Cheonggyecheon: Rip It Up and Start Again

June 28, 2023

After a massive public-works project in the 2000s, a stream once again flows through Seoul. In this personal essay, Andrew Russeth admires Cheonggyecheon, a 10.9km long stream and modern public recreation space in downtown Seoul. In revealing aspects of the region’s rich history, and how nature and the built environment can collaborate, it shows that moving “beyond concrete” alters our sense not only of materials, but also of time.

This summer, we’re publishing a series of essays, interviews, and other stories that explore the themes in our Beyond Concrete season, highlighting local and global projects that centre interconnectedness.

Listen to the sounds of Cheonggyecheon as Andrew Russeth narrates his story:

Even if you have read about it in advance, Cheonggyecheon still feels miraculous when you first encounter it. One moment, you are navigating the action-packed sidewalks of Seoul, where the population density is about four times greater than in Toronto. Skyscrapers tower overhead. Then suddenly you are in open space, looking down at a stream flowing below street level. There are wide paths on both sides, handsome greenery, and—look closely!—sizable fish in the water. Gazing downstream, it just keeps going. This oasis runs for some eleven kilometers through this city of ten million. It almost does not seem real—and, until about twenty years ago, it wasn’t.

The waterway, of course, has existed for as long as recorded history, but until a $300 million-plus government effort to turn it into a park in the first years of the 2000s, it had been out of sight for decades, covered up by concrete and an ungainly elevated highway that had fallen into disrepair.

When my wife and I first moved to Seoul in late 2020, in the pre-vaccine pandemic, we lived in a hotel near Cheonggyecheon, and I loved running along it. I would usually see a few other joggers, including some who also risked pulling their masks down under their chins. Since it runs through so many different neighborhoods, it provided an ideal way to become oriented in Seoul: heading up to the street at various points, I could see how everything was connected.

But Cheonggyecheon can also serve as an orientation tool in a far broader sense, with its development and redevelopment providing a concise overview of Korean history.

It received its present name in the first half of the twentieth century, during Japan’s occupation of Korea. It means, roughly, “clear stream,” but in the 1950s, after the Korean War, it was anything but. A shantytown populated by refugees from the conflict had developed along its banks, and the waterway was polluted with sewage. As the country worked to modernize, the ramshackle wooden houses on stilts were cleared away and the highway put in. Completed in the 1970s, it was a symbol of the new era.

A few replicas of those homes now stand outside the superb riverside Cheonggyecheon Museum. (Surrounded by sleek high-rises, they look completely surreal.) Via richly detailed dioramas, the museum elucidates what the stream looked like in different periods and the many needs it served. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), it was regularly dredged, and, in 1760, a massive effort was undertaken to straighten it and add embankments. Women washed clothes in it, vendors hawked their goods along it, and it played host to festivals, as it does again today.

Slices of this many-layered past are still visible along the stream. Near its start—which is marked by a somewhat bizarre Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen sculpture of a twenty-meter-tall seashell—there is Gwangtonggyo, a stone bridge that dates to 1410, which was uncovered and restored as the park was built. (Twenty-two bridges span the water, from the austerely functional to the wildly futuristic, each with an intriguing backstory.) Farther along, three of the demolished highway’s imposing piers have been preserved as relics of that vanished time. Elsewhere, an almost two-hundred-meter-long mural has a rendering of a painting of King Jeongjo making his famed 1795 procession to his father’s grave to the south of Seoul, with each of his nearly 1,800 attendants and eight hundred horses visible.

But what makes Cheonggyecheon most thrilling, for me, is its generous abundance. Some portions are carefully landscaped and adorned with dramatic water features, while others are overgrown with plants. It changes in look and feel every few blocks. There is something for everyone, and on a recent walk—it took around three hours at a very modest pace—I saw people of all ages. Families were out for strolls, men in suits held iced americanos and talked shop, office workers ate lunch on rocks, on steps, and under bridges, and some visitors even dipped their feet into the water. A stork-like bird landed in the center of the river at one shallow place and stood proudly as everyone snapped photos.

Reproduction of buildings that stood along Cheonggyecheon during the 1950s and ’60s, with the Cheonggyecheon Museum in the background. Photo by Mina Oh.

It probably goes without saying that the public benefits of the stream have been tremendous. Temperatures are lower along its route and its plantings draw animal visitors. In what is said to be an example of Braess’s paradox, traffic (and its pollution) has even been reduced as a result of the highway’s removal.

However, the place is not perfect. As the unusually candid Cheonggyecheon Museum puts it in one display, “the final product fell short of what was promised.” Additional elevators were added only after protests, but they remain limited, and some paths are rocky. (In those cases, a smooth walkway is typically available across the water.) Many water crossings are just stones arrayed in the stream—cool-looking but inaccessible. And the project displaced both businesses and homes. The museum notes that there is also the “excessive cost of maintenance due to sourcing the water from the Han River” during some months of the year, when there would otherwise not be enough naturally occurring water.

But as you peruse the museum, or just walk along the stream, one thing becomes clear: Cheonggyecheon is not in its final state. It will be altered again, as tastes and priorities change and as the public coffers rise and fall.

As I neared the end of the stream the other day, I saw workers putting the finishing touches on a grand new playground, adorned with charismatic cartoon squid. Not far away, an older man was playing a melancholy song on his saxophone, accompanied by a recorded band. It seems unlikely he would have been there when the highway was cruising overhead. Certainly no one would have been around to hear him.

For now, Cheonggyecheon stands as a monument to what can be accomplished when people make the brave decision to remove something that is not working—some 907,000 tons of it—and to try to build something better in its place. What could be accomplished in other cities with a similar mixture of planning and courage?


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Andrew Russeth

Andrew Russeth is an art critic based in Seoul. He has been executive editor of ARTnews and an editor at Surface and The New York Observer. In 2019, he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for visual arts journalism. Russeth’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Financial TimesWNew York, and Artforum, as well as in exhibition catalogues.