At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 13, 2015, the 46,000 cars that crossed the Seoul Station overpass daily were suddenly no longer allowed in. The overpass, which was constructed in 1970 under the Park Chung Hee government as a symbol of Korea’s rapid industrialization, was doomed to be demolished after a safety assessment classified the outdated overpass as dangerous in 2006.
But Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon suggested re-imagining the overpass as the country’s first elevated public park, modelling it after New York’s iconic High Line.
The plan went into action in late 2015 and construction soon filled the bustling area, creating serious traffic snarls for the better part of the last year. But all the chaos has been wrapped up as Seoullo 7017 opened to the public on May 20. The new name, Seoullo 7017, is derived from two Korean expressions, “going to Seoul” and “Seoul Road,” which are both pronounced “Seoullo.” The number 7017 represents 1970, when the overpass was first constructed, and 2017, when it was refurbished into a walkway park.
“The establishment of Seoullo 7017 is significant and will draw international attention as we not only transformed the outdated overpass that was ready to be demolished into a pedestrian-friendly park for the public, but also as it sets an example of a transformed philosophy - how a country that rushed towards industrialization tries to think about the environment and the wellbeing of its people,” said Kim Kwon-ki, director of Regeneration Planning department for Seoullo 7017. “Seoul lacks green space,” said Kwon Wan-taek, the city official in charge of the project, as he led reporters over the walkway, where workers were planting in pots and installing lights. “Pedestrians need green areas, but it costs a lot to find new land. It’s much more efficient to turn old space into green space instead of tearing it down.”
Almost half of Seoullo’s $53 million construction cost has been spent on strengthening the overpass and ensuring that it is safe for large numbers of pedestrians. It is designed to bear the weight of 50,000 people, 10 times the number that will actually be allowed onto the walkway at any one time.
The project is part of a wider urban regeneration effort that has seen the creation of pedestrian-only streets and redesigned sidewalks to make the city more walker-friendly.
Seoul is home to some 10 million people; the greater metropolitan area, incorporating bedroom communities, has a population of 25 million. The walkway will have planters with 250 kinds of trees and plants, all in alphabetical order and with QR codes so visitors can learn about the flora. It will be illuminated with LED lights that will make the whole structure glow blue at night.
The project was designed by the Dutch architecture group MVRDV. Unlike High Line, built on an old rail line in Manhattan’s Lower West Side, the walkway will connect buildings there are already bridges into an office tower and a hotel and will have cafes and performance areas. There are even trampolines for kids with fences to make sure they don’t bounce over the edge.
John Hong, a professor of architecture at Seoul National University, was impressed by the overall vision for the project.
“Seoul is peeling back these previous layers of progress,” he said. “But instead of just tearing it down, the city is saying, ‘Why don’t we keep it and make it into history?’
The west side of the rail tracks has been neglected over the years, but the walkway will make the area more accessible. Developers hope it will enable people to discover forgotten parts of Seoul, such as an old Catholic church.