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An Urbanist’s Tour of South Korea, Part Five: Busan, “City of Tomorrow” – and Yesterday

Just as Changwon brands itself the ‘Young City’, other Korean conurbations come with slogans of their own. Seoul, of course, has a few: ‘Hi Seoul, Soul of Asia’ is an awkward English one; only marginally better is the Korean slogan which translates as: ‘The Seoul We Create Together, the Seoul We Enjoy Together.’

But nowhere is as zealous about its self-applied label than Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, located all the way across the country on its southeastern coast. Maps, buses, construction sites: all periodically remind us that we are in ‘Dynamic Busan, City of Tomorrow’.

This slogan strikes me as, in equal parts, apt and mistaken. While I feel bullish about Busan’s future, that has nothing to do with the seaside metropolis’s firm grasp on the 21st century. The appeal of Busan – indeed, a reason to prefer it over Seoul – comes not from what it offers as a city of tomorrow, but what it offers as a city of yesterday.

As a rare piece of territory not captured by the Northern army during the Korean War, Busan came through the 1950s intact, serving during wartime as the capital of the Republic of Korea. The city incurred far less involuntary demolition in that era, so has endured a less thoroughgoing redevelopment since. If you are seeking ‘old’ urban South Korea, you’ll find it here – or at least, more of it than elsewhere.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

An Urbanist’s Tour of Korea, Part Four: Cycling Through Changwon and Elsewhere

Not long ago, so South Korea residents of 15 or more years tell me, taking a bike to the streets of Seoul would have indicated a death wish. But then somehow, in less time than it took to rise from dire poverty amid the wreckage of war to the kind of envy-of-Asia wealth it enjoys today, the country became surprisingly bikeable. I still don’t feel half as comfortable riding the streets of Seoul as I do those of bicycle-loving Copenhagen, or even bicycle-tolerating London, but nor do I fear for my life on them. Then again, given the behaviour of the drivers here, perhaps I should.

In many respects, South Korea’s cities feel so distinctive because everyday Koreans don’t observe the letter of law as rigidly as their counterparts in other developed countries – certainly not, when it comes to traffic, with the fearful near-piety of Americans. Hence the Korean tendency to take red lights as more ‘cautionary suggestion’ than ‘implacable command’.

I got a group of North American expatriates swooning for their old continent by asking if they remembered how, when you stood in the middle of a pedestrian crosswalk back home, cars would refrain from driving into it. In urban South Korea, rather than trusting that the law will save them, drivers and pedestrians go by each situation’s human context, which they examine and respond to accordingly.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

An Urbanist’s Tour of Korea, Part Three: New-Built Villages in Paju and the “Ubiquitous” City of Songdo

With more than half of the country’s population of 50 million living in the Seoul metropolitan area, South Korea’s other cities, even those with strong infrastructure and attractive surroundings, can seem eerily hollowed out. Certainly, the farther I travel away from Seoul on my urbanist’s odyssey, the older the average age of the people around me gets.

Governments at several levels have launched ambitious, verging on the surreal, efforts to recalibrate the balance between Seoul and the jibang(the word literally means ‘region’, but is often used derisively to refer to ‘anywhere other than Seoul’). Two such projects in particular demanded visits on my whistlestop tour.

I first heard of Paju Book City from a friend employed at a publishing house there, who makes the 90-minute commute north by bus from Seoul every day. His situation seems typical: few people actually live there, instead travelling in only to work in one of its many publishers, bookstores, book cafés and art galleries.

Paju Book City – with a touted ratio of 20 books to every human – arose as “a place devoted to planning, producing and distributing books by well-intentioned publishers”, according to its website, in the dramatic, slightly contorted English typical of Korean publicity materials. “Our [purpose] is simple and clear: the city aims to recover the lost humanity.”

