If the city of Seoul has a single defining topographical feature, it’s the Hangang River. As it meanders through the heart of the city on an east-west axis, the mighty river is nearly a kilometer wide and bridged by a number of picturesque spans. At night, its bridges and surrounding roads, apartments and offices are beautifully lit up, providing Seoulites with glorious views at night.
Still, for such a beautiful river, the waterway has been, if anything, underutilized by the city. The “Miracle on the Han,” the Korean economic miracle of the 1960s and 1970s that takes its name from river, also rapidly transformed Seoul’s cityscape, and not entirely for the better. As roads and high-rise apartments sprung up riverside, the river’s connections with the city were severed, its banks covered in concrete. The Hangang River Renaissance project seeks to bring the river back into the bosom of the city by transforming it into an eco-friendly space of culture and leisure, with a particular emphasis on design.
Hangang River History
The Hangang River has played an important role throughout Korean history. With its head waters in the high mountains of eastern Korean, the Hangang and its major tributaries have served as a major transportation and trade route linking most of central Korea. Thanks to its estuary on the West Sea, it has also played a role as conduit with foreign cultures as well. Prior to Korea’s modernization, flat-bottomed sailboats plied the river, transporting rice, silks, salt and other precious goods to the many cities and towns along its length.
At the end of the 19th century, the sailboats were joined by steamships, and in 1900, the first bridge—the Hangang Railway Bridge—was built over the river. As Seoul developed, so did the river. Korea’s post-Korean War industrialization turned a previously meandering river with wide sandy banks and penchant for flooding into a deep, stable river lined by concrete embankments. Riverside neighborhoods like Gangnam and Yeouido, once little more than paddy land and river sand bars, were transformed into affluent districts of upscale apartments, gleaming skyscrapers and modern sports complexes. In the process, however, much of the river’s natural ecology was destroyed and its connection with the city cut as the river found itself hidden behind a wall of high-rises and concrete.
Recovering a River
The Hangang River Renaissance, announced by Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon in 2006, seeks to rerive the river’s ecology and reconnect it with the city by approving its accessibility. It’s a multifaceted program that ties together environmental engineering, architecture, design and city planning to recreate the Hangang River area.
Central to the Hangang River Renaissance is the reviving of the Hangang River’s ecology. This involves the creation of ecological parks along the length of the river, including Yeouido, Amsa-dong and Gangseo, as well as along Hangang tributaries and streams. A beautiful example of this can be seen at Seonyudo Park, a disused water treatment plant that has been transformed into an award-winning ecological park that blends history, ecology, architecture and scenic beauty.
Currently ringed by urban beltways, it’s not particularly easy to access the Hangang riverside, despite the presence of several riverside parks. To boost accessibility, Seoul Metropolitan Government is undertaking a number of projects, including the creation of ecological walking paths along the length of the river, improving the pedestrian environment along the Hangang River bridges, laying access roads, building tunnels through the existing embankments, creating a river access information system and operating shuttle bus service.
To draw people to the river, the Hangang is being transformed into a diverse cultural space. A prime example of this are the Floating Islands near Banpo Bridge, a soon-to-be-completed architectural wonder of three floating islands to be used as a leisure space and performing arts venue. The Banpo Bridge’s Moonlight Rainbow Fountain, which according to the Guinness Book of World Records is the longest bridge fountain in the world, is now one of Seoul’s top tourist attractions, especially at night. Bike paths, pedestrian bridges and other facilities are being constructed, too.
The river’s existing history and culture are being utilized, too. The Catholic holy spot of Jeoldusan Hill, for example, is being turned into a tourist destination where visitors can learn about
the history of Korean Christianity and Korea’s early exchanges with the West.
Improving the Scenery
While the Hangang River itself might be easy on the eyes, some of the surrounding concrete architecture is less so. To improve the scenery, much of the riverside area is being redeveloped in a more design-conscious way with an emphasis on lighting and landmark architecture. Existing architecture like the Hangang bridges are being lit at night to improve the nighttime scenery.
The Hangang River was once a major transportation artery, and so it will be again. Waterfront facilities are being built to allow Seoul to serve as a port of entry for cruise boats traveling up the Hangang River. A system of water taxis, too, allows tourists and commuters to make use of the river as a quick and convenient way of getting around town.