New Songdo City, South Korea has been in planning and construction since 2003. It is and has been many things: a truly global city, an aerotropolis supported by the nearby Incheon International Airport, a green city, a “ubiquitous city” with technology in every aspect of life, and the backdrop to scenes in the video for the hit song “Gangnam Style.” As an early and long-running smart city project, Songdo says a lot about what we want from our cities of the future – and about what we may actually get.

Songdo is built on 1,500 acres of reclaimed tidal flats in the Yellow Sea an hour outside of Seoul, the capital, and 15 minutes from Incheon International Airport. This is one of the city’s biggest selling points: the official website claims it’s “within a 3½ hour flight to a third of the world’s population.” The city also is designed to act as part of a modern megametropolis: Seoul’s suburbs, including Incheon, have been growing as cities in their own right, and the government has decided to commit to this sort of development. Songdo is designed to be a new “node” in this web of metropolitan centers.

This node was designed to be an international business hub, a goal reflected throughout the city’s design, which revolves around the “Songdo International Business District.” Although many firms have had a hand in Songdo’s plan, two New York companies were leaders: architecture firm Kohn Pederson Fox (KPF), in charge of the master plan, and developer Gale International.

Another of the project’s goals is to mix native style with that of the most successful cities in the world, including Paris’s wide boulevards, New York’s Central Park, and Europe’s many museums. It also goes against South Korea’s zoning practices, which usually limit building heights, leading to mundane, level skylines. Songdo intends to be a “tent-pole” city: tallest in the center, with varied buildings throughout to create a visually and socially dynamic cityscape.

Songdo’s wide Boulevards and the “Bio-Information Technology Zone” subway station. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Songdo’s wide Boulevards and the “Bio-Information Technology Zone” subway station. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While Songdo’s design harkens back to successful cities, it also aspires to be a sustainable community for the future. Buildings comprising more than 20 million square feet are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, the highest concentration of such projects in the world. Songdo also purportedly emits 70 percent less greenhouse gases than similarly sized developments. To minimize car usage, the central district’s design is pedestrian-friendly, with a large bike path network and an emphasis on public transit. All neighborhoods are built to be within 12 minutes of a bus or subway stop, and a seawater canal provides a water taxi throughout the city.

The community’s waste management system is a highly unusual feature: All trash is transported via an underground pneumatic pipe system to a plant where it’s separated and either recycled or burned for energy.

Songdo’s pneumatic trash cans. From these cans, trash is recycled or burned for energy. Credit: Teller Report
Songdo’s pneumatic trash cans. From these cans, trash is recycled or burned for energy. Credit: Teller Report

Trash collection and green tech are just a few of the ways technology is applied throughout Songdo. The community aims be “ubiquitous,” meaning citizens have access to every service, anywhere. Sensors gather traffic, energy use, and other data that are then used for everything from alerting residents when a bus will arrive to notifying authorities when a crime might be happening. Residents can control temperature and lights in their homes from central control panels or mobile phones. These innovations aren’t necessarily radical shifts in how people live, but they can make urban living more comfortable.

However, Songdo faces a few major speed bumps. Certain aspects, including 151-story twin towers, were downgraded or eliminated after the 2008 recession. The city’s budget has gone from $25 billion in 2005 to $40 billion in 2018. The completion date also moved from 2013 to 2018, and some elements are still under construction. Perhaps most important, the community only recently surpassed 100,000 residents, a third of its intended population. Many workers live in Seoul or other districts, where housing is cheaper. CityLab reports only a handful of major organizations, mainly universities and biomedical firms, have offices in Songdo. Cars are still common, in part because the frigid winters make walking to bus stops untenable and because the dearth of residents means a lack of community. If residents want to make friends or even enjoy a sense of connection, they drive to Seoul.

An artists rendering of the 102 Incheon Tower, the unbuilt twin towers in Songdo. Credit: Wikimedia
An artists rendering of the 102 Incheon Tower, the unbuilt twin towers in Songdo. Credit: Wikimedia

It may seem appropriate to compare Songdo to Masdar: both are new smart cities near older megacities, built by governments to promote economic growth and draw international investment. They both aim to reduce car use and carbon production. They both have seen significantly less success than hoped. They lack residents and their reality hasn’t lived up to their marketing. However, where Masdar fails to meet its goals but continues to push an image of an idyllic smart city, Songdo has been more flexible and is developing more organically.

NPR reported in 2015 that 99 percent of Songdo homes are sold to native Koreans. Similarly, CityLab notes that some of the city’s most active areas are those that most resemble big Korean cities: dense, ugly, multiuse buildings. While the city’s environmental and business achievements have been mixed at best, planners have begun to push other industries, building on success. Specifically, in 2018, the planning authorities announced a new focus on drawing more biotechnology research and companies to the area.

Are Songdo’s limited successes worth celebrating? Well, the community is doing fine. It isn’t a revolutionary smart city or a radical shift in urban life, but people live there and use new technology. Perhaps the biggest issue is that Songdo’s planners tried to make something out of nothing and ended up with little. Hopefully, some of the developments that have made the city cleaner and more environmentally friendly will eventually find their way into the places where people live now.

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