My walk along the Greenway last week led me to think back to a trip to Seoul last year and a brief visit to a similar project called Cheong Gye Cheon. This was a stream that flowed through the centre of Seoul, eventually joining the Han River and, ultimately, the Yellow Sea. The original stream became, like the Fleet in London, an open sewer as Seoul developed in the post-war period, and was eventually covered over by a road.
The restoration of the river started in 2003 onwards, and entails pumping huge quantities of water to the “source” as the development of downtown Seoul had left the original river completely dry. The new river runs in a straight concrete channel of no great aesthetic value, within which the watercourse itself follows artificial meanders and flows over a series of small manmade riffles and waterfalls. The result is an 8.4 kilometre urban recreation space in the midst of this busy and relentlessly modern city.
The upper part of Cheong Gye Cheon in downtown Seoul, photographed in October 2012.
This is no Arcadian Idyll – it is still, basically, an open rectangular storm drain running an almost straight course through downtown Seoul, but it is a narrow ribbon-like sanctuary from the noise and heat of the city. Indeed, the immediate vicinity of the stream is about 3.5 °C cooler than the rest of the city. On the day I visited it was busy with tourists and, like the Greenway and the High Line in New York, it is a “green lung” – a brief respite from city life – for local residents.
Visits to the Greenway and Cheong Gye Cheon are useful counterpoints to the work that takes up most of my time. Ecologists strive to create high quality habitats, are preoccupied with saving rare and endangered species and have an inbuilt bias to wild and remote places. Yet most of the population live in cities, with few chances to encounter the Premier League of wildlife except through their television screens. “Ecosystem services” is the current buzzword in environmental management, referring to the benefits that humans obtain from nature in order to give a basis for their valuation. One class of “ecosystem services” that has been identified is the cultural benefits – recreational, spiritual, educational and aesthetic. However, these can only be fully realised if people can get easy access to natural or semi-natural spaces. You don’t need high grade habitat to provide the “green lungs” of cities, to give people mental space away from the hustle and bustle. A walkway on top of a mains sewer might be worth any number of SSSIs for this purpose.