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From Freeways to Waterways: What Los Angeles Can Learn From Seoul

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Cheonggyecheon elevated expressway in Seoul, South Korea

In the 1970s, a major freeway was built through the heart of downtown Seoul, South Korea. Called the Cheonggyecheon Freeway, the gentle s-curve of the elevated highway looked like any other major, urban route: congested traffic, industrial concrete. Its name, however, told a different story.Cheonggyecheon means "clear water stream," and the freeway actually followed the exact path of the former Cheonggyecheon River, once a major waterway for the city. The freeway's name also held another irony, in that the clear water stream was anything but. By the mid-1950s, the Cheonggyecheon was so polluted, city officials decided that it couldn't be salvaged. In a move that symbolized progress and modern engineering at the time, the river was paved over, completely hiding it from view. Not long after, a four-lane expressway was built over top, a steady flow of cars replacing flowing water.

Sadly, this was not an uncommon story in the 20th century. Rapid industrialization across the globe left many cities unable to handle the waterways that ran through suddenly booming urban areas. Especially in cities like Seoul or Los Angeles, where long stretches of dry weather followed by rainy seasons brought rapid and unpredictable flooding, rivers were often unmanageable and even deadly. With economic development in the foreground of urban planning during the metropolitan booms, rivers were either neglected or, more commonly, managed out of existence by man-made "solutions." In Los Angeles, this happened in the 1930s with the channelization of the Los Angeles River, where a massive stretch of the waterway was encased in concrete. In Seoul, political upheaval and war delayed the process by a few decades, but the Cheonggyecheon was eventually suffocated beneath concrete just the same.

Today, cities have started to realize the importance of coexisting with nature, moving towards more livable, green urban areas. There's a popular push to restore neglected aspects of local environment like rivers in order to promote public space, tourism, and healthier living. In cities like Seoul, the "modern" solutions were only in place a few decades before they began to threaten the safety of citizens. By 2000, the elevated Cheonggyecheon Freeway's supports and structure were cracking and beyond repair. What was left of the Cheonggyecheon riverbed was polluted with heavy metals like lead and chromium, while carbon monoxide, methane and other underground gases were accelerating the breakdown of the freeway structures. The area surrounding the freeway river was shabby and industrial. No longer a marvel of engineering in Seoul, the covered river was an eyesore--and a dangerous one at that.

This was not always the case. The stream was originally one of the main reasons Seoul was selected as the capitol city over 600 years ago during the Choson Dynasty, for its graceful qualities and 23 tributaries that made for easy transportation. As early as the beginning of the 15th century, though, the Cheonggyecheon was deepened and widened to prevent flooding, while dykes, bridges, and stone embankments were built along the stream and its tributaries. As the city continued to grow, the Cheonggyecheon was transformed later that century into a sewer system for the population, tributaries carrying in clean water, the stream washing away waste. This continued for the next five hundred years of the Joseon Dynasty, creating a long, repeating of cycle of dredging the Cheonggyecheon and building higher embankments as the city population grew into the hundreds of thousands and beyond.

By the time of the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910-1945, the Cheonggyecheon was so polluted that the Japanese would often refer to it as Takgyecheon, or "dirty water stream," as a joke. In 1925, the Japanese covered many of the Cheonggyecheon's tributaries in concrete, creating a kind of underground sewer system for the city.

Refugee huts on the Cheonggyecheon.

Shortly after World War II, the Korean War left Seoul in yet another crisis. Refugees flocked to the city, settling along the Cheonggyecheon in makeshift shanties, further polluting the stream. By the mid-1950s, the heavily contaminated stream was seen as a symbol of the poverty and filth left behind after half-century of colonialism and war. As Seoul tried to redefine and redevelop itself in the aftermath, the open sewer in the middle of the city proved to be an obstacle; the only answer during extreme economic hardship was to cover it up.In 2001 the former CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, Lee Myung-bak, was elected mayor, with a key campaign promise to remove the freeway and restore the Cheonggyecheon River as a highlight of the city, both economically and environmentally. At the end of his 4-year term in 2005, the Cheonggyecheon was flowing freely through the heart of downtown Seoul. The freeway was gone and a rapid transit bus line had taken its place. In the first year after completion, hundreds of thousands of visitors had flocked to the Cheonggyecheon riverbanks; carp could be seen swimming in its pools. The project was so successful that when Myung-bak was elected president of South Korea in 2007, many couldn't help but attribute his win to his success with river.