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

An Urbanist’s Tour of Korea, Part Two: The Cheonggyechon Stream and Dongdaemun Design Plaza

The streets of Seoul strike me as a uniquely rich and incongruous mixture of the urban future and the urban past. As soon as I emerge from the city’s subway system – so admirably planned, so meticulously engineered, so impeccably maintained – I step into a reality where street names and addresses suddenly lose their meaning. Much of this has to do with an only recently revised building numbering system, based inexplicably on the date of construction.

Verbal directions are delivered with a similarly disorienting rusticity: “Walk five minutes toward the mountain, turn right at the fried-chicken place, then go past two other fried-chicken places and turn left into the first alley you see, the one with all the trash cans. It won’t have any markings.”

I find myself walking between, on the one side, gleaming towers with lavish, celebrity-endorsed shops offering personal glamour and “wellbeing” in all its latest manifestations; and on the other, makeshift sidewalk eateries and converted trucks making their simpler pitches for produce, liquor, fortune-telling and glistening haystacks of fried food. Both ends of the commercial spectrum do a lively business long into the night, but I never quite shake the memory of stopping for street-food and finding myself in the path of a lorry whose driver has decided to get up on the sidewalk.

Street life here exists in a delicate balance: to some (often Koreans), it can seem tilted too far toward bygone decades of poverty; to others (often foreigners), too far toward blander, more sanitised and monument-strewn times ahead. If I grieve for anything, it is the pojangmacha – informal outdoor eating and (especially) drinking establishments, operated by night out of wagons or under tents, best patronised in the rain at the tail-end of a long evening out.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E46: Mar Incognita with Geoff Nicholson

gn2okColin Marshall sits down in the Hollywood Hills with Geoff Nicholson, author of such nonfiction books as The Lost Art of Walking and its more recent follow-up Walking in Ruins as well as novels like Bleeding London, Gravity’s Volkswagen, and the new The City Under the Skin. They discuss which cities contributed to his concept of “the city”; the resonances between the novel’s fictional Telstar Hotel and the LAX Theme Building, as well as the significance of their restaurants, revolving or otherwise; the failure of our intention to “build our way out of any problem”; when he first saw the “fading Hollywood” of the late seventies, and its process of de-ruination; how to take the “subway” to Stonehenge; whether cities ever develop except through bubbles and busts; how The City Under the Skin dramatizes the ever-present struggle for a city’s future form; what everyone would draw if everyone had to draw a map of Los Angeles by hand; when all the murders, tattoos, and kidnappings got into the novel; his time at the glorious ruins at the Salton Sea; the “haunted house” nearby that turned new again; how elevation became an advantage in Los Angeles, at least notionally; what kind of building you get under the ideas of the American dream and “the Englishman in his castle”; why the deed to his house includes the phrase “no Hindus”; and whether he envisions even new developments as the ruins of the future.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

(photo: Naomi Harris)

My five-part “urbanist’s tour of Korea” at the Guardian begins today

Today begins An Urbanist’s Tour of South Korea, a five-part series at the Guardian chronicling my experience of urban life eating, sleeping, walking, cycling, and riding a hell of a lot of trains in Seoul and well beyond.

Since at least the 1970s, we’ve turned to East Asia for a look at the urban future. Thirty years ago you’d have found it Tokyo, but the prolonged economic malaise that beset Japan after the postwar boom that made its capital such a thrilling vision has turned the country inward. Many westerners now seem convinced that the future – urban, rural, or otherwise – looks, speaks, and (given all that industrialisation) smells Chinese. Yet China’s vast size, still-authoritarian government and enormous ballast of poor people make it, to my mind, an unlikely contender. No, to experience first-hand what lies in store for world cities, you’ll want to book a flight to South Korea.

First and foremost, I mean Seoul. One can hardly overstate this nation’s capital-centricity, which makes England look like it just happens to have a big city called London. Americans must imagine a metropolitan area that somehow combines New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, swallowing up a handful of other respectably large towns in the process.Ollagada, the Korean-language verb for making a trip to Seoul for a day or a lifetime, translates as “going up”; naeryeogada, the one for returning to your hometown, translates to “going down”. A young South Korean looking to make something of himself has, in recent history, faced two options: go over to America, if possible, or go up to Seoul.

