A South Korean City Designed For The Future Takes On A Life Of Its Own : Parallels Songdo City was planned as a futuristic international business hub. Instead, it's become popular among Koreans as an attractive residential area. This story is the latest in NPR's Cities Project.

A South Korean City Designed For The Future Takes On A Life Of Its Own

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We're exploring the future of cities and urban transportation in the new round of the NPR's Cities Project.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Becoming a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have to find a way to move people a lot more efficiently.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Come, take a ride of the future.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: To really feel that futuristic feeling, we need some more time.


Getting around a city is one thing. And then there's getting from one city to another. One vision of a perfect future city is one that offers super easy access to air travel. A few years ago, a University of North Carolina business professor named John Kasarda published a book called "Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next."

JOHN KASARDA: Aerotropolis means aviation-oriented or aviation-connected businesses.

SHAPIRO: Kasarda says future cities should be built intentionally around or near airports, offering businesses, as he's put it, rapid, long-distance connectivity on a massive scale.

KASARDA: The 18th century really was a waterborne century, the 19th century a rail century, the 20th century a highway, car, truck century; and the 21st century will increasingly be an aviation century, as the globe becomes increasingly connected by air.

SIEGEL: One of Kasarda's prime examples is a city recently built from scratch in South Korea. It's been open for just a few years. It is called Songdo.

KASARDA: From the get-go, it was designed on the basis of connectivity and competitiveness. The government built the bridge directly from the airport to Songdo International Business District in new Songdo city, but it also built subways that go to the downtown, and the surface infrastructure was built in tandem with the new airport.

SIEGEL: A big selling point on the Songdo International Business District website is three-and-a-half hours to a third of the world's population. And, Ari, you went to Songdo.

SHAPIRO: I did and I even met the guy who planned both the city and the airport. It is not yet the global magnet that he imagined. The man's name is Yeon Soo Park, and in 1986, he set out to build what he thought would become the city of the future.

YEON SOO PARK: I am a visionary.

SHAPIRO: Does it feel like a child that you gave birth to and raised?

PARK: Sure, sure, exactly.

SHAPIRO: This is your baby.

PARK: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Thirty years after he imagined the city of Songdo, Dr. Park's baby is close to 70 percent built, with about 36,000 people living in the business district. It took me an hour to drive there from Seoul, and it's a stone's throw from the airport. Chances are you have actually seen this place. Songdo appears in the most famous music video ever to come out of South Korea.


PSY: (Singing) Oppa gangnam style.

SHAPIRO: "Gangnam Style" refers to the fashionable Gangnam district in Seoul, but some of the video was filmed in Songdo, as professor Jung Won Son explains. He teaches urban development at the Bartlett School of Global Planning in London.

JUNG WON SON: I don't know if you remember, there was a scene in a subway station. That was not in Gangnam. That was actually in Songdo.

SHAPIRO: So it has become part of this global Korean brand, but not in the way that Korea wanted (laughter).

SON: Exactly. The part of the reason that there was a shoot there was it's new and nice, but it's empty. So it's easier to shoot things there.

SHAPIRO: Songdo was supposed to be a hub for global companies, with employees from all over the world. That's not how it turned out. When I showed up, I expected to find a futuristic ghost town. That its reputation these days. The reality is more complicated.

We're entering Songdo, going over a bridge with these big light blue loops, and in the center of the street, there is a long line of flags of the world. And on the corner, there's a Starbucks coffee and a 7-Eleven and all of the international brands that you see all over the world nowadays.

The city is not empty. There are mothers pushing strollers, old women with walkers, even in the middle of the day when it's 90 degrees. Byun Young-Jin gives us a walking tour. He chairs the Songdo Real Estate Association and started selling property here when the first phase of the city opened in 2005. He says just in the last couple of years demand has boomed.

BYUN YOUNG-JIN: (Through interpreter) This is the largest road in Songdo. The Coast Guard building is on the left. The tall trade tower is on the right. If you go even further, there's a golf course, the university, and if you keep going, there's the ocean.

SHAPIRO: Are most of your clients Korean or international? Where do they come from?

BYUN: (Through interpreter) For now, there are many more Koreans than internationals.

SHAPIRO: In fact, the developer says 99 percent of the homes here are sold to Koreans. Young families move here because the schools are great. And that's the problem. Songdo is a popular Korean city. It is not the futuristic, international business hub that planners imagined.

Wow, oh, my God. This is incredible. Now I really get a sense of it.

We are on the 25th floor of the tallest skyscraper in town. The floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Songdo Central Park, with a canal full of kayaks and paddleboats. Shimmering glass towers line the perimeter. Twenty years ago, everything we're looking at was ocean.

SCOTT SUMMERS: It's a great place to live, and it's becoming a great place to work.

SHAPIRO: Scott Summers is the vice president of Gale, the developer behind this project. We're in his company's offices.

SUMMERS: What's happened is, because we focused on creating that quality of life first, which enabled the residents to live here. What has probably missed the mark is - for companies to locate here, there needs to be strong economic incentives.

SHAPIRO: The city doesn't feel all that futuristic. There's a high-tech underground trash disposal system. Buildings are environmentally friendly. Everybody's television set is connected to a system that streams personalized language or exercise classes. But "Star Trek" this is not.

And to some of the people here, Songdo feels hollow. This woman in her 20s could get fired for talking to us, so we're not using her name. She goes back to Seoul every weekend.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I'm, like, in prison for weekdays. That's what we call it in workplace.

SHAPIRO: You mean you and your colleagues call Songdo prison.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I feel, like, so I call it, like - I'm prison-breaking on Friday night.

SHAPIRO: But she has to make the prison break in her own car. There's no high-speed train connecting Songdo to Seoul, just over 20 miles away. Songdo is still unfinished, and it feels a bit like a theme park. The man who first imagined Songdo feels frustrated, too. Remember Yeon Soo Park who called this city his baby? He says he built South Korea a luxury vehicle.

PARK: Like, you know, Mercedes or BMW. It's a good car now, but we are waiting for some good driver (laughter) accelerate.

SHAPIRO: And there are lots of other good cars out there, too. The world is dotted with futuristic, high-tech cities trying to attract the biggest international companies. Songdo's backers argue it's still early, and business space is filling up they say. When we checked today, a spokeswoman said about 70 percent of finished offices are now occupied. Professor Brent Ryan teaches urban design at MIT, and he says Songdo proves a universal principle.

BRENT RYAN: There have been a lot of utopian cities in history, and the reason we don't know about a lot of them is a lot of them have vanished entirely.

SHAPIRO: In other words, when it comes to cities - or anything else - it is hard to predict the future.

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