The Cheonggyecheon stream after restoration.

In 2006, not long after the restoration was completed, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa visited Seoul to meet with Myung-bak's successor, Mayor Oh Se-hoon, to discuss how the Cheonggyecheon restoration could serve as a model for the Los Angeles River. They signed a Sister River Agreement, pledging a kind of open dialogue to share knowledge and technology as the twenty year Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan was set to be publicly unveiled in January of the following year. "The Cheonggyecheon River has shown that yes, we can un-pave paradise," Mayor Villaraigosa said in a statement after the sisterhood was forged. It was an auspicious moment, and many hoped the Los Angeles River would soon be seeing the kind of rapid and dramatic change that the Cheonggyecheon received.

Four years after the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan was announced, though, most Los Angeles residents are unaware of its existence. In Seoul, the entire river project was done in less than two years, freeway quandary and all; the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan calls for twenty. How did Seoul--a city of roughly the same population as Los Angeles--complete a major urban facelift in less than two years, while the Los Angeles has barely gotten started on its Master Plan?

The first thing to realize is that, as the translated name would suggest, the Cheonggyecheon is less of a river and more of stream. It's tiny. It runs through Seoul a few kilometers north of the Han River--a much larger, longer river. All in all, the Cheonggyecheon is only 6.3 km long, and the restoration project only focused on 5.8 km of that (roughly 3 miles). The Los Angeles River is 52 miles long, with the master plan focusing on a whopping 32 miles of waterway--the full length of the river that runs within Los Angeles' city limits. With the total Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project being approximately ten times smaller in length, it makes sense that it took roughly one-tenth of the amount of time the Southern California project is set to take.

Secondly, both South Korea and Seoul in 2003 were in much better economic shape than California, Los Angeles, and the United States are currently. The early 2000s saw the end of the Asian financial crisis, with a significant bounce back for South Korea in 2000-2001. Between 2003 and 2005, South Korea's growth stabilized to a steady 4-5%, giving city planners the resources to focus on an urban mini-makeover for their capital city. The Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project, with its relatively small size, cost only $384 million USD to complete. Although final details are still up in the air, the Los Angeles River Master Plan is estimated to cost roughly $3 billion USD (again, about ten times as the Cheonggyecheon), at a time when the state of California is sporting a $6.3 billion deficit, and the city of Los Angeles' budget is approximately $87 million in the red.

But the main difference may be that the Cheonggyecheon restoration had overwhelming popular support. At the time it began, a staggering 79.1% of Seoul's residents were in favor of the project--polls finding most willing to rearrange their daily commute or temporarily change the flow of traffic around businesses to accommodate it. Los Angeles residents, on the other hand, are barely aware of the Los Angeles River, let alone of plans to revitalize it. With such a large base of support, Mayor Myung-bak was able to devote huge amounts of political capital and civic resources to the project. Residents participated in public hearings. Things actually got done.


In these ways--scale, funding, and support--the Cheonggyecheon project was maybe an easier one to implement than the Los Angeles River. But, while Seoul's stream suffered from centuries of interference and neglect, the Los Angeles River has a long history of being respected and appreciated.The Tongva Indians, the original inhabitants of the basin, saw the river as a lifeline. The Spanish settlers, while they created a series of aqueducts to divert and use the water, still left the river itself largely untouched.

