burden this separation causes”, KPF’s plan is much more mono-functional.11 Organization of the urban space follows strict zoning rules and broad avenues segregate city blocks. The KPF version is also much smaller: only four of the eleven original city districts will be completed. The new interpretation will therefore have a reduced population, with about 22,000 housing units for a projected total of 65,000, and office space to accommodate an influx of 400,000 commuters per day. By early 2011, more than 12,000 people were already living in the futuristic New Town, including Stanley Gale himself.12
The districts developed by Gale are shuttling along roughly on schedule. Already, skyscrapers reach into the foggy air, and manicured lawns stretch across the parks. Broad boulevards stand empty, ready for an onslaught of traffic that is probably still years away. Massive open green spaces, walking paths, a 25 km bicycle lane network, metro lines and bus service, (as well as integrated charging points for hybrid and electric vehicles) create a diverse mix of transport options for the current occupants and support the planners’ goals for sustainable solutions.
But alongside the sustainability and high-tech dialogues, the city’s true focus is clearly business, as evidenced by the masterplan. Two large residential areas are punctured by a linear commercial and International Business District (IBD), offset from the pervading grid. The business district is much denser than the residential areas, and serves four times as many users. There will be five times as much office space as retail space, and some buildings will even feature ‘officetel’ units; a kind of office-slash-hotel space that combines the telecommunications apparatus of an office with the sleeping and living amenities of a hotel room.13 The new typology reflects the world-class ambitions of the IBD—it assumes inhabitants whose work and life are completely interconnected, with access to business amenities at any time.
At an urban scale, New Songdo embraces the competitive technology culture of South Korea, and the city will be one of the first in which residential, medical and business information systems are linked.14 According to Gale, there will be fixed-line fibre optics to every single home and omnipresent high-speed wireless. "The government-enabled IT infrastructure will tie in seamlessly with home networks so that residents will have access to their data from anywhere in the city. All content—photos, music, files—will be unbound from home systems [and accessible through] portable devices via wireless broadband or from a city kiosk or public screen."15
In most cities claiming to be ‘hi-tech,’ ubiquitous Internet capabilities are standard. The ‘total connectivity’ of these cities allows residents to control their immediate environments and maintain constant digital contact. In the most extreme examples of this phenomenon, South Korea´s new U-Cities (including New Songdo City, Hwaseong-Dongtan U-City, Future-X, and Busan City) provide a tangible example of what our future cities may look like. Local newspaper The Korea Herald lauded the proposal in 2005, claiming that, “U-city is intended to give its residents not only a more convenient lifestyle but also a more secure, environmental and humane way of life.”16
While the omnipresent technology may sound a bit dubious to those who are still grudgingly adjusting to CCTV, in Korea, any fears about the emergence of Big Brother are largely unvoiced. In a New York Times article about the city’s progress, journalist Pamela O’Connell summarized the contrast: “In the West, ubiquitous computing is a controversial idea that raises privacy concerns and the specter of a surveillance society… But in Asia the concept is viewed as an opportunity to show off technological prowess and attract foreign investment.”17 The concept is already drawing interest from Middle Eastern developers for possible applications in other contexts.
