Smart city. City of the future. High-tech utopia.
These are the words that were sprawled across almost every article we read about the newly built city of Songdo in South Korea. So, while we were prepared to see something different, and perhaps a little advanced, we were not expecting to step out of the train station into a place that felt, well, very much not like Korea – at least not the Korea we’d been experiencing over the previous month.
Home Sweet… Songdo?
We probably would never have made our way to Songdo. We certainly wouldn’t have spent so much time there, but we had accepted a house sit through TrustedHousesitters.com and it allowed as a look into a new, unique and totally unexpected area of South Korea. For 6 weeks we stayed in this interesting, new city and got to see a totally unique side of South Korea, and city-life in general.
Our first glimpse of Songdo was pretty much exactly like the pictures of the small models used to design it – bright green trees lining the areas around modern looking buildings not yet marred by time and the elements. After a more thorough exploration we’ve come to see it as a sort of Sim City-esque community, with its strategic, pre-designed and perfectly placed residential and commercial buildings, centralized recreation centres, international schools, numerous parks and some fancy touches.
In fact, there are quite a few fancy touches. Fountains, ponds, and statues pepper the city and drawing on some of the world’s “best” cities, Songdo has installed similar features. It’s as if that crazy-haired mayor, hands-a-waving, popped up on a screen every so often and gifted someone with things like a Central Park, a Sydney Opera House and the canals of Venice (and for those of you who don’t know, we aren’t referring to the actual mayor, it’s actually a reference to the early days of Super Nintendo and Sim City… we may be dating ourselves with that one).
We really felt as though we stepped out of the Korea we knew and into some pseudo-version of a North American suburban city. Before we left to travel, we lived in a city near Toronto, Canada, called Mississauga. For us, this feels like a very similar, albeit fancier, version of it. There’s even a shopping centre called “Square One”, just like the major shopping mall in Mississauga, a short distance outside of the city.
We’re Not in Korea Anymore Toto!
Perhaps the reason we don’t really think of Songdo as typical Korea is because it wasn’t built to be such. Designed to attract international business and relations, it is a very “foreigner-friendly” area. English signs and translations are easily found and the entire feel for us was outside of what we had experienced during the rest of our travels in Korea.
It’s clear that Songdo was made in effort to accommodate and develop international interest. In fact, there is even a flag street – so dubbed because of the many international flags that line the centre of the road. We tested out our flag-knowledge on this street, walking from the start of the flags to the end, happy with our ability to recognize many of the countries represented until we realized that there was no Canadian flag! How could this be? We’re the only country allowed a whopping 6 months landing visa, there’s a whole host of us teaching English here and yet… no flag?
We decided to go on a mission, to verify we hadn’t just been tired or hungry or mistaken. Check out our great Canadian flag hunt down the streets of Songdo and how we took matters into our own hands!
Around The World
We touched on it briefly, but some features of Songdo have been inspired from great cities around the world. They’ve taken the wide boulevards of Paris when designing their streets and a modern canal system based on Venice. They also built an expansive Central Park, inspired by the one in New York, a system of parks throughout the city like those in Savannah and a convention centre in the style of the Sydney Opera House.
Songdo also boasts the tallest building in South Korea, the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, next to the Songdo Convensia (the Sydney Opera House looking convention centre) and a pretty solid transit system via train and bus, into and out of the city.
The construction of the city is still not complete so it will be interesting to see what else pops up as they go! It’s definitely looking to pull in some unique characteristics and a fusion of familiar architecture and features.
Gizmos and Gadgets A Plenty!
Not only is Songdo intended to be a global business hub, a designated Free Economic Zone, it is also the first new sustainable city in the world designed to be an international business district. It was once muddy tidal flats until large-scale land reclamation allowed for the development of the city.
Songdo has some pretty futuristic looking buildings! We love how different it looks and love some of the interesting implementation of technology in order to make this city “smart” and sustainable.
But what does it mean to be a smart and sustainable city?
Wikipedia defines a smart city as one that “uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.”
Basically, a smart city uses modern technology and data collection in order to create a sustainable city where costs and consumption (including waste, emissions, energy, etc) are reduced but quality of life is improved.
Songdo has been developed on these principles and has some interesting features including an extensive 25 km of bike lanes, an advanced technology infrastructure, natural gas fueled central and city-wide co-generation facility for clean power and hot water, energy-efficient LED traffic lights and energy efficient pumps and motors.
