This summer’s opening of Monster VR — South Korea’s largest virtual reality theme park, where visitors experience car racing, bobsledding and traveling to space via virtual reality — was the latest event to make headlines in Songdo, about 40 miles outside of Seoul. Considered by many urban designers as a leading example of a connected city, Songdo has been rising rapidly since building began in 2005. As significant phases of construction near completion over the next couple of years, people are taking a closer look at what’s worked, what hasn’t and what it means for cities around the world.
City in a Snapshot
Songdo — a name that translates to “Pine Island,” inspired by the area’s trees — wasn’t much more than marshland at the turn of the last century. Built on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land jutting into the Yellow Sea, it counts proximity to nature as a big appeal. But manmade features incorporate nature, as well: The new 101-acre Central Park sits at the center of the development.
The city’s focus on trade and innovation, however, is what is attracting the most attention. South Korea’s tallest building — the stunningly sleek, 65-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower — was built here. Part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) near Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, Songdo was designed to serve as a hub for international business. Recently, FedEx announced plans to construct a new cargo terminal facility at the airport, with advanced logistics capable of sorting up to 18,000 packages per hour.
Technology factors into nearly every aspect of living and is mostly invisible. Sensors, for example, optimize the flow of traffic and aid in security. Building systems (lighting, heating and air conditioning, water) also link to sensors, maximizing efficiency. Even the trash systems are high-tech, sucking refuse directly from apartments and office buildings into an underground system of pipes (eliminating trash cans and garbage trucks), where it’s separated to be buried, recycled or burned for fuel.
From the start, Songdo was built with sustainability in mind. Some 22 million square feet of its buildings are LEED-certified (the certification by the U.S. Green Building Council), and Songdo is now home to the Global Green Growth Institute, a United Nations organization. More than 20 miles of paths accommodate bicyclists, walkers and joggers.
But make no mistake, Songdo was built to be massive. Development so far includes 80,000 apartments, 50 million square feet of office space and 10 million square feet of retail space. More than 100,000 residents call the city home.
Promise and Potential
Not surprisingly, Songdo has its critics. Although the city sits a mere 15 minutes from Seoul’s Incheon International Airport (accessible by car and subway), getting from Seoul to Songdo itself takes well over an hour (with no subway). That makes for a tough commute, which explains why Songdo has only 70,000 or so daily commuters, versus the 300,000 commuters that planners envisioned. The same goes for residents: The 100,000 figure falls short of the goal of 300,000.
While Samsung, Daewoo and other South Korean companies have bases in Songdo, the city has been slow in attracting development from foreign companies. But outside interest is gradually gaining traction. In late 2017, Olympus was the latest foreign company to open up shop in Songdo — by way of a medical training center. It joined new facilities from Cisco (a global innovation lab) and Merck (a biopharmaceutical production and development support center).
Songdo’s planners say the city continues to hold tremendous potential. Office buildings are starting to fill up. And the planned development of the National Museum of World Writing — which includes a library and archive — is set to join the futuristic Tri-Bowl exhibition and performing arts space, boosting Songdo’s cultural value.
More than anything, though, Songdo serves as a living lab, teaching the world what’s possible for a connected city. Major universities from around the world, including the University of Utah and Belgium’s University of Ghent, have opened satellite campuses here. Their students, not to mention other observers, are taking note — and, more than likely, taking the city’s ideas to a city near you.
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