What Makes a City Smart and Green in South Korea?


How is the city you live in changing? And what does the city of your dreams look like? Recently, cities are undergoing drastic changes on two axes: smart cities and green cities. The new city of Songdo in South Korea offers insights into what is truly needed in the transformation of an Asian city.

Songdo City in daytime
Teaser Image Caption
Central Park in Songdo and the landmark POSCO Tower

The cities we live in evolve every day within their own context. Cities change through the interaction of society, politics, the economy, the environment, and the lifestyles of people who live in them. For this reason, cities that may have appeared to be perfectly planned can change in unexpected ways.

There are two main ways that cities are currently changing. The first is by becoming a ‘smart city’ that provides residents with greater convenience by utilizing intelligent information technology and data generated in real time. The second is by striving to become a ‘green city’ that minimizes carbon emissions by reorganizing infrastructure and adjusting residents’ lifestyles. These two concepts cannot be separated, and coexist in developing urban areas.

Smart Cities and Green Growth in South Korea

A smart city in South Korea is likely to be a planned new town that incorporates new technology. In other words, new suburbs are designated to display the benefits of smart city technology. This is related to national development strategy.

Since the early 1980s, the Korean government has been interested in digital technology as a means of advancing economic development. Since the 2000s, policies implemented through the Ministry of Information have led South Korea to become a leading IT power. In 2007, through an initiative called Broadband IT Korea Vision 2007, the government tried to introduce ubiquitous technology into people’s lives, by providing access to the internet anywhere and through any device. The “U-City Master Plan”, an urban development plan based on this ubiquitous technology, was an initial model that prepared the way for the transition to smart cities. However, a change of administrations and the global economic recession brought a shift in urban growth policies.

In 2008, the Korean leadership changed and major aspects of economic growth also changed. The Roh Moo-Hyun administration had focused on “IT” initiatives, but the succeeding Lee Myeong-Bak administration came up with a ‘green growth’ initiative as a major policy agenda item. This was originally aimed at reducing carbon emissions, preserving natural resources, investing in renewable energy, and increasing energy efficiency. However, in reality, the Korean government focused more on economic growth without the ‘green’ elements, and ‘IT’ was still the dominant driver of growth. In this process, the U-City initiative continued through a nationwide political transition, creating a Korean-style smart city that combines smart and green features for economic growth.

Characteristics of Songdo

The night view of Songdo
The night view of Songdo

The Songdo International Business District, located in Incheon, was built as a model Korean-style smart city. Songdo was completely planned by the government and is built on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. It was planned as part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone, but during the construction process, in alignment with the government’s green growth policy, it became a smart and green city.

The city’s architects chose energy efficiency as a key feature. To this end, it is equipped with LED streetlights and walking lights, solar energy supplies, geothermal heating and cooling facilities, and rainwater storage facilities. It has roadways dedicated to eco-friendly transportation such as bicycles, and an automatic waste collection and disposal system.

The economic advantages of the free economic zone, as well as the image of a smart and green city, appealed to various stakeholders. While still under construction, Songdo attracted attention from businesses, schools, universities and research institutes, as well as from domestic and foreign residents of other regions. In fact, many institutions and people moved to Songdo. However, they came for a complex variety of reasons, and it was not possible to confirm how much the “green” features played a role in attracting people.

One city, different mindsets

We conducted a survey to determine whether South Korean citizens relate more to ‘mainstream’ green city features or to those highlighted by the South Korean government. First of all, we asked respondents to select from five categories the qualities that best fit their image of a “green city”. We then asked them to select specific characteristics they would expect to find in a “green city”. Participants were presented with a list of 15 characteristics derived from literature related to green cities, including ‘green’ features that exist in Songdo, but others were benchmarked in other ‘green’ cities outside South Korea. A total of 135 Korean citizens participated in our survey.

Impression of a "Green City"
South Koreans' Impression of a "Green City"

When asked about their image of a “green city”, 68 respondents (50.4%) said that parks and natural spaces were most important. Only 7.4% said that solar panels and renewable energy sources were important. When asked about features they would expect to find in a “green city”, 110 respondents (81.5%) selected parks and open spaces. Far fewer participants, 34.1%, chose prioritization of renewable energy resources; and 29.6% chose building regulations requiring that strict energy efficiency standards be met.

This result is interesting for two reasons. The first is that people think renewable energy is necessary as a characteristic of a green city, but it does not immediately come to mind in their image of a green city. This indicates that perhaps citizens do not view renewable energy as a green activity. The South Korean government has promoted renewable energy in terms of energy security or energy independence, but has not introduced any “initiatives” directly linked to citizens’ lives.

15 Characteristics of a "Green City"
15 Characteristics of a "Green City"

The second point of interest is the gap between citizens’ expectations of a green city and the reality of Songdo. Of the 15 characteristics listed, Songdo currently has six features; such as solar panels, smart grid development, parks and open spaces, LED lighting for traffic lights, recycling mandates, well-developed public transit system, but none related to large-scale use of renewable energy. Ironically, citizens responded that a green city needed features related to renewable energy. As a new city, Songdo did not take advantage of the opportunity to incorporate renewable energy technology into building designs. This clearly illustrates disconnect between Songdo as a showcase city for national green growth initiatives and the other features it has incorporated to attract residents.

Transformation into a real green and smart city

In urban design, both top-down and bottom-up approaches have advantages and disadvantages. It cannot be denied that the government-led top-down decision making was a very important factor in Korea’s rapid growth. Also the Korean government is still inclined to this approach. However, in terms of the smart and green cities that are emerging, the top-down approach has proved inadequate in some ways. Citizens are at the center of the fundamental philosophy of smart and green cities. The ultimate goal of intelligent information technology is to implement personalized services, and the evolution of green features is also centered on individuals. After all, the success or failure of these services depends on how accurate individual needs are identified and met.

The case of Songdo reveals the importance of citizens’ participation in the process of designing or changing cities. Songdo was planned in a completely top-down manner. Both the smart initiatives and the green initiatives reflected exactly what the government wanted and intended. However, they do not match the residents’ understanding of a green city. Songdo clearly has some green functions that are appreciated by its residents, but there is a gap between the government’s aims and the residents’ desires. If Songdo’s well-designed infrastructure and resources accurately responded to the voices of its residents, it could be transformed into a truly smart and green city, showcasing the future of Korean cities.