“When I moved, it was like being in a no man’s land. My classmates and I used to joke and call this town Songberia. A mix of Songdo and Siberia.”
That’s how James Park, deputy director of external relations and development at the University of Utah’s Asian campus, describes his early years in the South Korean city of Songdo, 40 miles from the capital Seoul.
“I had to take a bus to the supermarket, and the closest was 25 minutes away. There was literally nothing around my university,” he says.
If you’ve ever wondered what the cities of the future will be like, one of them already exists, and that’s Songdo.
Built from the ground up on a huge landfill area of the sea, Songdo International City is inspired by New York and the canals of Venice, although there are no gondolas, but water taxis.
It is one of the largest public-private real estate developments in the world.
When the man-made island where the city is located began to be built, in 2003, the companies involved expected a cost of 40 billion US dollars (200.9 billion reais, in the quotation of this Monday, 21 ).
The master plan was drawn up by the famous architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF).
The American Gale International, the Korean POSCO E&C and the government of the metropolitan city of Incheon – to which Songdo belongs – were responsible for the implementation of the advanced infrastructure and development in the later phases.
And although the city was completed in 2015, the first inhabitants started arriving earlier, in 2009.
Its location on the map, according to city advertisements, provides access to one-third of the world’s population on a flight lasting up to 3.5 hours to Incheon International Airport.
The city develops around the central park, a huge oasis with lakes, strategically placed at the heart of the urban project from the start.
And next door is the international school.
In the central region are also the control center, the town hall and the brand new Arts Center, to name a few of the most important buildings.
Households measure electricity consumption per minute and reflect it on a dashboard.
Hundreds of cameras let you know how many cars have crossed the bridge into the city, and traffic is controlled by a huge control center.
It’s a very green, flat city that is easy to cycle around – a paradise for families, say locals.
Songdo was born with a classic philosophy: it is a green, technological, free and international city.
Many of its innovations were ahead of their time, such as the creation of charging stations for electric cars or the ban on the use of drinking water in office toilets.
And its recycling system is attracting attention.
“You don’t see any garbage in the city. I think it’s a great system. It keeps the city clean,” says Parker.
A mechanism sucks the waste directly from the kitchens and transports it through a vast underground network of tunnels to the treatment center.
That’s why you don’t see garbage trucks or large containers in the city.
“South Korea, in general, is organized and clean. The people are super nice. The level of education is very high, you can see that they are very respectful of everything,” says Alberto González, urban architect and resident. by Songdo.
“The communication part is very complicated, but once you get past that it’s a very comfortable life.”
For him, Songdo contrasts with the old and dilapidated cities of the rest of South Korea.
“It has a very different urban fabric from the rest of Korea. It is a city that responds to the urban planning model of the modern movement.
In fact, he says, people keep going through it.
The population already exceeds 180,000 inhabitants, while the city is only 60% built.
And the high-speed train that will connect Songdo to Seoul will be inaugurated soon.
excellence in education
Soleiman Dias is also one of the first residents.
He has lived in South Korea for 20 years, but arrived in the city in 2009, when machinery was still backfilling part of the sea with land imported from other islands.
“The apartments weren’t ready. We had to live in a hotel for four months,” he told BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish service, from his home in Songdo.
As director of international relations of the international school, Dias has been part of the project from the start.
The opening of the educational establishment was a priority for the authorities.
“For South Koreans, the most important thing is education, so the school is right in the middle of the city.”
“It was built as a model school. She was meant to be, and is, a benchmark for the whole country, ”he says.
“Ten years later, it is the best known and the most recognized in the country. In 2016, the first class graduated and enrolled in the best universities in the world.
But despite being a city with the most advanced technologies, in the beginning everything was not flowers.
To John Starling, a business consultant and one of the town’s first inhabitants, the worst thing about Songdo when he first arrived was that he looked a little dystopian.
“It was very artificial. There was nothing, there was no culture, there was no music scene,” he says. “Culture is made up of bars, cafes, art and music festivals.”
“They’ve invested billions of dollars in these buildings. And the South Koreans love something new. They love something new, and many have moved to Songdo, but no one really knew what was going to happen. was just an experience, ”he adds.
Now things have changed a lot.
The international community has grown and South Koreans, Starling believes, have accepted foreign influence.
“Initially, Songdo was a good idea, poorly executed, but it gets better. Every day it gets better.”
The example is that they have just built a huge cultural center and, according to him, there is a good sports scene.
“It makes it very different from the rest of the country, but Songdo will never be Singapore.”
For him, South Korean society is very closed and uniform: “There is very little diversity here.
He says in South Korea it’s hard to see a red car. “They are all white, black or gray.”
Something similar happens with buildings: “All buildings are equal”.
Songdo has disappointed its locals in some ways, but the highlight is its long-awaited international character.
The idea was to attract talent from abroad, and it was believed that the language of the city should be English.
In the beginning, road signs, posters, restaurant menus and neighborhood communications were in both languages.
But gradually that got lost – and most of them can only be read in Korean.
González thinks there are more things that have gone wrong.
“If you leave the central region, the drawing is contaminated. You find many blocks that do not correspond to the ideals of the original plan and are more generic,” he reveals.
“It’s a shame because when you talk about Songdo you start to talk about a ‘missed opportunity’. I think there is still a chance to find this interesting urban design again from the start.”
“The partners wanted to maximize their profits and along the way they lost part of the spirit in which the city was born. They forgot about the design considerations or the quality of the urban space and decided to resort to blocks of rapid development, ”he says. “They were in a rush, like everything in Korea, which is very fast.”
James Park believes, however, that “it is a city with a bright future”.
“It gets better every day with more things, both in terms of hardware and software.”
“There is no place in the world like Songdo,” Starling adds.