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.  

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.