inspiration     Jul 17 2009

A River Runs Through It

Mapos LLC

Some years ago, my old boss and professor Fred Koetter told me about a project they were working on in Seoul, Korea. His firm, Koetter Kim & Associates, was re-designing a huge portion of central Seoul around a soon-to-be-uncovered river. His plan featured new housing and commercial districts, yes, but also a new waterway and park, running straight through town. It was like cracking the window in a stuffy car. Like many waterways in many cities around the world, the Cheonggyecheon had become an open sewer and pesky barrier to traffic and commercial growth. The solution was to relegate this unruly natural phenomenon to a dark and murky tunnel beneath the buzz of progress. It became a myth. A story. A home for alligators and creatures of the night that thrive out of sight and in the dark.

And then something funny happened on the way to the Forum. We started to value our resources. We realized, surprise, surprise, that we are human beings, and as such, are part of the natural world. By banning all things green and breathing and flowing and growing from our man-made utopia we were putting ourselves in concrete cages and ignoring a critical piece of our DNA. The Times reported yesterday of the amazing success that Seoul has found in letting their river see the light of day again. Sure there were naysayers, arguing about parking problems and road constriction. But the response has been exuberant and exalted and, well, expected. It should come as no surprise that humans like things that flow and grow. As the assitant mayor said, “we’ve basically gone from a car-oriented city to a human-oriented city.” It’s like a taking a deep breath. What a novel idea.

Los Angeles has been thinking about this for years. As has Hartford, CT. And Rome. And Paris. And Peekskill. Seoul has shown us there is immense value beyond the $384 million construction cost. Sitting by a river? Priceless.