A Visit to Incheon, South Korea's New Songdo City: Green City of the Future?

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New Songdo City, Incheon, South Korea

Back from Incheon, South Korea, where the partially contructed New Songdo City district is rising up as an acclaimed example of the world's first ubiquitious technology city, and the first Korean "new city" planned with green features. Ground was broken for Songdo in 2004.
Completion is scheduled for 2014, when about 65,000 residents are expected to live locally and 300,000 workers are anticipated.

Having benchmarked the sustainability of the largest 50 US cities in my book How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings, I was curious to investigate Songdo's qualities.

I was representing Common Current in New Songdo by addressing the Global Environment Forum on the topic of climate change and urban sustainable development. The conference, on "Low-Carbon, Green Growth" was hosted by the city of Incheon's Free Economic Zone and the United Nations.

About 1,000 people from the UN (including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon), national governments, businesses, international non-governmental organizations and academia met in New Songdo's ConvensiA to collectively forge the path toward a low-carbon future.

Songdo is quickly taking shape as a city of the future because it will be digitally wired and controlled in terms of systems management, which includes everything from waste to energy use. In my five-star Sheraton Hotel room, for instance (opened August 1), not only did my room entry card activate and de-activate all lights and appliances when I entered or left--a feature common in European hotels and woefully absent from the antiquated US hospitality industry--it also turned on or shut off the room's cooling system.

Songdo's Central Park (foreground), Songdo Sheraton (center) and ConvensiA (right)

The system was so efficient it was able to quickly cool the room when I re-entered, and when I left the room for short periods of time to workout or go to breakfast, it was so well insulated that it remained comfortable without active cooling.

Integrated smart building features will save massive amounts of energy. How many unoccupied rooms in hotels or offices across the world have lights burning and air conditioners blasting at this very moment? Probably enough to supply most of the energy for the spaces that are being used. Other digital features enabling greener operations will be bicycles and electric cars available through electronic smart cards, similar to the highly successful Velib bicycle share program in Paris.

All buildings including the smoker-free Sheraton are accredited by the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environment (LEED) ratings. The New Urbanist-inspired master plan for New Songdo was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, with some buildings designed by Daniel Lebeskind and HOK. The entire development is a LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot project, the only one in Korea, and one of 239 worldwide.

LEED-ND attempts certify that the not only are buildings green, but that their neighborhood is resource efficient in terms of offering public transportation, cycling and pedestrian options. New Songdo is served by a new subway line and will feature dozens of miles of cycling paths and pedestrian friendly urban planning, including wide sidewalks with generous landscaping, and frequent crosswalks.

New Songdo's more traditional "green" features include 30 percent open space, highlighted by a carefully planned and executed Central Park with running and biking trails, and waterway for both transportation and recreation.

Entryway to New Songdo's Central Park, Sheraton Hotel in background

When I jogged through New Songdo's car-free 100-acre Central Park (note to designers - a more direct pedestrian pathway from the hotel entrance to the park's crosswalk is needed), I was taken first by how established its many plant, grass and tree species were, despite construction still in progress. Most developments landscape as an afterthought, which means plants and trees do not get established before they are subjected to foot traffic and other human stresses.

The park's seven rain cisterns, holding 5,253,000 liters, capture rainwater for use in the park's irrigation, and they were plenty full after remnants from Typhoon Morakot deluged the area this past week.

In New Songdo, the care given to having natural systems interact with the built environment was testafied to by the noise of insects, including droning cicadas and thousands of graceful dragonflies zipping about the trees.

The New York City-based developers Gale International, have worked with fomer EPA Administrator Christine Whitman's Whitman Strategy Group in planning integrated sustainability throughout the $35 billion mixed-use (40 percent office; 35 percent residential; 10 percent retail; 10 percent civic space and 5 pecent hotel space) Songdo City.

New Songdo is in partnership with Cisco and its Connected Urban Development initiative, which is aiming at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the use of technology in buildings, transportation and communications.

Whitman told me her four-year process on providing sustainability input is entering its final phase: the group's role now is to ensure that construction firms don't cut corners, such as making sure that pedestrian paths and bike trails aren't compromised with narrower layouts.

Gale International founder Stan Gale said a challenge for New Songdo has been in harmonizing green building standard between the USGBC's LEED and emerging Korean standards, which are set to go into effect for all private building construction by 2011. Many countries are hesitant to adopt LEED standards wholescale, as these were designed for the US developers in terms of zoning, material and operating system requirements.

New Songdo is a living example of new green cities that will be springing up throughout the world, particularly in Asia, over the next 20 years. The excitement that comes with these endeavors is palpable, in that politicians and planners at events like the Global Environment Forum are recognizing that cities produce about 80 percent of the world's greenhouse gasses, and that if we can't get cities right, we will have little chance to mitigate the most destructive impacts of global change.

And as New Songdo demonstrates, you can fight global climate change not only with more sustainable economic development, but that you can do it with natural systems, applied technology and style.

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It is really amazing to read about the green city of the New Songdo. Other major cities in Asia should look at New Songdo as the new model to be a environmental friendly and stop global warming.

hi, how did you get a chance to go to south korea? i thought you couldnt go to that place and write about it or take pictures, etc etc? is tha tjust a sterotype?

Jeff, I believe you're thinking of North Korea. I've been to South Korea many times and have traveled around the country to Songdo and many other places without any hitches.

South Korea is amazing! Very fast development! I was there several years ago and you can see that it is very highly developed. I guess, it is at par with Singapore. The only problem is that not all people speak English.

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About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Warren Karlenzig published on August 14, 2009 9:21 AM.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: We Must Seal the Deal on Climate Change was the previous entry in this blog.

Global Environment Forum Recap: Commit to Copenhagen and Build Green Cities or Face Planetary Disaster is the next entry in this blog.

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