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Kwon Young Gull, who transformed Seoul, has advice for Hong Kong

Professor who turned city for cars into place for pedestrians says such projects need consensus of officials, designers and citizens

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 3:47am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 12:02pm

Big, brash, concrete-ridden: Seoul has never enjoyed a particularly pleasant reputation. At least not until Kwon Young Gull stepped in.

In 2007, the Seoul National University design professor became the Korean capital's first chief design officer. His task, simply put, was to make the city a nicer place.

Vested with the authority of deputy mayor, which allowed him to cut through the jurisdiction of different government departments, he led a transformation that has turned the world's attention to Seoul for its innovative urban spaces, user-friendly public services and burgeoning creative scene.

"Seoul was a hard city for a long time," he said. "It had to be reborn as a soft city - a human-oriented city. It was a city for cars and we made it a city for pedestrians. It was a solemn and serious city and we made it more joyous."

Last week, Kwon was one of four speakers at "Cities Driven by Design", a Business of Design Week session that also saw input from creative cities guru Richard Florida, Barcelona design chief Vicente Guallart and venerated Japanese architect Toyo Ito.

Although each speaker focused on his own work, their message was clear: Hong Kong has a lot of work to do to become a more citizen-oriented city.

"Most people still consider design to be aesthetics, but it's actually about solving problems," said Edmund Lee Tak-yue, chairman of the Hong Kong Design Centre, which organised the conference.

"If you observe all the design-led transformation taking place in cities around us, in Singapore, Seoul, Taipei, Shanghai, it's breathtaking. We have very good infrastructure but we need creative thinking to go beyond that."

One person who has been doing just that is Richard Florida, an American urban studies theorist whose 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class has been influential among urban policymakers around the world.

Florida believes that the transition to a knowledge-based economy will make cities more important than ever, as economic activity becomes concentrated in a handful of urban mega-regions such as the Pearl River Delta.

"The social and economic organising unit of our age is the city itself," said Florida. "The real design challenge is how do we build the cities of the future?" His answer is to follow the advice of urbanist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), who advocated dense, pedestrian-oriented cities with an eclectic environment that allows for plenty of social interaction and economic diversity.

Great cities are built around great streets, neighbourhoods and shared spaces, he said. "It's where the artist and the designer and the innovator and the entrepreneur meet and mix and combine and recombine until something hits."

Achieving that kind of city was one of Kwon's goals in Seoul. When he entered office, the city was in the midst of a controversial and unprecedented restoration of Cheonggyecheon, a stream that had been buried under an elevated highway. After the highway was demolished and the stream flanked by pathways, gathering spots and greenery, it became one of Seoul's biggest attractions.

The immense popularity of Cheonggyecheon, despite early reservations about its HK$2.78 billion cost, led to the creation of more new public spaces. Two lanes of traffic were removed from Sejong-daero, a major downtown boulevard, to create a plaza with an interactive fountain. Pavements were redesigned to accommodate pedestrians. The concrete banks of the Han River were replaced by wetlands, boosting the waterway's population of birds and fish.

A study of Seoul's colour profile led to the creation of an official palette used for street kiosks, utility vehicles and signage, with colours reflecting the grey of ancient stone walls and the yellow of autumn ginkgo trees. Bus stops were redesigned to be more attractive, with LED-embedded glass walls that broadcast bus arrival times.

Perhaps most crucially, Kwon developed common design guidelines for all branches of the Seoul government, helping to overcome a hodgepodge of different practices. "It was driven by consensus between government officials, design professionals and the citizens of Seoul," he said.

That kind of humanistic approach to design gels with Toyo Ito's ideas for improving cities. Known for his varied projects and his adaptability, Ito was this year awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest honour. He was also one of the first architects to respond to Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Appalled by the prefabricated resettlement blocks, Ito launched Home for All, a programme that worked closely with survivors to develop a series of community gathering spaces. The first house was built with local wood, with earth and concrete floors, a verandah, a wood stove, barbecue, tatami mats and a table for 15 people.

Ito said the project served as a response to the dehumanising effects of modernism.

British urbanist Charles Landry had some advice for Hong Kong: "You really have to work not in a multidisciplinary way but in an interdisciplinary way," with people of different expertise working towards a common goal, he said. And for that to happen - as it did in Seoul - "change usually has to come from the top."