The Cheonggyecheon River Restoration Project, Seoul, South Korea

I recently wrote the case study below for UN Habitat’s 2012 report “Urban Patterns for a Green Economy: Working with Nature”. You can download the full report here.

Between 2003 and 2005, an elevated highway covering Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon River was demolished to improve the area’s environmental and aesthetic condition. Now a city highlight visited by 90,000 pedestrians daily, the restoration is a model for urban renewal projects worldwide.

Reasons for the restoration

Throughout much of Seoul’s history, the Cheonggyecheon has been a polluted river prone to frequent flooding, particularly after the deforestation of the surrounding area to fuel economic development (Park 2004). The response was to cover the problem, turning it into an arterial road in 1961 (Park 2004). The rapid urbanisation that followed prompted the building of an elevated highway above the covered river, completed in 1971 (CRP 2009).

In 2000, the Korean Society of Civil Engineering found that the road and elevated highway had severe structural problems that would cost approximately US$95 million to fix (GRN 2007). In addition, downtown Seoul was experiencing serious traffic congestion and poor air quality from the mass use of private vehicles, while public transport was in need of a thorough upgrade (Lee 2005). Urban ecosystems had suffered considerable degradation during fast-paced industrialisation and urbanisation, and the city lacked green spaces for public recreation (GRN 2007). Finally, there was also concern about socio-economic inequality: development had taken place on the south side of the Cheonggyecheon, but the north side had become uncompetitive and dilapidated (Lee 2005).

Rather than repair the highway, the Seoul Metropolitan Government decided to restore the river, using it as an opportunity to tackle several of these problems at once (GRN 2007). The restoration project was thus intended to recover the flow of the river, to encourage biodiversity back to the area, and create a space where people and nature could interact (CRP 2009). The project would also rehabilitate significant historical and cultural sites, and encourage a centre for business and finance, uplifting the area while restoring the balance of development between north and south Seoul (CRP 2009). Designers intended it to be a symbol of the city’s 21st Century Advanced Era identity (CRP 2009). The key aims were to demolish the highway, restore the river, and create a 5.84km park on either side totalling about 1,000 acres (CRP 2009, GRN 2007).

Project implementation

The project began in July 2003 and was completed in October 2005. It cost Seoul US$367 million, and social costs were valued at $1,900 million – but the project is expected to deliver $3,500 million worth of social benefits (Lee 2005, CRP 2009).

The river was restored in three sections, differentiated by urban, urban-natural, and natural landscaping (Park 2004). Curves and irregularities in the river provide a better habitat for fish, and swamp areas offer a habitat for wildlife. An ecological park and continuous green belt encourages contact with nature (Lee 2005). Two of the old historical bridges, the Gwanggyo and the Supyogyo, have been restored (Lee 2005), and traditional cultural activities such as the lantern festival and bridge stepping on Supyogyo Bridge are being revived (Park 2004). The project design promotes walking and cycling, while traffic flow to the city centre was improved through one-way roads and designated bus-only lanes (Park 2004). The bus service was upgraded through a 100% use of transportation cards, a central control system and an effective transfer system. Hours of operation were extended and service frequency increased.  The subway system was also improved via similar measures. The city made parking in the central area more difficult by special campaigns, new parking fees and clamping down on illegal parking.

The project was led by Seoul Metropolitan Government, championed by Lee Myung-Bak, Seoul’s mayor at the time and now the country’s president (CRP 2009). The project was planned and executed by a combination of the Implementation Centre (part of the Seoul Metropolitan Government), the Citizens’ Committee, and the Research Support Group from the Seoul Development Institute (sponsored by the Seoul Metropolitan Government) (Park 2004).

Contribution to urban sustainability

Social sustainability has been improved through an increase in quality of life: citizens now have green public spaces where they can interact as equals, exercise, participate in traditional festivals and enjoy cultural events. The project inspired the creation of an informal ‘knowledge community’ to discuss issues relating to the Cheonggyecheon and recommend solutions (Park 2004). The public now have access to valuable educational resources through their renewed contact with nature, restored historical sites, and the Cheonggyecheon Museum (CABE 2011).

