NYC, Newark Go Seoul Searching for Green Solutions

Event: Global Dialogues: Seoul, Newark, and New York
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.23.09
Speakers: Young Gull Kwon — Deputy Mayor and Chief Design Officer, Seoul, Korea; Stefan Pryor — Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Newark, NJ; Alexandros Washburn, AIA — Chief Urban Designer, Department of City Planning, NY
Moderator: Rick Bell, FAIA — Executive Director, AIANY
Organizers: AIANY; NY Projects, Inc.
Sponsor: NY Projects, Inc.

(L-R): Stefan Pryor, deputy mayor for economic development in Newark; Alexandros Washburn, AIA, chief urban designer at the NYC Department of City Planning; and Young Gull Kown, deputy mayor and chief design officer in Seoul, Korea.

Courtesy AIANY

Three cities at very different stages of their evolution are looking to the design professions for guidance to achieve a green future. As recounted by AIANY Executive Director Rick Bell, FAIA, Newark’s new mayor Cory Booker has emphasized that a prominent place for green thinking in cities isn’t just a pleasant amenity; it’s an urgent priority. The Seoul Design Olympiad last October launched a campaign to inform the world about Seoul’s progress, with a visionary architect/planner, Dr. Young Gull Kwon, as its deputy mayor. Newark, smaller and more troubled, is applying progressive planning to its physical environment for the first time in its history, and has made surprising headway toward a green-collar economy. NYC, Newark, Seoul have things to teach each other, and the intersection of their perspectives afforded an opportunity for cross-cultural communication.

Seoul, energized economically by its information-technology industry, is dramatically reconfiguring itself from a “hard city” based on construction and heavy industry to a “soft city” that’s ecologically healthier, culturally vibrant, driven economically by ideas and high technology, and determined to prioritize the pedestrian experience over automotive speed. Kwon discussed the steps Seoul has taken both to rebuild and redesign itself, from major infrastructural changes (demolishing 3.7 miles of downtown highway to restore the Cheonggyecheon stream and recreational park), to carefully coordinated micro-level design strategies (a uniform font for signage, a palette of official city colors, a streamlined subway map, and even a new civic mascot, the protective lion-like mythical creature Haechi).

Seoul, like Curitiba, Belgrade, and very few other cities, benefits from design-savvy leadership, i.e., an architect in high office. Kwon has collaborated with Mayor Oh Se-Hoon and Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak (Seoul’s previous mayor) to bring about a logical and thorough rethinking of public space according to a “total design concept” combining traditional building styles with contemporary minimalism and advanced information technology. Kwon’s visuals, an “airy city… [observing] an aesthetic of emptiness,” amount to an argument that cities worldwide should consider giving architects more civic clout.

Newark is a different case, badly damaged by 1960s “urban renewal” and consequent riots, out-migration, and economic decline. Deputy Mayor Stefan Pryor acknowledged the problems, emphasizing the utter disregard for design in much of Newark’s housing stock (the dreaded “Bayonne box”), but also offered encouraging news. Under Booker, with a one-third drop in the murder rate, a return to inward migration (population has risen since the 2000 census), and coordinated efforts toward transit-oriented development and affordable housing, Newark is bouncing back. Efforts to revitalize the Passaic riverfront hold polluters accountable for remediation costs, limit auto parking, build quality-of-life features like greenways, and incentivize green development through tax abatements and payments in lieu of taxes are putting Newark in a position to make the most of its assets, including the nation’s second-largest seaport and extensive transit infrastructure.

Alexandros Washburn, AIA, chief urban designer of the NYC Department of City Planning, connected the principles represented by NYC’s two dominant 20th-century urban-planning figures, Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, into a new synthesis that redefines the Athenian notion of civic virtue in contemporary ecological terms. What today’s cities need, he said, and what NYC under PlaNYC should get, is a form of sustainable modernization that combines the quantitative scale of Moses-era projects with the qualitative sensibilities prized by Jacobs. The success of the High Line’s redevelopment could be a precursor for wide application of this philosophy. Along the Hudson, the Han, and the Passaic rivers, policies and priorities are converging to make a sustainable urban future look increasingly credible.