Stuart ReadSeoul’s green veins and heart – Cheonggyecheon Stream & Changdeokgung Palace

Greening Seoul is something quite serious, in scale and time. There’s no shortage of need: a mega-city of some 10 million, sprawling for kilometres, with much of it pretty bleak concrete blocks of flats and roads. Changing that, enticing some nature back, is ambitious and underway, making this city a world leader in some respects. With what seems typical Korean thoroughness and determination, its happening. Perhaps this dates as far back as the passing of 1967’s Parks Act?

Ginkgo lined pedestrian way

Ginkgo lined pedestrian way

Architectural interventions are one means, re-building blocks to open up shared spaces. Another is ‘Greening Seoul’, a program seeking to gain more urban green space (80% of the city’s green spaces are suburban, with a chronic shortage in urban areas). It is run by Green Seoul Bureau in the City’s metropolitan government, led by a Vice Mayor, with nature & ecology, landscape and parks divisions. Creating and managing major parks, some on former landfill or industrial sites is one key tactic. An example is Naksan Park, Jongro-gu, created by demolishing apartment blocks to make parkland for a better outlook onto green hills for open use. Other programs focus on green-roof making on apartment and office blocks, greening school grounds (540 to date) to act like local parks and linking up parks and green spaces. Air quality and amenity have improved markedly.

Rooftop garden in Seoul

Rooftop garden in Seoul

Seoul roof garden

Seoul roof garden

Green-ways add vegetation to streets with trees, wall (climber) and buffer plantings. 27 green-ways were made between 2002 and 2007. What impressed me on busy downtown streets were not just thriving maidenhair (Ginkgo biloba) or Japanese (perhaps here, Korean) elm (Zelkova serrata) trees, but medians with shrubs and flowers such as chrysanthemums, late-summer asters, flowering amid traffic.

Ginkgo lined street

Ginkgo lined street

Median strip with flowering perennials

Median strip with flowering perennials

I had never seen as many Japanese (in fact, like many plants, also native to China and Korea) elms or ginkgos as I did lining Seoul’s streets and parks. This choice of trees is interesting: ginkgoes were traditionally planted at the entrances to Korean seowan– Confucian teaching academies. They feature outside schools, as Confucius himself used to preach on a platform where one grew. Zelkovas were planted at the entries of traditional villages and seowan, as pavilion or guardian trees, bringing prosperity and well-being. They both reflect a desire for education and dignity. The symbolism of these lining streets, bounding parks, schools and universities begins to dawn…

CDG entry courtyard and zelkova

Changdeokgung Palace entry courtyard and zelkova

Green Seoul Bureau has existed since 2000 and amongst tentacles, funds and works through Seoul Green Trust (a public-private partnership established in 2003 with Forest for Life, a multi-sector national movement started in 1998). The Trust aims are to effect cultural change and build local capacity to address social issues, foster community health and safety. Members engage communities and industry to volunteer to preserve, use and create more green spaces. The goal is shifting from citizens participating, to citizens initiating projects. Operations are centred in unglamorous suburb Seongsu-dong, its HQ (with library, vegetable garden and resting space) called the Green Sharing Centre. This is next to Seoul Forest, a major urban reclamation and revegetation project, on former industrial Nam River-front land.

Seoul green doorstep

Seoul green doorstep

P1360829 Bukchon doorstep green

Bukchon green doorstep

Programmes range from small-scale: free street and mall handouts of flowers, potted plants for doorsteps (shop doorstep decoration is a miniature art in Seoul) and balconies. Young activists are employed peopling flower carts on streets giving away plants, holding village festivals, wall-mural paintings and local lending programmes (tools, gear) offering volunteering and work-experience in green jobs. This builds skills in liaison, education (running walks and talks, teaching about pruning, growing plants) and negotiation, encouraging and running neighbourhood meetings to plan and execute projects. Getting communities engaged with their area, joining in, builds pride, connections and improves local environments.