Ecological sustainability has also improved. Fossil fuel use has been reduced by removing about 170,000 cars from the artery, improving public transport, and creating pleasant pedestrian routes to encourage walking (CABE 2011). This has also led to reduced air and noise pollution in the city (Lee 2005). Specifically, small-particle air pollution in the area has fallen from 74 to 48 micrograms per cubic meter (Revkin 2009). High city temperatures have decreased by up to 5ºC due to reduced traffic, proximity of cool water, and a 50% increase in average wind speeds following the removal of the highway (GRN 2007). The restoration has re-established lost habitats, and as a result the number of fish species has increased from 4 to 25, bird species from 6 to 36, and insect species from 15 to 192 (Revkin 2009). Seoul is now better prepared for the consequences of global warming: the open river is more able to cope with flooding than buried sewers (Revkin 2009).

Economic sustainability has improved, indicated by an increase in the number of businesses and employment density within 1.2 km of the Cheonggyecheon corridor (Kang 2009). Property prices have also increased at double the rates found elsewhere in the city (CABE 2011). Single-family residential units are now more likely to convert to high-rise residential, commercial-retail, and mixed units (Kang 2009).

Lessons from the project

Though the lack of private sector and NGO involvement may be seen as an ‘imbalance of power’ in other contexts, the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s dominant role (and personal championing by the then-mayor, Lee Myung-bak) was key to the project’s success. As a result, restoration plans were coherent and achieved a significant level of integration. Implementation time was also relatively short, due to fewer administrative challenges. Also contributing to success were the strong ties and shared agenda of the Metropolitan Government, Cheonggyecheon Citizens Committee and the Research Support Group during planning.

Despite its overwhelming success, a few criticisms have been made of the project. Those with visual impairments and mobility problems complained that they had difficulty accessing the stream (CABE 2011). Lifts and free wheelchairs were subsequently provided at seven locations, but the minority feel indignant that their needs were not included at the design stage (CABE 2011). Some have criticised the project’s ecological authenticity and cost, given that water must be pumped from a nearby river and groundwater reserves to keep the non-perennial Cheonggyecheon flowing all year round (GRN 2007). These critics have called for a more expansive restoration that includes the entire Cheonggyecheon basin and ecological system (Cho 2010). Finally, rising property prices due to the urban renewal have caused concern that local inhabitants may soon be unable to afford the cost of living and working in the area (GRN 2007).


The success of the Cheonggyecheon river restoration project and the enjoyment it has inspired amongst Seoul’s citizens has incentivised similar projects around the world (GRN 2007). Cities in Japan, Singapore and the United States are recovering streams from storm drains, acknowledging the contribution of an urban green belt to social, ecological and economic sustainability (Revkin 2009).


CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment). (2011) Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project: Evaluation. Available: Accessed online: 26 July 2011.
Cho, M. (2010) The Politics of Urban Nature Restoration, The Case of Cheonggyecheon Restoration in Seoul, Korea. International Development Planning Review, 32(2).

CRP (Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project).(2009). Official website of the Cheong Gye Cheon. Available:  Accessed online: 25 July 2011.

GRN (Global Restoration Network). (2007). Case study detail: Restoration of the Cheonggyecheon River in Downtown Seoul. Available: Accessed online: 25 July 2011.

Kang, C. (2009) Land market impacts and firm geography in a green and transit-oriented city – The case of Seoul, Korea. Ph.D.  Dissertation submitted to the Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley, AAT 3410922.

Lee, Y. (2005). Cheonggyecheon Restoration and Urban Development. Available: Accessed online: 25 July 2011.

Park, K. (2004) Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project. Available: Accessed online: 25 July 2011.

Revkin, A. (2009) Peeling Back Pavement to Expose Watery Havens. New York Times. Available: Accessed 25 July 2011.


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2 responses to “The Cheonggyecheon River Restoration Project, Seoul, South Korea

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