25 July 2005

25.07.05. Seoul's mayor shows his green streak

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's mayor shows his green streak

By Choe Sang-Hun International Herald Tribune, Monday, July 25, 2005

SEOUL When monsoon rains pounded Seoul in late June, carp swam up a stream cutting through skyscrapers and shopping towers in the city center, their scales glinting in the sun.

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 Seoul, a city of more than 10 million, is moving ahead. Since his election as mayor in 2002, Lee has ripped up tarmac and torn down walls, replacing them with grass and trees.

Seoul Forest, a $223 million "ecological park," opened in June with a stock of deer and mandarin ducks.

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 Seoul but disappeared from public memory a generation ago.

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, South Korea's best-known builder and icon of its breakneck industrialization. It was Hyundai that, in the 1960s and '70s, helped put a concrete cover over the Cheonggye stream and built an elevated highway above it. The stream turned into an underground sewer, although the highway gave the city a badly needed traffic route.

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, South Korea was an underdeveloped country that raced to become rich, and I was at the forefront of it," the mayor said in an interview at his City Hall office on a recent sultry afternoon. "As a mayor in the 21st century, I saw it my responsibility to make Seoul a green city, to make it a world-class metropolis."

Lee, one of a new generation of brash, energetic mayors in Asia, has pressed ahead with his mission despite scandals, like the one that landed his right-hand man, Deputy Mayor Yang Yun Jae, in jail on bribery charges in May.

"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 Seoul, the 600-year-old capital of Korea. A son of a poor farmer, Lee lived in a shantytown, worked as a garbage collector and was jailed for student activism before graduating from Korea University in Seoul in 1965.

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 Seoul.

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 Seoul's urban problems, from soaring housing prices to traffic jams.

From the mountains surrounding the city, Seoul today looks like a gigantic concrete scab sprawling up hills and gullies under a brown haze of pollution.

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 Seoul and its satellite communities, the city is one of the world's most congested metropolises.

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 Seoul's congestion was getting worse. He came up with a radical remedy: packing up the entire national government and moving it to a rural town south of Seoul. But in October the Constitutional Court ruled against him.

The president quickly offered an alternative plan that involves relocating 176 administrative agencies, public corporations and institutes out of Seoul. That plan is also being challenged at the Constitutional Court.

Lee has condemned what he calls Roh's "politically motivated scheme" to "split the capital and win votes" outside Seoul for his party. (Roh cannot profit personally from any new votes, as he is bound by law to a single term.)

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 new city hall building and a new opera house. A new international school is under construction, part of Lee's campaign to make the city more attractive to foreign investors.

Another project is Seoul Plaza, the formerly concrete circle where a half-million Koreans shouted for democracy in the 1980s and as many soccer fans gathered during the 2002 World Cup. Now it is covered with grass. On weekends, children frolic, bands play and fireworks burst above - as much a restoration of greenery as a showcase reminder to citizens of what their mayor is doing for them.

In stressful Seoul, "without realizing it, people become less friendly and short-tempered," Lee says. "By changing the city's environment, I hope I can help make citizens more relaxed."

On a clear day, Seoul's parks, hidden palaces and Buddhist shrines leap up in vivid green in the shadows of skyscrapers. On weekends, thousands hike up mountains only an hour's subway ride from the city center, while the center reverberates with demonstrators of all stripes who call Roh "the enemy of workers," President George W. Bush an "imperialist," and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, a "devil" who must be burned, at least in effigy.

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 U.S. troops away from their Dragon Hill base, smack in the center of Seoul. When the move is completed in a few years, it will end a century-old foreign military presence in Seoul: first by Chinese troops, then by Japanese colonialists and, later, U.S. soldiers who fought in the Korean War and stayed.

Once a symbol of security, the 265-hectare, or 655-acre, U.S. base has come to be regarded a source of traffic congestion and a slight to national pride among young citizens.

While the Defense Ministry wants to sell the plot to housing developers and use the proceeds to help finance the U.S. military's relocation, Seoul's Lee hopes to turn the compound into a leafy ground that rivals Central Park in New York.

"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."

IHTCopyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com


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