In New Songdo City each resident will have a smartcard that serves as his personal key to everything in the city. According to Mr. John Kim, Vice President for Strategy at New Songdo City Development, this key “can be used to get on the subway, pay a parking meter, see a movie, borrow a free public bicycle and so on. It will be anonymous, won’t be linked to your identity, and if lost you can quickly cancel the card and reset your door lock.”18 While Korean legal and cultural norms present fewer barriers to the ubiquitous technology, increasing information access has brought up some new questions regarding privacy. In response to the increasing calls for reform, the Ministry of Information and Communication enacted a new personal information protection bill in 2011, which revised previous acts from 1999, 2001 and 2008.19
Wealthy businessmen and women are attracted to New Songdo because of its convenience, but the U-city model touches every aspect of daily life. There are also built-in safety measures, such as the U-museum which tracks its visitors as they meander through the halls, tracing lost children and also apparently preventing theft. Convenient applications like the U-coupon automatically pay your fee as you step across an entrance threshold. Suwon's ‘U-protection’ service is also noteworthy as a system that “manages health conditions of senior citizens, especially those who live alone, using ‘mobile health-sensor’ technologies. For example, elderly citizens with Alzheimer's disease will be identified via location-based technologies in case they get lost or struck with troubles.”20
But somehow Songdo just doesn’t look as exciting as it sounds. Where one might expect a glittering, futuristic metropolis with new architectural forms and new urban solutions, there are only ordinary buildings in neatly organized blocks. The now standard eighteen-hole Jack Nicklaus golf course is underway, and Daniel Libeskind has been hired to design the requisite shopping mall. Eight-lane roads anticipate future rush hours, effectively cutting off city blocks from pedestrian access. It is hard to imagine an authentic urban street life evolving in such a rigid framework. As Gale puts it, “We know that right now we are not funky. We need artists, internet entrepreneurs, fashion designers, so we are building incubator spaces in the city to try to get the mix right. You can’t manufacture grit, but you can encourage it.”21 In a city where everything is connected, one might expect (or hope) to see some physical indication of this fourth layer of infrastructure, but that has yet to materialize. So why does the built form stay the same if the ways of using the city change? Perhaps an even more urgent question would be, why does this self-proclaimed City of the Future look so utterly generic?
1 Koolhaas, R. and McGetrick, B. (eds). Content. Tashen, Köln, 2004, pp. 430-431
2 Lindsay, Greg. “The New Urbanism: New Songdo and Creating Cities from Scratch”, Fast Company, February 1, 2010.
3 Although Songdo is privately-funded, it was developed in partnership with the City of Incheon. See: McNeil, David. “Songdo City Defies Crisis Odds”, Asia Times Online, November 12, 2009.
4 Gale International’s finance partners are JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Shinhan Bank.
5 Arlidge, John. “Metropolis Now”, Wallpaper, October, 2010, p. 263
6 Lindsey, Greg. “THE NEW URBANISM: NEW SONGDO AND CREATING CITIES FROM SCRATCH”, Fast Company, February 2010, p. 95
8 Arlidge, John. “Metropolis Now”, Wallpaper, October, 2010, p. 263
10 The population of the Seoul Metropolitan area was more than 24.5 million at the end of 2010, according to state records. See: english.seoul.go.ko, retrieved on May 19, 2011.
11 http://www.oma.eu/index.php?option=com_projects&view=project&id=917&Itemid=10, retrieved on August 27, 2010.
12 Gale apparently occupies a $4 million flat in First World Tower 1. Arlidge, John. “Metropolis Now”, Wallpaper, October, 2010, p. 266
13 McNeil, David. “New Songdo City: Atlantis of the Far East”, The Independent, June 22, 2009.
14 “Tech Capitals of the World”, The Age, June 18, 2007.
15 Laporte, Donna. “House calls”, The Star, August 2, 2008.
16 Hwang Si-young. “Korea: U-City Project, Next IT Agenda”, The Korea Herald, December 13, 2005.
17 Pamela Licalzi O’Connell “Korea’s High Tech Utopia, Where Everything is Observed”, The New York Times, October 5, 2005.
19 The previous information protection acts can be found on the following websites: Act on the Protection of Personal Information Maintained by Public Agencies 1999 (Korea), http://www.kca.go.kr/web/img/eng/1_1 ACT ON THE PROTECTION OF PERSONAL INFORMATION MAINTAINGED BY PUBLIC AGENCIES.doc, Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection 2001 (Korea), http://www.ecommerce.or.kr/activities/policy_view.asp?bNo=336&Page=1.
21 Arlidge, John. “Metropolis Now”, Wallpaper, October, 2010, p. 266
source: Rachel Keeton