It wasn't until 1938 that it was channelized as a flood control measure. It was a solution praised for its engineering--truly a feat for the US Army Corps of Engineers. As Los Angeles architect and urban planner Mia Lehrer points out in the video below, it was a period of time when Los Angeles was rapidly booming and city necessities like schools, public transportation, and parks took a backseat to industrial development. Channelization was a beautiful answer for a single purpose: To carry the water away from the city, fast.

After channelization, though, the river might as well have become invisible. People dumped sewage into it, while much of the area around it became developed and, for lack of a better word, ugly. By the 1970s and 80s, the Los Angeles River was almost unknown--at best, it was referred to as a storm drain, or the punchline of a joke.

But recently, Los Angeles community members, leaders, and organizations have started to focus on the River as an untapped resource for green space, parks, and recreation. Groups like FoLAR, which was founded in 1986, began to spring up to restore and protect the heritage of the Los Angeles River, often turning to the forgotten Olmstead Plan for inspiration. Individuals also began to step up: George Wolfe kayaked the expanse of the river to prove it as a "traditional navigable waterway" deserving of protection under the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act.

It is this widespread community involvement that may be the answer to Los Angeles' river restoration. South Korea had popular support in its work with the Cheonggyecheon, with community members who were willing to attend public hearings and rearrange their daily commute; Los Angeles is going to need more. River revitalization advocate and writer Joe Linton points out that federal money is necessary for the big projects, like removing concrete, but neighborhood involvement will be a key component in completing a river restoration that will serve the needs of all the unique communities along the Los Angeles River. Creating smaller projects that individual communities can own will help keep areas from becoming gentrified after restoration, and also allow for such a large project to be manageable.

Even if the Los Angeles River restoration has yet to gain the popular support that the Cheonggyecheon did, the number of people and groups with visions for the river's future is hopeful. Elliot Kwon, a Los Angeles high school senior set to study architecture at Columbia University in the fall, grew up in Seoul during the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon and remembers the difference in the city after the river was running freely. He has written up his own series of ideas for the Los Angeles River as a result, seeing it as a source of inspiration for change.

Despite the sister pact agreement, it's clear that the Cheonggyecheon and Los Angeles River restoration projects are not entirely comparable. In fact, they hardly compare at all, aside from being revitalization projects for waterways in major urban areas. The Cheonggyecheon is small, its restoration a concentrated effort made possible by a group of dedicated politicians and funds; the Los Angeles River, on the other hand, is huge, and more likely to be completed over an extended period of time through smaller group projects than any one overarching movement.

Still, if there's something Los Angeles can learn from its sister river, it's this: It is possible, and it's worth it. In 2009, less than four years after the Cheonggyecheon restoration, quantifiable benefits could be seen within the city. Species of fish in the river increased from four to 25, birds increased from six to 36, and insects from 15 to 192. By removing the highway, small-particle air pollution was down from 74 micrograms per cubic meter to 48. Summer temperatures near the river were, on average, five degrees cooler than before, according to data collected by city officials. Approximately 90,000 people visit the river on an average day, and the business and homeowners near the river have seen substantial improvements in their quality of life.

Opponents still argue that the Cheonggyecheon River restoration comes at a high price: Water is pumped in daily through 7 miles of pipe from the larger Han River to the south, since the Cheonggyecheon is naturally dry most of the year (much like the Los Angeles River). But the restoration team was quick to recognize that a completely natural restoration was impractical. Instead, the Cheonggyecheon became an "urban stream in nature," human-oriented as well as environmentally friendly. Concrete still lines its sides and it is still monitored for flood control.

However, it is no longer hidden; it is a celebrated part of the city. Mia Lehrer envisions the Los Angeles River someday as a major integrator in the city, connecting all the neighborhoods of Los Angeles in one long, meandering community corridor, interacting with freeways and metro lines and bike lanes. But the first step to any of that, she thinks, is developing a healthy community respect for the river as a whole. Like the residents of Seoul have shown, it's not just about imagining what the river could be, it's about appreciating the river for what it is, concrete and all. "This river is alive," she points out. "And we all need to recognize it."

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