We’ve even heard of a TelePresence system that allows home-bound (and probably not so home-bound) residents the ability to video-conference a wide range of services including medical and health care, beauty consulting and remote learning, although we didn’t get to see this in action.
Interesting to us was the centralized underground waste system for wet and dry waste. This underground disposal system eliminates the need for garbage trucks and also allowed us to walk around the hot and humid summer months in Songdo sans the typical odours one equates with city living, garbage and the summer heat.
We were also impressed, even when we were slightly overwhelmed and frustrated, by the extensive recycling and sorting system. EVERYTHING seems to have it’s own area for recycling and disposal.
The city was also pleasantly and literally green. With 40% designated open space, many trees and parks, the city felt less like a concrete playground than would be expected with all its tall buildings and futuristic structures.
Is A Smart City Really So Smart?
But, this ideal of a smart city doesn’t necessarily equate to that of a utopian society. In fact, many criticize the attempt to create such a city and have concerns as to exactly how much individuality and control citizens would have over their own lives should these smart cities become commonplace. Imagine, a city laid out perfectly to direct traffic flow, shopping and spending habits, and all the everyday choices and decisions we make. Imagine a soulless city of cookie-cutter concrete buildings and a central computer system driving behaviour based on algorithms and formulas that dictate the best flow for efficiency.
As Richard Sennett discusses in his article on TheGuardian.com, No One Likes A City That’s Too Smart, the dangers in these smart cities is that these “information-rich cit[ies] may do nothing to help people think for themselves or communicate well with one another.”
We find this concept of a smart and sustainable city incredibly fascinating and look forward to finding more cities attempting to do the same. We’d like to see the pros and cons, see whether there is truth in the benefits of the advancements made or in what Sennett describes as the soullessness of the cities that are created. Rio de Janeiro, he says, is a good compromise with its “co-ordination” of systems in place in order to aid in emergencies and natural disasters rather than the “prescription” of behaviour in the many other cities moving towards a “smarter” existence.
We’ll be looking to visit Rio in Brazil, Masdar in the UAE and other developing smart cities in an effort to see what they are all about, and see if Sennett is right in his final statement of the article: “We want cities that work well enough, but are open to the shifts, uncertainties, and mess which are real life.”
We noticed that soullessness in Songdo. At times, it seemed bleak and desolate. Perhaps it was just the fact that the city was eerily devoid of human presence on the streets during weekdays and in the evenings and well, the sky was rarely without smog and clouds. But perhaps it was more than that. There was a strong sense of structure and rigidity to the area, a square of a community that had us walking around the perimeter and rarely breaking out from beyond the “prescribed” neighbourhood and facilities within. In fact, people seemed to rarely break out of the prescribed behaviours and expectations of the culture and community.
Perhaps, however, this soulless, cookie-cutter existence isn’t just present in smart cities. We’ve noticed throughout our travels in Asia, and back home in North America, a tendency to “fall into place” to accept the expectations of where to shop, where to live and how to live. Cookie-cutter housing isn’t unique to Songdo or other like-cities.
Perhaps a “prescription” of behaviour already exists within each community and culture. We adopt and accept the cultural mores and expectations of our surroundings. We work to blend and to “fit” and rarely do we care whether it is coming from internal needs for acceptance, external pressures from peers or that controversial digital command centre of smart cities. So perhaps, we’re already primed. Already receptive to dictates of behaviour. These smart cities may just be a more eco-friendly, efficient way of doing the same thing we always do.
Back To The Future of Songdo
The development of Songdo, a $35 billion dollar venture, is still underway with still a portion of its construction remaining. By the time it is finished, Songdo will boast even more incredible features including more fine hotels, a luxury retail mall, museums, and the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea.
Getting to Songdo
If you’re looking to get to Songdo you can get there by bus or train. By train, the best stop is Central Park Station on Incheon Line 1. This will allow you to explore the park and the surrounding area before venturing into the rest of the city. Check out Life In Korea for a list of buses and routes from, and around Songdo, and from Incehon International Airport.
What do you think of the concept of a smart city? Are cities like Songdo leading to future Utopias? or is the concept of Utopia just as imagined and unreal as it was when it was first discussed by Sir Thomas More?