Editor’s note: One week to the day after we nominated Seoul’s mayor for this year’s prestigious World Technology Award for Environment, this article appeared today in a series of the International Herald Tribune on the trials, tribulations, and accomplishments of a selection of “World Mayors - at http://www.iht.com/indexes/special/mayors/index.html As you will note if you have the time to work your way through the series, the path to a better and more sustainable city is anything but a straight line; compromises and mistakes are part of the game. But so too is action and whatever it takes to get the job done. Not always pretty mind you, but the real world out there is chaotic, fuzzy and not about ready to solve its own problems. And here you have a dozen examples of people who are at least trying.
(And by the way have YOU signed up to endorse this terrific sustainable transportation concept? If not, we are waiting for you – at http://kyotocities.org, clicking the last menu item to see notes from your New Mobility Agenda and Kyoto Challenge colleagues world wide.)
SEOUL When monsoon rains pounded
Television crews rushed to film it. "The return of the carp," newspapers gasped. And Mayor Lee Myung Bak had scored another point for what he calls his "green revolution."
Critics deride Lee's ecological projects as public relations stunts carried out with an eye to winning the South Korean presidency two years from now. Nonetheless, the greening of
But by far his most visible project has been a $350 million enterprise to uncover a six-kilometer, or 3.7-mile, stretch of the Cheonggye stream, which once ran through the heart of
The fact that this was masterminded by Lee, 63, is perhaps the most unusual thing about it.
Once known as "the Bulldozer," Lee built national fame as the hard-driving chief executive of Hyundai Construction & Engineering,
Upon taking office, and with the same speed and optimism that he once employed in building dams and factories, highways and railroads, Lee undid his former company's legacy in Seoul. He demolished the elevated highway - a crumbling hazard and urban eyesore after decades in service - and cleaned out the stream. He built 21 artfully designed bridges over the waterway.
When I was in business,
Lee, one of a new generation of brash, energetic mayors in
"I get jobs done," said Lee, who is quick to smile. "That's why I am criticized a lot, and praised a lot. I am a CEO mayor. I take risks."
Gritty, blunt and ambitious, Lee is, in a way, a reflection of the modern history of
He joined Hyundai Construction that same year and sped up the ladder, becoming chief executive at the unheard-of age of 36. Lee led six affiliates of Hyundai, which grew into the country's largest conglomerate during his tenure. He switched to politics in 1992, when he was elected as a national legislator from central
Now, as top administrator of a city that is home to more than one-fifth of the country's population of 48 million, Lee does not shy away from confronting national leaders. He calls President Roh Moo Hyun's government "amateurs who don't have the capacity and experience needed to run a country."
A member of the opposition Grand National Party, Lee earns brickbats for such comments. Roh's construction minister, Choo Byung Jik, for one, has denounced the mayor's green projects as "window dressing."
This is nothing new: Lee and the national government have been at odds for years over how to ease
From the mountains surrounding the city,
The city has grown in leaps and bounds. It had barely one building standing at the end of the Korean War in 1953. By 1988, it was able to play host to the Summer Olympics. But it was also a city built in a hurry. In 1995, an upscale department store collapsed, killing 501 people.
With 23.5 million people squeezed into
Thanks to Lee's efforts to improve public transportation, more Seoul commuters are leaving cars behind and riding the bus or subway these days. Still, Roh recently complained that
The president quickly offered an alternative plan that involves relocating 176 administrative agencies, public corporations and institutes out of
Lee has condemned what he calls Roh's "politically motivated scheme" to "split the capital and win votes" outside
Lee's supporters say that his can-do image could carry him to the country's top post in December 2007. Surveys rate him as the country's most popular mayor - although not everyone is happy, of course.
"The bus-only lane Mr. Lee introduced has improved traffic for buses, but slows down taxis," said Yoon Chang Tae, one of the city's 70,000 taxi drivers. "But I recognize his drive, his effort to change the city."
Kim Jin Ai, head of an urban design firm, Seoul Forum, calls Lee an "image-player" and "urban decorator" whose projects have less to do with restoring the city's natural environment and historical heritage than with quick and photogenic achievements for possible political gain.
"He is in a hurry to show results before his term ends," Kim said.
That much seems true.
The Web page of Lee's office is crammed with plans for new projects. Construction will begin next year on a
Another project is
On a clear day,
Most people hardly seem to realize that they are living only 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, from the world's most heavily armed border, within rocket and artillery range of Communist North Korea.
One change that Roh and Lee both embrace is the relocation of
Once a symbol of security, the 265-hectare, or 655-acre,
While the Defense Ministry wants to sell the plot to housing developers and use the proceeds to help finance the
"The city is turning green bit by bit everywhere," says Lee, who has yet to declare his presidential ambitions but already sounds like a man running for office. "And citizens appreciate this."
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