National Museum step greening, Seoul

National Museum step greening, Seoul

Projects range to medium to large-scale, like workshops helping map key items in a neighbourhood, training courses, help from loans of tools, sheds and support. Some have taken on swamp or forest revegetation, community gardens (28 created in 2003) and urban agriculture (the Trust’s 6th annual urban agriculture conference is in 2016), greening streets with shrubs and flowers. Providing local meeting places, skills development and focus is but one benefit. One suburb, or one city park at a time, this programme is growing. It aims to create 33m square meters of green space by 2020 in a network. An underpinning vision is Korea’s history of community forests outside each old village – recreating these in a highly urbanised city.

upper section

Cheonggyecheon Stream upper section

A prime large example was restoring Cheonggyecheon Stream in the heart of the city. This is a key tributary of the Jungnangheon and Hanggang Rivers (the Han is Seoul’s main river). The stream was chosen as the original focus of the concentration and siting, using geomancy principles, of all main temples, palaces and civic buildings. Another 22 other tributaries drain a ring of mountains behind and around. From 1406-12 King Taejong deepened and widened the stream to control summer flooding. Debates between idealists wanting the stream to be pure (good Pung Su/ Feng Shui) and realists wanting it to act as an urban sewer led to the latter use, with other tributaries providing fresh water for some 500 years.

Cheonggyecheon Stream mid-section

Cheonggyecheon Stream mid-section

Korea’s Japanese occupation have it its current name (clear water stream), although sometimes its water was not. From 1925 the Japanese covered many tributaries, converting them to sewers as part of a city system. They planned covering Cheonggyecheon Stream in 1926 and the 1930s. The Sino-Japanese war drained funds so only a small section was covered in 1937. Poverty and post-Korean War era urban migration and squatting led to its further demise. The stream was under-grounded in four stages from 1955 to 1977. In the car-mad 1970s it was ͚progress to have freeways not rivers (think of Brisbane’s snaking ones lining its downtown river…). A double-stacked one four lanes wide ran over three miles here (5.8km, of the stream’s total course of 11km) for seven decades.

Cheonggyecheon Stream upper section

Cheonggyecheon Stream upper section

By 2000 congestion was so bad, things came to a head. Lee Myung-bak as new 2001 Mayor made good on his promise to remove the freeway and restore the stream. The aim was to restore its historic, cultural, economic and environmental values. Another goal was making Seoul a hub of North-east Asia, attracting tourism and investment. A former CEO of Hyundai. Lee developed the name ‘Mr Bulldozer’. The project cost US$349m with landscape works some $120m of this, and took from 2003 to 2005 to complete. A new rapid-transit-way bus system took the former 120,000 car traffic off the stream͛s route (not to mention Seoul’s expanding Seoul).

Several million people came to celebrate the stream’s re-opening. Over 10 million came in the first two months. Lee became South Korea’s President in 2007, with support gained from this project and its return of pride to the city. Now other suburbs want their streams revived and replanted!

The key designer was SeoAhn Total Landscape and four separate themed areas – history (with tiled interpretive panels); – Dongdaemun (shopping zone, with contemporary art); a nature zone and a harmony zone (habitat for migratory birds), along its course. It stretches 5.84 kilometres through over 17-25 city blocks (depends on your definition), its character changing from high rise to lower residential blocks, wider areas of parkland and other tributaries.

Cheonggyecheon Stream - note flood gates to left

Cheonggyecheon Stream – note flood gates to left

Walking its length can take three hours and is a study in contrasts. It’s a major humanising element in a city. The joy is it offers the pedestrian a new view – with natural sounds of water, birds, swishing vegetation in the breeze, minutes from office, shopping mall or traffic. Walkways line both sides, with lifts and staircases to access it. 17 bridges cross it, offering entries and exits. The stream remains a floodway, with uptake that can occur fast.

Cheonggyecheon Stream flood gates warning sign

Cheonggyecheon Stream flood gates warning sign

Warning signs remind users, with escape ladders regularly placed, and sobering photos of flood gates wide open, spewing water. Hard to believe in non-flood conditions!

Cheonggyecheon Stream sister city display

Cheonggyecheon Stream sister city display

Cheonggyecheon Stream temporary sculptures

Cheonggyecheon Stream temporary sculptures

Temporary displays of sculpture, trade show displays, impromptu performance areas add life and distractions to sections. When I visited, a series of large scale models were amid the water, representing Korean and sister cities and regional communities, trading partners and commercial companies – including popular TV and cartoon characters for youngsters. These were very popular and show visitors may not have nature or plants top-of-mind. Incidental benefits for them!

