Posts Tagged ‘urbanism’

Cities: the future of humanity

Here’s a presentation file for a lecture that I gave at my alma mater Yonsei University. Keep in mind this was an invited lecture to undergrad student in the architecture program as part of a class that fulfills their urban design requirement (read: not very academic).

New Job, New City

JINA Architects

JINA Architects

I formally started working at JINA Architects on September 1, as an Associate Partner.

After a 9 year hiatus, I am back in architecture. Well not quite. It’s urbanism. JINA Architects is a more than a design studio. It’s currently has about 140 staff, a huge growth from having just over 30 a decade ago. Under the management of Eliot Bu (blog / mostly in Korean), it has transformed from just another architecture studio, doing mostly commercial and academic buildings, to now consulting for local and international government clients on urban design issues.

The key to its success? Design Knowledge. With any consulting practice, the key is consolidating and managing knowledge. In the case of JINA, knowledge enables the analysis of legal codes and policy that govern urban design practice. Corporations and architectural practices see the building code as a constraint they have to “deal with”. The government see the building code as a tool for regulating the quantity and quality development. And hence the lack of communication between the two. When you have a deep knowledge of codes then you can act as a medium between the two seemingly opposing entities, and the role that JINA has carved out for itself.

In the US and Europe, non-profits function to collect, analyze data and consolidate knowledge. These non-profits provide politically neutral facts that both businesses and policy makers have equal access to. Korea hasn’t reached that stage yet, with knowledge being held in closed government institution or corporate think tanks. Yet, this is one of the ultimate goals of JINA – to create a non-profit: to collect, analyze and provide access to urban design knowledge and through it to influence the quality of life and in turn, and as corny as it sounds, to change the world.

What is my role in all this? Eliot invited me to join JINA to head the project to develop the Master Urban Plan for the Expanded Hanoi Capital which they were finally officially awarded Sept 23.

Am I qualified? My lack of urban design experience surely would pose a handicap. In the words of Eliot, this is the exact reason I was offered the job, apparently. Urbanism is more than engineering and construction. It’s about the lives of people and hence more infinitely complex, and in dire need of a new approach. He wanted an outsider, untainted by ingrained urban design practices to seek a new approach that incorporates the wide range of expertise that have typically been left out.

For the Hanoi project we have experts in energy policy, international affairs, marketing, sustainability, urban sociology, cultural studies, clean energy development, Vietnam legal system in addition to local experts providing their perspective on how a city should be developed.

This a new approach to urbanism that hasn’t been attempted before and I am caught between fear and dread and shear excitement and optimism that I have been lucky enough to have been offered the opportunity to participate in such a history event of developing a master plan for a city.

We will be changing the lives of the millions in Hanoi. And I know already that Hanoi is a city that will change my life. I have to believe it is a calling, and I am humbled.

I won’t be moving to Vietnam as the title might suggest. But I will be making frequent visits to Hanoi. The title’s just a play on the last time I posted about a new job, New City, New Job. That time, I found a city and then found a new job. This time I found a new job which found a city.

Thoughts on Sustainability or How to Grow Vegetables in the City

Community Garden in Bundang

Community Garden in Bundang, Korea
The sign reads: No gardening. The land is owned by Korea Land Corporation and will soon be sold and developed, therefore any cultivation is forbidden. No compensation shall be made for any damages to illegally cultivated goods. May 2005. – Korea Land Corporation

It is said that what is everybody’s is nobody’s. When something lacks ownership it tends to be abused or neglected.

This long Chuseok weekend, I finally had a little extra time to explore my neighborhood. I live in Bundang, which is one of 5 planned satellite cities (link in Korean) created to house the ever-growing population who work in Seoul. It is one of the better ones with a lot of (interesting) open space running through the rows and rows of mind-numbingly boring monolithic slab apartment blocks. I live in its far corner which ain’t all that bad, at the foot of some nearby hills with hiking paths.

