When city planners in Seoul discovered that a major highway overpass was no longer safe for heavy traffic in 2006, they planned to tear it down and rebuild the road. But after countless meetings over the last several years, the city decided to take a different path: The highway will turn into a tree-covered pedestrian path.
At the moment, the 3,000-foot highway is still filled with cars. But by the end of 2017, the city plans to fully convert it into a park and pathway. “By converting the infrastructure into a pedestrian zone, Seoul is trying to reclaim the pedestrian quality of the city,” says Winy Maas, director and principal architect for MVRDV, the Dutch architecture firm that won a competition for the park’s new design.
While the project draws inevitable comparisons to the High Line in New York, the architects say that Seoul’s Skygarden will serve more as everyday transportation infrastructure. “Where the High Line perhaps acts more like a leisurely park, the Skygarden is located in the very center of Seoul, one of the largest Asian mega cities–the population is more than 20 million,” says Maas. “This means a lot of pedestrian traffic on the Skygarden.”
The overpass will provide a new pedestrian shortcut around the city’s central train station, cutting a 25-minute walk in half. New staircases and elevators will give people access along the length of the former highway, and will spark new pedestrian planning in the adjacent neighborhoods. “It reorganizes the fragmented urban contexts into a green and friendly pedestrian network,” Maas says.
The project is part of Seoul’s larger vision to make car ownership unnecessary by 2030, thanks to better pedestrian and bike networks throughout the whole city and improved public transit.
The Skygarden, like the High Line, will also double as a park, with around 2,000 trees and shrubs arranged in a “library” to help residents learn about local species. Eventually the space will also serve as a nursery to grow plants for other parks around the city.
If the highway had simply been torn down, as the city originally planned, all of the existing infrastructure would have been wasted–and, the architects say, the city would have lost an important symbol.
“This keeps the history and collective memory of the site,” says Maas. “For the Korean economy, the overpass is a symbol of Korean modernization. It was one of the first lifted highways in Korea. For Korean democracy, it was a venue for the democratization movement of the 1980s. And last but not least, for many citizens who had immigrated to Seoul from the country side, it was first experience of Seoul.”
Now that first experience of Seoul will be a little greener.