August 16, 2012

Songdo - City of the Future

Continuing my longstanding tradition of visiting modern day ghost cities such as Ordos and Zhengzhou in China, I ventured to Songdo. The aerotropolis, so called because a third of the world's population is within a 3.5 hour flight away, is South Korea's attempt at building a city of the future. Though the supercities may be empty of inhabitants and industry, they are not devoid of hope. These are not ancient towns that have seen history pass them by, but monuments to the confidence of today's rising powers. It is too early to tell whether these sites will turn out to be thriving economic hubs of the future or costly duds, as the cities are still under construction and the story is still in its infancy.

Supercities are planned and constructed before there is an organic demand for them. Blocks of skyscrapers and high rise apartment complexes rise together vertically, with broad avenues, bike lanes, and green spaces separating them horizontally. Construction workers, government officials, security guards, and police officers add a human element to the steel and concrete works in progress. Much of the infrastructure lays untouched, unfinished, or underutilized.

The numbers behind Songdo International Business District are staggering - 100 million square feet of real estate spread over 1500 acres, a 100 buildings completed or under construction including Korea's tallest building, and a US $10 billion investment to fund the endeavour. Compared to China's ghost cities, Songdo seems far ahead in terms of having real people moving in and living their lives. The technologically sophisticated city is very walkable, sprinkled with parks. community gardens, canals, and shopping areas.

It took me three subway transfers and two hours to reach Songdo from Seoul. Although Korean youth of both genders usually go out of their way to avoid making contact with aliens, the occasional drunk old man grasps the opportunity. One such fellow sat beside me on the journey back from Songdo. We discussed the stories of our lives and how it had bought us to this strange intersection of fates. He had grown up on an island 30 kilometers off the coast of Yeosu. A freelance survey taker, he had been sent to Songdo to canvas the population on some plans to open schools there. After work he had enjoyed a few drinks and a walk through the 100 acre Central Park, modelled after the New York landmark.

The topic soon shifted to one of utmost significance. "Do you have Korean girlfriend?" he queried. I shook my head dejectedly. "Why not? You are still young and handsome. You must challenge them!" he exclaimed. "But what if they do not accept my challenge?" I asked the man earnestly. "Then you should go to church" he responded. I figured he meant to pray, but that was not what he had in mind. "There are many pretty girls there".


"Don’t confuse your path with your destination. Just because it’s stormy now, doesn’t mean you aren’t headed towards sunshine." - Unknown