What can Seoul teach the UK about community engagement?

Seoul Sky Garden. Image: Keneckert/Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this year saw the opening of Seoullo 7017. Seoul’s version of New York City’s high line is a 1970s elevated section of highway converted, by Dutch practice MVRDV, into a “Skygarden”: a pedestrianised walkway and garden, almost a kilometre long, landscaped with a wide variety of Korean plant species and illuminated at night.

The new landmark illustrates Seoul’s confidence as an emerging world city, a status first indicated by its hosting of the Olympic Games in 1988 and its hosting of matches during the 2002 World Cup. It is now considered the World’s most “wired city” and is also gaining a cultural prominence – something indicated by K-pop’s global success and other landmark buildings like Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), which provides a modern counterpoint to several UNESCO World Heritage sites across the city.

The city is also facing several challenges. Like London and many other Western cities, Seoul is struggling with the growth of pronounced wealth inequality and a generational divide when it comes to accessing housing. It is afflicted by poor air quality, has an ageing population and growing mental health problems, affecting young people in particular. Since 2011, under Mayor Park Woon-son’s agenda, the city government has been looking to redress the balance in the city, through the encouragement of new social infrastructure and more direct forms of democracy. The byword for this work in Seoul is “revitalisation” rather than “reconstruction”, as place-making initiatives have taken precedence from building work.

An important programme in the city has been the conversion of 424 redundant local administrative offices for resident-led neighbourhood uses such as libraries, small theatres, concert halls and cafes. The success of this work will depend on the Ccty’s ability to engage and activate more residents, encouraging collaborative approaches to running local services and managing community spaces. This will help meet the mayor’s desire to develop the city’s social infrastructure, representing a switch in approach to managing the city, which had previously been focused on stimulating fast economic growth.

My social enterprise Social Life was invited – alongside Locality, the national network of community-led organisations – by the Seoul metropolitan government to share the UK experience of working with communities and, specifically, the mechanisms used help them play a more active role in their neighbourhoods. We visited two neighbourhoods in the city, Mapo and Mok 2 Dong, and heard from residents and small organisations working to improve their neighbourhoods.

In Mapo, on the western side of the city, running north of the Han River, we visited a site near the Olympic Stadium: a formerly disused oil storage facility, with six large oil tanks, converted into a new culture park used to promote eco enterprises and culture. We spoke to local residents’ who had been squatting on the site for live-work use. Residents had set up social and creative enterprises in shipping containers on the site, providing a range of services including affordable health, a flea market, a culture and arts festivals and eco-education. The city government’s first response was to seek to remove these illicit uses – but a change in heart saw it not only embracing these activities, but seeking to work with the residents on the design of the wider park.

Mok 2 Dong village. Image: author provided.

Mok 2 Dong is a “maul” (village) in the Yangcheon District, again on the western side of the city but south of the Han River. It is an area of high-rise housing, including Hyperion Tower, one of the world’s tallest residential buildings – but we visited a lower rise section with street-level shops and cafes.

At a community café, we heard from Plus-minus 1°C, a social venture run by young villagers, which has led to the community cafe, as well as a village school, a housing co-op, and an annual town festival. The speed of this work and the energy and determination of the young people in making things happen in their neighbourhood was impressive.


As part of our visit, we also spoke with a number of intermediary organisations, including research organisations, think tanks, sector specialists and neighbourhood support bodies. We heard about some of the issues they face when working with communities: difficulties in opening a dialogue with residents, encouraging residents to speak openly, reaching beyond the louder/stronger voices, and the perception that, as intermediaries, they were not seen as independent enough from government. Some familiar themes, but also some marked differences, from our experiences in the UK.

We sensed the impatience from the city government to usher in this new resident-led approach to the city’s revitalisation. Mayor Park Won-soon had previously spent time in the UK to collect ideas for his political project (both prior to and since becoming mayor), and he was impressed by the role of civil society in supporting the place-making process in cities like London.  However, we offered a note of caution about the UK experience: the difficult message that community development was a slow and meandering process. We also emphasised that, for residents to form autonomous and lasting organisations serving their neighbourhoods, perhaps the best approach for local government is to step away and allow this process to occur naturally.

Social Life is a social enterprise, created by the Young Foundation in 2012, to become a specialist centre of research and innovation about the social life of communities. All our work is about the relationship between people and places.  

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.