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Lessons from Seoul: The Inequality of Density in Megacities

by Sung Hong Kim

At the end of March 2020, New York became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in America, with almost ten times more cases than any other state. Quoting health experts, CNN wrote that “the first and most obvious explanation” was density. New York City has “more than double the density of Chicago and Philadelphia and more than three times the density of Los Angeles… New Yorkers pack together on the subway, bump into each other on sidewalks… they live in crowded apartment buildings.”

At that same time, however, the hyper-dense city of Seoul registered only 0.35% of New York City’s total cases, and a mere 0.01% of New York City’s death count. Given that Seoul has two million more people than New York City and has 1.7 times its density, these numbers are eye-opening, especially when one considers that people in Seoul use crowded subways and buses more than New Yorkers do, and almost half of Seoul’s citizens live in densely populated apartment buildings. Seoul’s statistics at that time appeared to prove that the government’s preemptive response, which involved aggressive measures through the national health insurance system and a successful appeal to civic consciousness, helped stem the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

However today, in August 2020, infections are on the rise within the greater Seoul Metropolitan Area. This second wave of infections seems to highlight the vulnerability of dense and compact cities. This presents Seoul and South Korea with new challenges in terms of social mix policies and strategies for residential development. For example, social distancing could be used as a pretext for the justification of spatial separation of socioeconomic classes within cities.

Population density is certainly a condition that contributes to the rapid spread of infectious diseases, but it is the distribution and quality of that density that really needs to be focused on. People of all classes and means need to live and work harmoniously in the inner city to foster the city’s economic, social, and cultural vitality. Yet, all around the world, cities are becoming more fragmented spatially, divisive politically, and stratified economically and socially. Large-scale residential development is at the heart of the problem.

In Seoul, one and two-story single detached houses have been increasingly demolished over the last several decades in favor of high-rise apartment buildings. While an apartment building is legally defined as ‘a multi-family house taller than 5 stories,’ efforts towards drastic verticalization began after Korea’s 1997 foreign exchange crisis. Today, most landowners and developers try to reach 35 stories based on regulatory limits. The problem is the indeterminate quality of the density that is created. While there are elaborate measures to calculate geospatial densities, there is a lack of social consensus around the quality of urban space in relation to density.

While there are elaborate measures to calculate geospatial densities, there is a lack of social consensus around the quality of urban space in relation to density

Most apartments are owned or rented by individuals in South Korea. The American equivalent is the condominium. In Korea, a tenant pays a lump-sum deposit to a homeowner, and the homeowner tries to gain profit from the interest accrued from the deposit. As of March 2018, the ratio of deposit to resale value in Seoul was 69%. The average resale value of a single apartment unit in Seoul, as of August 2020, is 1 billion Korean Won ($840,000 USD); thus, the average deposit would be about 690 million Won ($579,000 USD).

This system, called jeonse (2), is the product of a steady rise in property values coupled with high interest rates during an earlier period of rapid economic growth and urban concentration in Korea. From a foreigner’s point of view, such a system is unreasonable and even incomprehensible. Many Koreans look at the apartment unit as a commodity that is bought and sold as a short-term real estate investment, while many tenants move every two years seeking better lease terms with the ultimate dream of saving enough to own their apartments. This system is a prime target of criticism by outsiders, who pejoratively label Korea “the Apartment Republic”.
In Seoul, the apartment complex is a battlefield of negotiations for density (or more precisely, for a higher floor area ratio (FAR)) between three players – the consumer desiring maximum volume, the supplier attempting to achieve it, and the controller restricting it.

The Urban Management Plan in Seoul defines three different sets of FAR limits for apartment development: Standard FAR, Permissible FAR, and Ceiling FAR. Most developers and landowners carefully calculate the benefits and downsides of densification, but they are usually willing to give up ownership of a portion of their land to gain an extra FAR percentage and to reach the Ceiling FAR.

The average site area for recent apartment development is 2.5 times larger than the standard block in Manhattan. It is more than 200 times larger than the average plot size in Seoul, meaning redeveloping or reconstructing a single apartment complex requires demolishing about 200 buildings, erasing the existing urban fabric, and rearranging it as a single plot. Since the FAR and height of buildings are bound by public roads and regulations, every architect working under a developer attempts to maximize the size of the complex by eliminating or pushing public roads to the peripheries, while making a concerted effort to capture every possible square meter allowable.

The general strategy of apartment design is to reach the Ceiling FAR and then to make the building as high as possible. An axiom is that the maximum FAR is a constant, whereas the number of floors is a variable. The maximization of FAR and optimization of BCR (building coverage ratio) leads to a high-rise building typology with greater density.