Night-time strolls might bump you into minstrels playing under one of the many flyover bridges carrying surface traffic. Strangely it is quiet below traffic and ground level, and acoustics are good.

Cheonggyecheon Stream at night

Cheonggyecheon Stream at night

A 15% rise in rapid-transit bus-use and 3.3% in metro use (2003-8), 64,000 visitors daily, 639% biodiversity increase (e.g. increased plant species from 62-308; birds from 6 to 36 species between 2003-2008). Land values within 50m of the stream have risen 30-50%, double the rate of other parts of the city. The benefits continue to rise. Tourists like me go there, stop, spend, wonder.

Cheonggyecheon Stream - tiny users in action

Cheonggyecheon Stream – tiny users in action

Modern Seoul is embracing this green vein again and groups and individuals come at all hours. School children might visit en masse, or tiny tots dance on a platform beside the stream, watched by minders. Elderly couples, fisher-persons, solo strollers. Plantings vary and in places mimic native flora of riparian zones, with willows, rushes and grasses, perennials such as loosestrife. Shrubs such as Forsythia, Viburnum, Rhododendron and Euonymus and trees like birches, alders, and willows punctuate the space and soften it.

Changdeokgung red pine grove

Changdeokgung red pine grove

If the stream is Seoul’s green artery or aorta, the grounds of Changdeokgung Palace are its green heart. If you only have time for one palace in Seoul, go here. So said the guidebooks Sydney friend Jill Matthews kindly lent me. I visited twice over a week in autumn and it amazed me how quickly colour comes to maples, chestnuts, sassafras and Korean elm and oak trees. It is said to be the quintessential Korean garden and is on the World Heritage List. Entry is ticketed by guided tour only, which I recommend. Guides’ English is excellent.

Sassafras and maple colours

Sassafras and maple colours

The Huwon / Biwon (Secret Garden), really parkland, was created north east of the palace from 1405-12 under King Taejong and takes some 60% of its area. It was loved more than any other palace by Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) Kings because of this spacious, beautiful garden. Sited to be accessed from this and adjacent Changyeonggung palaces, its design capitalises on a series of natural gullies in a hill, Maebong Peak, each with its own garden. The whole cannot be seen at once and must be explored on foot by climbing and descending. Lotus ponds emphasise each gully’s character with scale varying from intimate to grand. Some were used for royal fishing and boating.

Curved pond

Curved pond

Korean landscape architecture hinges on reverence for nature. Human structures and incidents are sparing and carefully located to complement. Small pavilions were built along the stream flowing through it. The garden was to foster contemplation, poetry-writing and strolling recreation. Areas provided for archery, banquets, entertaining and withdrawal from the court. In 1463 its area was extended. Military drills took place in front of Kings here. Kings and Queens did ritual or experimental farming and silk cultivation in ceremonies to show leadership to the court and people.

In Japanese invasions from 1592-98 many pavilions were burnt down and unlike Seoul’s primary palace (Geongbokgung) also destroyed then, Changdeokgung was rebuilt to serve as royal residence (1618-1872) and as the major palace until Geongbokgung was finally rebuilt in 1868.

Changdeokgung’s restoration continued over several emperors reigns. In 1610 new pavilions had been built and in 1636 the Ongnyucheon (an artificial stream in a deep valley in the north) was created. In this wine cups were floated and a courtier picking one up had to compose a poem in a drinking game testing his wits. If he could not, he had to drink three cups of wine. Losers quickly dropped out. This game caught on in aristocratic civilian circles.

Ongnyucheon artificial stream

Changdeokgung’s Ongnyucheon artificial stream

A mulberry tree thought to be 400 years old survives (among others in the grounds) near square, tranquil Aeryeonji pond, marked as a national monument. Sericulture (silk-worm farming) and agriculture were basic industries and peasants were encouraged to grow mulberry trees. The Queen raised silkworms as an example for her people.

