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South Korea’s Effort in Tackling Rapid Urbanization

Urbanization typically begins with large populations residing in small, densely populated areas, leading to adverse environmental impact resulting from from human habitation and behavior. Over time, these negative consequences can contribute to unequal wealth distribution, further widening the gap between the rich and the poor, ultimately exacerbating poverty. Addressing these challenges requires structural changes in city planning to promote sustainable and inclusive living environments.


Seoul, South Korea, offers an example of a capital city facing rapid urbanization. As of 2023, while the global population density averages 59.74 people per square kilometer, South Korea’s density in 2022 South was much higher with approximately 530.9 people per square kilometer. This surge in urbanization, driven by an influx of people into cities and depopulation of rural areas, has led to challenges such as urban poverty, traffic congestion, land speculation, housing shortages, pollution, and backlogs in infrastructure. Addressing these issues aligns with the UN’s SDG 11.7: provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces.


The Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul, now a popular tourist attraction, also serves as a solution to challenges posed by rapid urbanization. The area used to be crowded with highways, causing pollution and environmental harm. To tackle these issues, the Korean government initiated a project with a sole focus on the “Creation of new green areas, Management of rivers and other blue areas, Ecological restoration of degraded ecosystems.” They removed the freeway and revitalized the stream, aiming to improve water and air quality and increase biodiversity. Additionally, the opening of the Cheonggyecheon stream successfully addressed flood management concerns, which had arisen due to increasing instances of flooding and heavy summer rains. While the reopening of the river aimed to benefit the environment, it also had numerous positive impacts that addressed the Triple Bottom Line (Profit, People, and Planet). Beyond its environmental benefits, the stream draws 64,000 daily visitors, contributing 2.1 billion won ($1.9 million USD) to Seoul's economy. As for the positive impacts it had on the people, the stream GREATly enhanced people’s connection to nature and simultaneously protects historical and cultural landscapes.


Songdo, a newly developed city 30 kilometers southwest of Seoul in Incheon’s Free Economic Zone, aims to be a world-class global smart city addressing the challenges that come with living in a dense urban area like Seoul. Building an entirely new city offers the opportunity to learn from past mistakes and start completely anew on a clean slate, with a focus on implementing future technologies and sustainable practices. Songdo envisions itself as a high tech city, one that is car-free, pollution-free and is an uncrowded urban space. The city was purposefully built with pneumatic tubes that transport household waste to an underground facility for sorting, recycling, or burning for energy generation, rendering garbage trucks virtually obsolete. In terms of everyday living, the city consists of leading educational institutions— international schools and universities—as well as shopping centers, museums, and luxury hotels. These elements provide Songdo's citizens with a well-rounded life and a range of facilities at their disposal. The government also promotes Songdo as a leading business district, attracting both workforces and organizations. Its proximity to Incheon Airport and an under-construction high-speed rail connecting Suwon and Incheon make it an ideal location for businesses. Notably, large organizations like SK Bioscience, a global vaccine and biotech company, have invested around $261 million USD to establish their Research & Process Development Center in Songdo, expected to create thousands of jobs.

Creating sustainable and inclusive cities is no longer optional; it's a necessity, as exemplified by Seoul, South Korea. Governments must take the lead and collaborate with businesses and stakeholders to ensure safe, sustainable, and inclusive urban living. Both the Cheonggyecheon Stream and Songdo demonstrate that these endeavors offer opportunities for businesses to make a positive impact on the 3Ps - generating economic benefits, profits, and positive environmental impact.

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