A couple of weeks ago, I had luck in flying to Seoul’s Kimpo city airport under a great afternoon light. These photos are not of the central Seoul but the neighboring areas around the airport, but show the representative forms of housing in Korea: The giant apartment building blocks.
Seoul is the 6th most densely populated city in the world with 16,700 people living per square kilometer, after Mumbai, Kolkata (India), Karachi (Pakistan), Lagos (Nigeria), and Shenzhen (China). Considering Tokyo is ranked at 50th and Helsinki 111th, it is the busiest city I ever lived in as well. The housing is probably the most distinctive problem in these densely populated cities with the limited space.
Many first time visitors will be probably very curious about these gigantic apartment blocks, as for some they may be reminiscent of several European communist housing projects. I am no expert in urban planning and history of Korean society, but I understand that these massive residential building blocks have been the main body of urban development and the driving force behind the adoption of broadband internet in Korea.
Over the past decades most of residential neighborhoods in Seoul have been or are waiting to be put under the redevelopment scheme, which means demolishing the old houses in the area and building these apartment blocks instead.
The size of each building varies greatly but it seems there is no limit to how high they can go, partly thanks to the fact that Korea is not considered as earthquake-prone country, unlike its neighboring country, Japan. My parents live on the 12th floor in a 25-story building, which was built 15 years ago. If your dream is to live in a house with a garden in nature, these apartments in the super artificially built environment may seem like a living in a chicken cage. But many Koreans I know who are born in the city do consider living in a modern apartment to be the best form of housing. There are several benefits. To name a few:
Shared cost of living and delegation
A group of apartment buildings usually form a community of their own, which could be equivalent of a villiage. Such a community usually hires a management team to delegate tasks that are of shared nature for the whole community, including security, garbage disposal, and maintenance of shared facilities like car parking and boilers for central heating. Shown in the picture is the monthly maintenance cost bill of an apartment. It details all the expenditure of the shared maintenance cost. This bill combines electricity, gas, water, central heating, insurance, sewage and garbage disposal cost and the likes shared by the community. Terrestrial and cable TV subscription fee are part of it as well, since most people sign up for these services.
Magnetic power of the mass
Because of the large number of residents moving to the area, it can attract many service businesses and even governmental infrastructure such as public transportation network at the same time. This way, these communities can get equipped with all the practical conveniences at hand. This high density of residents also enables for some businesses to provide exceptionally personal services with low cost, especially making the home delivery and pick up service a norm.
Peace of mind being surrounded by people
Urbanites that grew up in these buildings can grow the tendency to feel insecure in areas with low density of people. I have no scientific reference to my point here, but it is all based on my personal experience (with my acquaintances) and observations (of the real estate investment boom in Korea). I have talked to several from the elderly generation of over 60yo who wish to stay in the city despite the lack of nature because they want to stay close to other people. I do observe Korean people enjoying all the bustles of living closely together with others â€“ including all the conflicts, gossips, jokes, encouragements, and competitions alike. It’s not surprising to read a news article about a number of Koreans who had immigrated to New Zealand returned to Korea because they were too peaceful, and too bored.
Dissemination of new infrastructure
The density and the power of the mass together enable easy and fast dissemination of the new infrastructure. This gives Korean companies and government the extra acceleration to implement something new very fast once they are determined to do so. This is the secret behind the fast dissemination of broadband internet in Korea: You install one base station, and the whole building-full of houses get to use it. Aside from the benefits of physical density, the real power of this close-knit communities is probably the ability to share and teach each other the new and the useful. The trend rises and spreads (or die) at a formidable speed in korean society – be it adopting a new internet service or a new tupperware-like container.
I see the popularity of mega residential buildings as a unique by-product of Korea’s fast economic development, urban expansion, and pragmatism. Personally I have been always saddened by the disappearing natural landscapes, replaced and redefined by squads of residential buildings. The practical necessity at hand is too demanding for the community members to reflect upon what these developments will really mean in the future, but it certainly leaves me wondering: How will urban Koreans perceive nature in the future? How about happiness?
Below are photos of Favela Jacarezinho (Rio, Brazil) and Nima market in Accra (Ghana). How will the industrialization and economic development change their preferred forms of living in these communities? Will the urban changes of a big scale be possible without the government’s or big corporations’ push? How will their unique cultural characteristics be reflected to their urban landscape?
I remember an interview with a Chinese labor worker: For him, the biggest charm of urban living was easy access to food all year around, despite the harsy living condition. For future urbanites – what would be the charm of leaving the urban living? Would there be necessities strong enough like hunger and employment to drive the phenomenon of mass moves, to reverse the expansion of urban developments?