Say hello to Seoul's new sky park

SEOUL (The Straits Times/ANN) - $74 million makeover gives disused overpass in South Korean capital a new lease of life.

The opening today of a sky park that was a disused overpass looks set to give Seoul a new attraction in the heart of the city.

A massive project that cost 59.7 billion won (S$74 million) and took 1½ years to complete, Seoullo 7017 is South Korea's own version of New York's High Line sky park.

Arching 17m above Seoul Station railway, the 1,024m-long park is home to more than 24,000 trees and plants growing in giant pots that double as benches, event spaces, shops and five eateries selling food like kimbap (seaweed rice roll).

Seoullo, which means Seoul Road or Towards Seoul in Korean, not only offers a unique view of the city's skyline but also marks the continuation of a green revolution that started as far back as the 1960s.

The brainchild of two-term Seoul mayor Park Won Soon, the sky park is part of his bigger vision to make Seoul "a great city for walking" and extend the green works of his predecessors. These include former president Lee Myung Bak who, when he was Seoul mayor, restored the 11km-long Cheonggyecheon stream in 2005.

Inspired by New York's High Line, Park first flagged the idea in 2014 after the authorities decided the overpass was worn out after over 40 years of heavy use and should be demolished.

"Instead of tearing (it) down… we decided to transform it into a pedestrian road… aiming to not only revive the elevated road but also turn it into a place where people can come together," he said in a press statement. "We hope that the momentum generated by this project will serve as a catalyst for the renewal and revival of the surrounding area."

The number 7017 in the park's name is a combination of 1970, the year the overpass was first opened, and its rebirth in 2017.

Before it was closed in late 2015, the overpass was used by some 50,000 cars a day. Now transformed into a park, it is expected to draw over four million visitors a year, including 30 per cent of tourists, said Kim Kwon Ki from Seoullo's regeneration planning department.

There are now 17 entry points to the park and more foot links will be built, he added.

But the development was not without controversy. Traffic congestion was a major concern, and store owners from the nearby Namdaemun traditional market protested against it as they feared project works would affect their business.

City officials held 600 discussions with residents to address their concerns and get feedback from them, said Kim. "Even the police were against the idea initially, but now they agree with our philosophy that people should take over the roads for walking."

Seoullo has its fair share of fans, including housewife Kim Mi Yeon, 47. She is part of a volunteer group of 144 members, who will help to maintain the park and run educational activities.

Ms Kim helped to write a book on the plants in the park and will serve as a guide today.

A series of events, including a flower festival, has been lined up to mark the opening, which is expected to attract some 50,000 visitors, according to city officials.

"I hope everyone who comes to Seoul will go to Seoullo, as it offers such a good view of the city from a high point," she said.


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