The double-corridor plan is avoided because units facing north are least preferable in the market in South Korea. Visual privacy between units and proximity to underground parking is also believed to be the prerequisites for successful development. The most popular strategy is a building 3 or 4 units per floor, with angled views ranging between Southeast and Southwest. The shallow plan with an L-shaped wide-frontage is firmly established as the preferred prototype. The last challenge for planning is to put as many of these units as possible in a complex. The result is a proliferation of stereotypical unit plans and building layouts regardless of the specific conditions of the site and location.

Throughout Seoul, we see strong physical boundaries between inside and outside of apartment complexes with anti-street frontages of buildings. We see abrupt transitions between inside and outside of complexes that weaken the continuity of the urban fabric and impede pedestrian movement. We see the destruction of topography and excessive underground excavation that threatens the sustainability of the environment.

But the bigger problem is that this development deepens the intra-urban gap in the distribution of public housing. Contrary to the city government’s intentions, the public housing program is employed more in private projects in less wealthy areas. In wealthy areas, a higher ratio of original residents stays after the construction. The solidarity of this community is stronger, and so is the NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) opposition to public housing. The less wealthy areas, by contrast, have less opposition to public housing because the housing association is dissolved after construction. There is no stable organizational body to monitor the quality of a sustainable environment. As a result, these areas spawn denser and taller morphologies. Buildings on steep hillsides cast shadows on surrounding buildings of a lower zoning designation. Many buildings north of the complex have only a few hours of sunlight a day.

On the other hand, in affluent areas, generally on flatter sites, the infrastructure in and out of the complexes is improved, the surrounding roads are widened, sufficient underground parking is secured, and open space on the ground level is covered with trees, grass, and ponds. While the spatial quality inside the complex is enhanced, the complexes themselves become exclusive urban enclaves and gated communities.

Here we see that the heterogeneity of the urban morphology of Seoul is paradoxically combined with the homogeneity of the architectural typology, which is driven by market demand and private interests. The quantitative variables such as density and scale are closely interconnected with urban and architectural morphologies, which then have a deep impact on the quality of the living space.

The heterogeneity of the urban morphology of Seoul is paradoxically combined with the homogeneity of the architectural typology, which is driven by market demand and private interests

Like many fast-growing Asian cities, Seoul demonstrates the paradoxical amalgamation of the government’s top-down planning with excessive private land ownership. This is reflected in the ratio of construction investment to the total GDP of South Korea, which has been 6-8% higher than that of other OECD developed countries. Real estate policies are highly influenced by approval ratings for the government, and failures in these policies can even lead to a regime change.

Between the global star architect system and market-driven construction industries, the influence of architects in the earlier phase of calibrating urban design and architecture is marginal. This is partly because density is understood merely at the level of the two-dimensional land use plan, and is not seen as a design element for architecture.

Throughout history, there has always been tension between external urban forces and autonomous architectural principles. It is incumbent upon architects to get away from the aesthetic baggage of individual buildings and recognize and address urban inequality and injustice. Meanwhile, cities need to empower multifaceted and flexible professionals who have a different approach, tactic, and language, and allow them to cross boundaries and get all sides communicating and working towards a unified goal. In the post-coronavirus era, the revitalization of our dense and compact cities desperately needs to become the work of architectural bricoleurs, those with a vision of development that actually improves life in the city for all its inhabitants.

01.Oct.2020 245 views
Sung Hong Kim Sung Hong Kim

Kim, Sung Hong is a professor of architecture and urbanism at the University of Seoul. He studied architecture at Hanyang University in Seoul, the University of California at Berkeley, and Georgia Tech in Atlanta. He was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the University of Washington in 2006, and Provost of Planning and Research Office at the University of Seoul from 2007 to 2008. Between 2007 and 2010, he organized an exhibition, “Megacity Network: Contemporary Korean Architecture,” in Frankfurt, Berlin, Tallinn, Barcelona and Seoul. He curated “The FAR Game: Constraints Sparking Creativity,” for the Korean Pavilion at 2016 Venice Biennale. He has authored research papers and books about contemporary Korean architecture and urbanism including ‘The FAR Game’ (2016), ‘Future Asian Space’ (2012), ‘Street Corner Architecture’ (2011), ‘On Asian Streets and Public Space’ (2010), ‘New Imagination of Urban Architecture’ (2009), and ‘Megacity Network’ (2007).

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