On my walk, I noticed a empty plot of land, where people were growing vegetables, in the adjacent lot next to where my 3 block apartment complex stands. There are signs scattered across the plot which forbid any cultivation. I passed by without thinking too much, but this plot of land lingered in my mind long enough to form a series of questions what bubbled up to consciousness:

1. Why was it empty?

In a place like Bundang, where land is so precious, and high-valued, there must be a good reason why it is empty. According to records, it been zoned for residential development and is owned by the Korea Land Corporation, which is the government organization that developed Bundang. Signs on the land state that it will be developed soon, but it’s dated 2005. I’m not sure why it’s being left intentionally empty.

2. What was happening in this empty plot?

It was being cultivated as a community garden. Elderly residents of the nearby apartment blocks have taken over the land, and have planted all sorts of vegetables used in common Korean cuisine.

3. Why was this happening?

What is interesting here is that a vacuum is being filled not with abuse (e.g. communal trash heap) but with productivity (communal vegetable garden). Koreans, especially elderly ones, have a very strong attachment to the earth. My dad has it. He’s always been fostering a romantic dream of retiring to a house on a small plot of land where he can grow his own vegetables. I have never seen him grow anything in my years as his son.

4. What does it have to do with sustainability?

There are 3 components to sustainable communities in the broadest sense: Economic, Environmental and Social. The environmental is the middle sibling that gets all the media attention, but it cannot exist without its two companions.

In my mind, the example of elderly Koreans appropriating empty land for vegetable growing is on a small scale and example of sustainability in practice. It’s obviously environmentally sustainable. It’s also economically sustainable. Elderly people live on meager stipends, with a fixed income, so these people growing their own vegetables close to home make economic sense. But what is equally important is the social sustainability. No sustainable practice can be truly be sustainable without a strong social component: Growing their own vegetables give elderly people a sense of purpose and self-esteem. They are less apt to nag their kids because they have something to do, and it gives them a good reason to invite friend and family over to enjoy the food, or to invite themselves over, to bring over homegrown vegetable to their no-time-for-real-food kids who are too busy scraping a living together. It also provides a generational bridge for grandchildren to work alongside grandparent, not to mention all the knowledge sharing that occurs between gardeners.

In short, the 3 components together create a loop that enriches lives of all residents. A sustainable community.

I’m wondering why more housing developments don’t just create communal vegetable plots with their communal land, which most often suffers from bad landscaping or in worst cases, just cemented over to lower maintenance. Each resident could be assigned a plot of land in the communal garden. If they don’t care for gardening they can lease their land for a fee or freely to those who do care. It’s like guaranteed parking space.

I never cared much for growing things myself, but I can see why people do. I must be getting old.

Community gardening has been formalized in the US and UK, but from my shallow internet search (Naver, Google), there doesn’t seem to be any formalized grassroots (nice pun!) organizations in Korea as yet.

[update 2008-09-18] Found an entry on Urban Agriculture on Wikipedia (my italics):

Urban farming is generally practiced for income-earning or food-producing activities though in some communities the main impetus is recreation and relaxation. Urban agriculture contributes to food security and food safety in two ways: first, it increases the amount of food available to people living in cities, and, second, it allows fresh vegetables and fruits and meat products to be made available to urban consumers. A common and efficient form of urban agriculture is the biointensive method. Because urban agriculture promotes energy-saving local food production, urban and peri-urban agriculture are generally seen as sustainable practices.

Given that soon 50% of the world’s population will be living in cities, and many of the new residents would have migrated from agriculture, it would seem to make sense for rapidly growing cities to reserve land around the city for agriculture. This would also form a natural buffer to resist urban sprawl and promote density in urban areas.

To feed a city with a population of 10 Million (Seoul, New York etc), you need to import 6000 tonnes of food each day.


In the past couple of days, they (Korea Land Corporation) walled off the community garden in the photo, with a big sign saying it is being leveled to make way for new housing. Inevitable but still sad.

2009-08-03 has an article about the growth of neighborhood farming practices in the US: Urban farming takes root in surprising new ways.

Navigating New York

I remember when I first moved to Manhattan for grad school in ’94 that is was really disorienting when you exit the subway station. I had to walk a block to discover which way was North. Finally someone (NYC DOT) had the good sense to do something about it, in the form of a sidewalk compass.

I don’t know why someone couldn’t have thought of this sooner. Sometime the most simple solutions are the most useful.