You can read the whole essay here. A new one will appear each day this week.

My third appearance on 11 Points Countdown: Fun Things Ruined by Technology


I’ve made a return to 11 Points Countdown for a two-parter: “11 Things That Used to Be Fun But Got Ruined by Technology“. You can see my previous turns, (genuine) beer in hand across from host Sam Greenspan, on my about page: first, on the benefits of high gas prices, and second, on underwhelming United States landmarks. But this one has all manner of talk about Sports Illustrated, Brentano’s, vellum paper, computers with spinning wheels, and strolls through the aisles of Blockbuster Video. (I may have mentioned Griffin and Sabine somewhere along the line, but I think it hit the cutting room floor.)

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E45: A State Apart with Jon Christensen

Jon ChristensenColin Marshall sits down at UCLA with Jon Christensen, editor of Boom: A Journal of California, the recently re-launched magazine from the University of California Press. They discuss the meaning, if any, of the phrase “he lives in California” in an author bio; whether California’s east-west divide bleaches out its much discussed north-south one; why we think so little about water, and whether Los Angeles actually has a problem with the stuff; how to see the world not just in this city, but in the whole of California; Boom‘s “What’s the Matter with San Francisco?” issue; when a city’s insecurity becomes useful; the axiomatic “brokenness” of Los Angeles, but the frequent elusiveness of that alleged brokenness; why Californians feel so pessimistic about high-speed rail; why it has become so difficult to sell the future to Californians, and indeed Americans; the changing idea of the role of the state, and what that would mean if California became its own country; the peripatetic life that led him to jump into Los Angeles, “the ne plus ultra of global cities”; why the true dream of the Southern Californian megalopolis feels so long deferred; how he chose Venice as a place to live, and whether it can remain weird; and whether California could use twice as many people — especially twice as many urban people.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E44: Fertile Dystopia with Matt Novak

mattnovakColin Marshall sits down in Culver City with Matt Novak, author of Paleofuture, a blog that looks into the future that never was. They discuss what goes through is mind when he sees LAX’s Theme Building; why 1960s visions of jetpacks and flying cars have kept their hold on the American imagination; whether we only remember the wrong predictions of the future, or whether all predictions got the future wrong; why you always have to hedge about who predicted or invented what; how a society’s visions of the future reveal that society’s vulnerabilities; the problematic notion of “invention” itself; why we love the Nikola Teslas of the world, who give us a chance to tell “great stories” instead of messy history; Uber and Lyft as symptoms of a “broken society”; how their generation seems to have grown up on dystopias, not utopias; the technological signs of a new Cold War in the news; how “face-burning” technology ends up working for us in consumer electronics; Los Angeles’ as a “city of reinvention that can somehow feel stale” full of freeways as works of retrofuturistic sculpture; his three carless years here; whether current visions of future Los Angeles seem more plausible than past visions of future Los Angeles; his search for the “relaxed version” of the city; and how he deals with “a society that does not consider itself a society.”

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E43: Baby with an iPad with Jason Boog

jasonboogColin Marshall sits down in Santa Monica with Jason Boog, former publishing editor a Mediabistro and author of Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age. They discuss what freaks us out about the idea of a baby with an iPad; his project’s venerable predecessor The Read-Aloud Handbook; the importance of the very act of reading aloud, and especially what he calls “interactive reading”; the fallacy equating amount of books read with intelligence or even knowledge that plagues children and adults alike; how reading became a proxy for well-being; his new appreciation of Los Angeles libraries developed while taking his daughter around to them; how he introduced Mark Twain to the baby; how our generation seems to have proved that kids don’t get wrecked by unlimited access to content; when, exactly, digital reading became acceptable; his move from New York to Los Angeles, and the cities’ comparative reading cultures; his interest in Depression-era writers, and why on some level we still believe that to become a writer means to become poor; how we’ve become “cyborgs, in a real, genuine sense”; what we can learn by watching the first generation who could say no to books grow up; and what culture his daughter has already started introducing to him.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.