From central Seoul I take an express train to the airport, then a taxi across a very long causeway to Songdo. Before I arrive I can see the high-rises looming over the waterfront. Scott Summers, who works for Gale International, the U.S. company behind a large part of the Songdo project, takes me up to the 52nd floor of a residential building to look out on what his company has created.
As I gaze at the neat rows of high-rise buildings punctuated by small and large parks and bisected by a canal, I realize that this place is the opposite of Seoul. It has ample room for residents to stroll the streets, play in parks and cruise the tranquil canals. “We drew our inspiration from cities around the world,” Summers tells me. “Pocket parks from Savannah, an arts center modeled on what Sydney’s opera house has done for that city, a huge swath of parkland based on New York’s Central Park.” The global financial crisis has made the Songdo project much more challenging than when it was first conceived. As we return to ground level and drive through the streets, it’s hard to assess the project’s success because only a small number of residents and businesses have moved in.
Songdo is one of the most intensely planned places on earth. There is no history to contend with. There is only the future. I think about what Seoul residents have made of their city and wonder what Songdo will look like when those same human forces do their work here. If rapid and radical changes in Seoul are any indication, Songdo residents will make something distinctive, living—and entirely unanticipated—out of the raw materials this new city is offering them.