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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 13, Number 3, 1991(UNU, 1991, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentCities in the 21 st century - The urban half
View the documentThe pathology of the city
View the documentNew strategies for urban poverty
View the documentLopsided modernization and the urban poor
View the documentUrban transport and urban growth
View the documentThe hub of Japan
View the documentThe land game
View the documentShaping Tokyo for the future
View the documentSeoul: Still a metropolis in the making
View the documentAsia's growing urban rings
View the document"A giant supermarket..." - Is there anything good about mega-cities?
View the documentThe emerging world city system
View the documentUNU update

Seoul: Still a metropolis in the making

By Sang-Chuel Choe

The capital of the Republic of Korea, Seoul, has grown over the last 40 years - when it first flashed on world consciousness with the outbreak of the Korean War - from an rather obscure national capital to one of the world's major urban centres, which, in 1988, hosted the Olympic Games. By the year 2000, it is projected to be the seventh largest city on the globe; its population now is increasing by about 500 persons a day.

How to manage such a vast urban conglomeration? The problems of coping with such growth are discussed in the following article by Dr. Sang-Chuel Choe of Seoul National University, which is excerpted from his paper presented to the symposium on the mega-cities and population growth. Dr. Choe is on the faculty of the School of Environmental Studies at the National University. - Editor

The phenomenal growth of Seoul is both consequence of and impetus for the unprecedented change that has transformed the Republic of Korea from a pastoral, preindustrial society into one of the world's fastest growing economies. The transformation of the country has been abrupt and pervasive - and Seoul has had a pivotal role in this process.

In 1960, Seoul did not appear in the ranks of the world's 25 largest cities. By 1980, it has risen 15th. By the year 2000, it is projected to be the 7th largest city on the globe. As of 1989, the population of central Seoul was approaching 11 million people - and was estimated to be increasing by about 500 persons a day.

But another aspect of Seoul's urban growth is the swelling population in the city's total metropolitan area, including its contiguous municipalities. Until 1970, there were only three cities that fell within this area - Inchon, Suwon and Uijongbu. Over the last 20 years, a total of 12 cities have been incorporated in these areas surrounding Seoul.

Central City vs. Suburbs

Until 1980, the population growth in central Seoul outpaced that of its outlying metropolitan areas. The trend then reversed, and the satellite cities surrounding the capital began to growth faster than central Seoul itself. It is noteworthy, however, that the Seoul metropolitan area as a whole is still growing faster than the national average - both in terms of population and the number of manufacturing establishments.

What this means is that the interregional decentralization strategy, which the government has seriously pursued and implemented over the last three decades, has not worked very well. This is precisely what some of us were worried about, from the very beginning, in these particular decentralization policies.


Modern Seoul © PPS

There were two main dangers in the strategies:

(1) they promoted satellite cities too close to Seoul, with the risk that they would eventually become engulfed as the boundaries of the metropolis ballooned outward over time;

(2) these satellite cities might pull migrants and resources from other regions of the nation, rather than attracting firms and households from Seoul itself - the latter being a major aim of the satellite city strategy.

Plans Gone Astray

As a consequence of these policies, more than 4 out of 10 residents of the Republic are now living in the Seoul Metropolitan Area - that is within a 40-kilometre radius of central Seoul. The population share of the Seoul Metropolitan Area has grown from 21 per cent of the South Korean population in 1960 to 41 per cent in 1988. There is no clear sign that this trend will fade out.

Given this rapid pace of urban growth, the question of land supply and the management of urban land has been a key issue. The gross density per hectare in Seoul today is 328 - one of the highest in the world and it seems bound to get worse. As the available built-up areas within the jurisdiction of Seoul dry up, and further sprawl beyond the city boundary is artificially constrained by the green belt introduced in 1971, it is projected that that average population density in Seoul will be up to about 380 per hectare by the year 2000. (By way of comparison, Tokyo's density is about 115.4 persons per hectare.)

Go Out or Co Up?

