My Favorite Thing About Korea

I realized my favorite thing about living in South Korea. And I don’t even think it’s a South Korean thing, as a hold over to being a country not the size of the USA thing. Like if I lived in Ireland or Italy, I suspect I’d encounter the same thing. It was also what made me like living in Queens, NY. I know, Queens!

Anyway, what I like is that the city where I live, Pohang, retains the quality where a single pedestrian who is probably elderly determines how the city is designed. It’s like if you took Betty White and made her a metric unit that measured urban accessibility. Okay, maybe not Betty White, maybe Jane Jacobs, but you get the idea.

Pohang is a kilojacobs city in that every neighborhood is self-sufficient. Within an easy walk of my house I have access to hardware stores, stationary stores, delis, grocery stores, a traditional market, and restaurants. It was something Joe Mitchell talked about in post-war New York where every neighborhood was a self-contained village. This single pedestrian is accommodated in other ways as well: lots of parks with places to sit down, a robust bus system, and cheap taxis. This is vastly different from the USA where the unit of urban measure is a family with an automobile, and therefore things can be spread out, the supermarket here, the school there, and your entertainment way over there. Public transportation is treated as a charity to be given to the unfortunate, and not as a tie that binds the city together.

Now, I am talking about a small city. I have no idea how Seoul compares, although even there I think it would conform to the model of Queens, NY as opposed to Detroit, MI. And like I said I don’t think this is necessarily a Korean thing, some kind of “Wow. Confucianism dictates that you treat your elders with so much respect!” bull shit, as it is related to country-size. The USA has “Settling This Vast Empty Land” as a foundational myth, and it shows in most of our cities.

Fortunately for me,  Korea’s foundational myths don’t seem to effect urban planning all that much.

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3 responses to “My Favorite Thing About Korea”

  1. Lord Gwydion says :

    I disagree. The founding myth plays a HUGE part! How are you going to get enough garlic to eat it in a cave for 100 days and change from a bear into a woman unless everything is within easy walking distance? Hmm?

    Seriously, though, Busan is also laid out like that, except there is a distinct lack of park space in most neighborhoods. Luckily I now live close enough to the old US army base turned Citizen’s Park.

    • Justin says :

      Pohang doesn’t have any big parks (although the river way is pretty green), but most every neighborhood has a small park.

  2. gordsellar says :

    Yeah, there was *some* of this in Montreal too–neighborhoods being semi-self-sufficient, at least… way more than Saskatoon, where you had to get on a bus for 20-50 minutes to, say, buy a book or go our for lunch.

    The exception, of course, in Korea at least, was things like hardware shops and furniture shops, which always seemed to end up clustered together in a single neighborhood in the city. (The internet seems to have destroyed any real impetus there could have been to change that.) But for daily life stuff, yep.

    I suspect it could also, at least in the countryside, be a holdover to when people were just poor and walked a lot. I mean, 1970 isn’t that long ago. And the street layout, the aesthetic… these things take a long time to change, right?

    The most fascinating example of that I know in Korea is Iksan. If you ever get to visit, you’ll see a really fascinating dichotomy between the very old urban development, and what went on in the late 70s. (Because of the Iri Yeok Explosion in 1977, which leveled the whole downtown area basically, and prompted the name change from Iri to Iksan. Anyway, the University district is all really old, from before modern cars–tons of one-way streets and no one-way signs or rules, so it’s always locked up with cars refusing to budge and let one another pass–while the downtown is much more modern, with wide streets, and is much less pedestrian-centric. I’m told in fact that someone–possibly the North Korean Kim, as in Kim Il Sung–had ancestors from the Iksan area, so the city wasn’t subject to much damage during the Korean War, and as a result the Uni district street layout really does predate the Korean War. I don’t know that for a fact, but it definitely isn’t made for car traffic. )

    And, I just noticed, someone used my blog post as a source for that Wikipedia article on the Iri Yeok Explosion. That’s kind of scary!

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