Seoul’s Songpa District boasts ample cultural heritage, verdant landscapes and salubrious neighborhoods with a slew of parks and lakeside trails providing its residents with a quick getaway from it all.
One of the world’s most livable communities recognized by the United Nations, the eastern district spearheads Seoul’s efforts to cope with climate change, pollution and other urban challenges.
The municipality runs three solar power plants, raising the supply of renewable energy and helping the underprivileged pay utility bills. Its own state-of-the-art waste management center boosts recycling while slashing landfill costs.
The district is also at the forefront of environment-friendly initiatives from city farming, to low-carbon construction standards, and to the utilizations of electric cars and light-emitting diodes.
In May, District Mayor Park Choon-hee joined forces with some 100 institutions, companies and community organizations to declare the ambitious goal of curbing annual greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent for facilities and by 1 metric ton of CO2 equivalent for all individuals.
“Environmental issues are quite a practical policy matter whose success hinges on the participation of communities,” Park said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
“After all, the role of local governments is crucial, as they undertake administrative affairs from the closest point to the residents.”
|Songpa District Mayor Park Choon-hee. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)|
The 59-year-old former attorney took office in 2010 to head the city’s most populous district with 690,000 people and an outstanding environmental infrastructure including leafy parks, lakes, tree-lined roads and surrounding farmlands interwoven with high-rise apartments and bustling commercial quarters in its center.
In a bid to transform itself into a greener and more attractive community, Songpa became the first municipality to ratify a climate change ordinance in 2009. It calls for mapping out a mid- and long-term roadmap to cut emissions by saving energy, raising efficiency and expanding the use of renewable sources.
Such efforts are coming to fruition, sweeping four major international prizes for environmentally sustainable development ― the International Awards for Livable Communities endorsed by the U.N. Environment Program in 2009, Globe Sustainable City Award in 2011, National Energy Globe Award in 2011 and International Green Awards in 2012.
“We have a good environmental infrastructure, which is uncommon internationally in particular at an urban center,” Park said, citing Olympic Park, Seokchon Lake, Seongnae Stream and wetland areas in Bangi-dong among others.
“Then we have carried out many eco-friendly policies such as solar power plants, climate change-related budget planning, urban gardens and incentives for energy-saving products, which let us stand out and win the awards.”
Songpa was unaffected by last month’s food waste fiasco thanks to the Zero-waste Park, a waste treatment center in Jangji-dong. It processes all garbage and recyclable materials produced in the district using indoor and underground facilities, meaning little odor or noise is produced. It also collects and reuses gas from wastewater.
In contrast, residents in 16 districts across the city grappled with the stink after garbage disposal firms refused to pick up food waste for as long as two weeks, demanding an increase in service fees. A global ban on dumping food wastewater in the ocean, which took effect this year, raised the cost of treating food waste.
Officials from other local governments and countries like Vietnam have visited the park seeking ways to serve their communities and reduce potential harm to the environment, Park said.
“When you build unlikable facilities, the biggest hurdle is the opposition from people living nearby,” she said.
“To overcome the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ syndrome, you should minimize their inconvenience and maximize their benefits.
“So we switched the facility’s concept to a park and offered various educational programs for residents especially young students to learn and experience resource circulation,” the district mayor said.
Her office runs three solar power plants at the park and in Goheung, South Jeolla Province, and Uiseong, North Gyeongsang Province, in partnership with Energy & Peace, a nongovernmental organization.
Since they began operations in 2009, the Songpa Sharing Power Plants have generated more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, sufficient to supply about 16,000 households for a month and equivalent to planting 730,000 pine trees.
The municipality has then provided energy-poor families with 200 million won ($184,000) from the proceeds.
Despite a slump in the global solar industry, Songpa plans to set up a fourth plant with a 100-kilowatt capacity this year.
“I have a firm belief that the demand for renewable energy will continue to increase, to which we preemptively respond through our power plants,” Park said.
“Such technologies as electric cars are yet to see their commercialization but we may foresee the future and take an initiating and symbolic role.”
This year, the district mayor declared the advent of the “4G” era ― “growing” for economic growth, “gracious and great” for beauty, welfare and dignity, “green” for climate efforts, and “global” for globalization and tourism.
The district office’s annual budget reflects a potential impact of climate change, requiring energy-saving products to make up more than 30 percent of new office appliance purchases and putting priority on eco-friendly projects.
The Songpa Green Committee consisting of about 70 environmental experts, activists, entrepreneurs and residents provides consultation and suggestions for district officials on environmental policies.
To expand the use of electric cars, the municipality distributed manuals last year to all construction sites for the installment of charging stations.
Park likens her environment policies to a “steady seller” rather than a “bestseller,” stressing consistency and diversity.
“While bestsellers rise and fall according to times and circumstances, or the popularity of the author,” she said, “steady sellers require thorough preparation, the author’s experience, writing skills, literary value, and universal yet creative ideas that encompass all generations.”
More than 2 million foreign tourists every year visit Jamsil, a shopping and leisure hotspot in Songpa, district officials say. They expect the figure to top 4.5 million after major ongoing development projects are completed in 2015.
The centerpiece of the plan is the much-touted 123-story Lotte World Tower, which will be the tallest building in Korea.
Last March, the Jamsil area covering Olympic Park, Seokchon Lake and Bangi-dong was designated as a special tourism zone by the central government.
With the district sprawling and drawing more people, challenges remain such as high crime rates and pollution from traffic congestion and forests of high-rise apartments and office buildings.
“To effectively deal with it, we have set up a monitoring system at eight construction sites that alerts when the level of dust and noise exceeds the threshold,” Park said.
“We will integrate eco-friendly policies into tourism to make the district a more attractive place that travelers want to come back to.”
By Shin Hyon-hee and Kim Young-won