There are two basic ways to meet ever-increasing population pressure for land in an urban setting. One is to go out - building large-scale new settlements beyond the green belt. The central government complex has already been relocated to the new industrial cities of Ansan and Kwacheon to the south of inner Seoul. Two more ambitious new town developments are planned: in Pundang, south-east of the central, and Ilsan to the north-west. The two new towns, meant to accommodate 400,000 and 300,000 inhabitants respectively, are intended to relieve pressure for residential land in the central city.

But these two new towns line just beyond the green belt - about 20 kilometres from downtown Seoul, and too close to it to be self-sustaining in terms of employment and urban services. They will be, I fear, de facto extensions of Seoul proper and contribution to the growth of the Seoul metropolitan area as a whole.

The effectiveness of the green belt as a means of controlling urban growth has been questioned. Originally it was envisioned that land in the central city, which was encircled by the green belt, would be protected by that policy. But it has now been learned that as population pressure increases, land development tends to go its own way beyond the green belt, where desired or not.

Another way to accommodate land demand is to, in effect, go up - heightening the overall density of the existing built-up area by the redevelopment of low-density residential areas, squatter settlements, and other unwanted encroachments on public open space. To this end, areas of single detached residences have been replaced by row houses and high-rise apartments. Squatter improvement programmes, usually combined with the clearing of squatter areas for high-rise apartment complexes, are taking place everywhere in Seoul.

The Squatters

But serious tensions have built up between the squatter settlements and the developers acting as surrogates of the middle-income class. Direct confrontations have commonly broken into tragic clashes; this is becoming a great social problem. Squatter settlements, which came to occupy many hill-side areas in the 1950s after the Korean War, have superior locations: close to the city centre with relatively cheap land prices due to complications in land ownership titles.

The squatters are easily exposed to the whims of the real estate developers - and the latter are implicitly endorsed by the city authorities who are also concerned with the improvement of Seoul's physical appearance and skyline. The city government thus finds itself as an arbitrator, representing, on the one hand, the socio-economic well-being of the squatters, and on the other, the overcoming of housing land shortage. In many instances, the city has been the loser - and it is still trying to solve this stalemate.


Old Seoul © Yoshiaki Nagashima/PPS

The Korean Land Market

Korea is experiencing great distortions in its land markets, often expressed in unthinkable land prices - an escalation due largely to a range of economic and demographic growth along with a rapid increase in personal wealth. Land is considered one of the safest forms of investment, a hedge against actual and anticipated inflation, and it is acquired by the newly rich not so much with its physical use in mind but rather as a form of security against economic uncertainty.

Land ownership in Seoul is strongly skewed - to the extent that about 72 per cent of the households do not own a piece of land. The upper 5 per cent of the households own 57.7 per cent of the total land. And land prices in the urban areas have increased 8.4 times from 1975 to 1988.

Perhaps the single important determinant of increasing income inequalities in urban households is the unearned income segment resulting from land price escalation. Land speculation is widely practised. Housing affordability for Seoul's low and middle-income households has gradually worsened. For those at the lower end of the economic ladder, the land cost component, out of their total housing price, has increased faster than their income and savings. At the other end of the ladder, the urban rich own land that is accumulating in asset value, and enjoy windfall benefits from land price escalation.

Shredding the Social Fabric

As a consequence of these various forces, the socio-economic fabric sustaining the stability of Korean society - which has been characterized by a relatively egalitarian distribution since the land reforms of 1949 - has begun to tear apart and shred. This has led, in turn, to a degradation of the work ethic, the overburdening of land acquisition costs for urban public works, and a pervasive sense of deprivation among many Korean homeowners themselves.

The government has recently introduced various policy measures to curb land speculation. In particular, direct government intervention into land markets was introduced in 1990. This includes, among other measures, a maximum ceiling on residential land ownership in Seoul at 660 square metres, and a limit on real estate profits on specified projects (in simple terms, anything earned above the limit must be turned over to the government). It is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of these strident new measures and their impact on land markets in Seoul. What is clearly needed, however, is some sort of enabling mechanism that would help ensure a smooth supply of land at reasonable prices, while at the same time preventing unruly land speculation, improving urban services, and enhancing the social well-being of the underprivileged of this mega-city's people.