Aeryeonji Pond

Aeryeonji Pond

Another pleasure of autumn were coloured berries: Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) in carnelian, Japanese dogwood (Cornus kousa) black with red stems, Callicarpa (beauty berries) in purple and white, blue Clerodendron sp. on hot pink bracts, plantain lily (Hosta) fruits like green broad bean pods, red Korean yew (Taxus cuspidata), plus huge clustered orange orbs of persimmons, walnuts, peony pods, pink Sorbus haws, red or black rose hips, pink and orange spindle berries.

Juhamnu pavilion

Juhamnu pavilion

In 1776 the two-storey Juhamnu pavilion were built, the same year King Jeongjo ascended the throne. He made its first floor the Gyujanggak (royal library) and its second the reading room, a research institute to develop policies for his many reforms. Jeongjo was a great, progressive leader who encouraged scholarship, literacy and education. The square Buyongji pond below represents the universe and the round island in its centre, the earth. Three viewing pavilions look on from its other sides allowed contemplation, writing and entertaining.

Buyongji Pond

Changdeokgung Buyongji Pond

In 1827 the Uiduhap & Yeongyeongdang halls were built, in the style of an aristocratic country residence, to give the Crown Prince an idea of country gentry life and space for entertaining. The part of the garden most latterly developed originally featured two square ponds and one round pond.

curved pond and maples

Changdeokgung curved pond and maples

During the Japanese occupation, these were combined into one curved pond. Surrounding it are pavilions with unique shapes: one Gwallemjeong, with a two-tiered hexagonal roof, one a fan-shaped roof and one a gambrel roof. On a hill opposite stands Seungjaejeong pavilion. It and Gwallemjeong date to the 1830s, while the oldest of these pavilions dates to 1644.

Gwallemjeong pavilion and ginkgo

Gwallemjeong pavilion and ginkgo Changdeokgung

Unfortunately many of the oldest oaks in the forest are suffering from a fungus disease which due to my minimal Korean I was unable to tell the identity of. Many trunks are wrapped in brown plastic to allow injection treatment in the hope of saving the trees. Many sawtooth oaks are the worst-hit.

Wrapped oak in treatment

Wrapped oak in treatment

Many zelkovas – some ancient – grace the Secret Garden. What a pleasure to see them so old and massive, the gutsy trunks so in contrast to delicate, lacy, saw-toothed leaves. All mature ones have flaking bark in scales, with orange or ginger new bark below. About one in ten have in addition a fantastic bullseye or diamond pattern of dark and light markings on their trunks – almost like Aboriginal carved trees I have seen in an old photo of Hillgrove, New England.

Diamond marked Zelkova

Diamond marked Zelkova

An ancient Chinese (Korean!) juniper, (Juniperus chinensis), propped up by cables and ropes, holds pride of place near a servant’s quarters part of the palace grounds. As did an ancient pagoda tree (Sophora japonica), all but dead with a few brave branchlets defying all. It seems not only the Chinese revere great age in tree survivors.

A propped-up ancient Juniper tree

A propped-up ancient Juniper tree

[With kind thanks to Jill Matthews. More on Green Seoul Bureau projects and Seoul Green Trust (overview) and more images. A version of the section on Changdeokgung Palace’s secret garden first appeared in Branch Cuttings’, 2/2016, the newsletter of the Sydney & Northern NSW Branch of the Australian Garden History Society.]

Like this post? Why not share it with a friend?


Stuart Read

About Stuart Read

Stuart Read is a horticulturist, heritage bureaucrat, tour-leader and talk-giver who loves landscapes and gardens. Trained in science, horticulture and landscape architecture, he has gardened and studied gardens in Australasia, Cuba, the Middle East, England and Spain, leading a tour of Spanish gardens in 2010. His writings include Demi-sec: Spanish lessons for Australian Gardens... (2005). He co-authored Interwar Gardens – a guide to the history, conservation and management 1915-1940 (2003), The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens (2002), and magazines like Australian Garden History and Heritage NSW.

2 thoughts on “Seoul’s green veins and heart – Cheonggyecheon Stream & Changdeokgung Palace

    • And a few other trees! Glad you like them Daniel. Wish I was there longer to see them peak.

Leave a Reply (no need to register)