National Geographic : 2011 Dec
• population has been able to cash in on the hous- ing boom. Today half the people in Seoul own apartments. Koreans like to heat their homes to 77 degrees, says urban planner Yeong-Hee Jang, and in their well-equipped apartments they can a ord to do that. One reason the buildings in Kangnam line up like soldiers on parade, she adds, is that everyone wants an apartment that faces south---for warmth as well as feng shui. Seoul today is one of the densest cities in the world. It has millions of cars but also an excel- lent subway system. Even in the newer districts the streets seem, to a Westerner, anything but colorless. ey're vibrant with commerce and crowded with pedestrians, each of whom has a carbon footprint less than half the size of a New Yorker's. Life has gotten much better for Koreans as the country has gone from percent urban in to percent today. Life expectancy has increased from years to 79---a year longer than for Americans. Korean boys now grow six inches taller than they used to. South Korea's experience can't be easily cop- ied, but it does prove that a poor country can urbanize successfully and incredibly fast. In the late s Kyung-Hwan Kim worked for the UN in Nairobi, advising African cities on their stag- gering nancial problems. "Every time I visited one of these cities I asked myself, What would a visiting consultant have said to Koreans in ?" he says. "Would he have imagined Korea as it was 40 years later? e chances are close to zero." has not been good for cities, or for their countries, or for the planet. South Korea, ironically, has never quite shaken the notion that its great capital is a tumor sucking life from the rest of the country. Right now the government is building a second capital miles to the south; starting in , it plans to move half its ministries there and to scatter other public institutions around the country, in the hope of spreading Seoul's wealth. e nation's e orts to stop Seoul's growth go back to Park Chung-Hee, the dictator who jump-started the economy. In , as the city's population was skyrocketing past ve million, Park took a page from the book of Ebenezer Howard. He surrounded the city with a wide greenbelt to halt further develop- ment, just as London had in . Both greenbelts preserved open space, but neither stopped the growth of the city; people now commute from suburbs that leapfrogged the restraints. "Greenbelts have had the e ect of pushing people farther out, sometimes absurdly far," says Peter Hall, a planner and historian at University College London. Brasília, the planned capital of Brazil, was designed for 500,000 peo- ple; two million more now live beyond the lake and park that were supposed to block the city's expansion. When you try to stop urban growth, it seems, you just amplify sprawl. Sprawl preoccupies urban planners today, as its antithesis, density, did a century ago. London is no longer decried as a tumor, but Atlanta has been called "a pulsating slime mold" (by James Howard Kunstler, a colorful critic of suburbia) on account of its extreme sprawl. Greenbelts aren't the cause of sprawl; most cities don't have them. Other government policies, such as subsidies for highways and home ownership, have coaxed the suburbs outward. So has that other great shaper of the destiny of cities---the choices made by individual residents. Ebenezer Howard was right about that much: A lot of people want nice houses with gardens. Sprawl is not just a Western phenomenon. By consulting satellite images, old maps, and census data, Shlomo Angel, an urban planning profes- sor at New York University and Princeton, has tracked how cities changed in shape and population density between and 2000. Even Seoul's population zoomed from fewer than three million in 1960 to ten million in 2000. South Korea went from being one of the poorest countries to being richer than some in Europe.