>Seoul and its surrounding conurbation is home to over 24 million people who live packed cheek-to-cheek in an area almost eight times more crowded than New York. How do residents living in the developed world’s densest city cope with everyday life in this bustling metropolis and its suburbs? How does everyone refrain from killing each other? Here is a countdown of the five most important ways Seoul and its residents try to make it all work.
5. Urban Oases : People here have various opportunities to escape the crushing weight of humanity found within Greater Seoul. Dark dens of clanking keyboards, PC bangs (PC방) are the top destination for many of Seoul’s younger generations. Teens and young adults immerse themselves in virtual worlds where lonely heroes roam the open plains. Others seek out the multi-tiered bathhouse/lounge called the jim-jil-bang (찜질방 or 사우나), which were aptly described by a friend as “adult day-care”. The typical jim-jil-bang contains different saunas, hot and cold tubs, a fitness room, comic book library, sleeping nooks, big screen TVs as well as a cafeteria and their very own PC room. At any hour, people of all ages come and pay the affordable fees in order to relax. The Great Outdoors do exist as most neighbourhoods are close to a mountain where people can get away from the summer heat or omnipresent rumble of traffic. The mountains are covered with trails of varying difficulty, outdoor gyms with interesting machinery (i.e. spinning a big captain’s wheel or inverted situps) and picnic areas. Popular ways to kick back away from the masses also include kicking out the jams at private karaoke rooms, hitting the links in virtual golf rooms, and visiting beauty spas or hair salons for a perm beloved by Koreans of all ages.
4. Innovative Space-saving Ideas: Seoul, like many East Asian cities, operates on several vertical planes, and its residents are creative in their use of cramped quarters. Hectares of retail space fill the subterranean walkways that perforate the city like an anthill. With urban fairways few and far between, driving ranges dot the golf-crazed cityscape. These green mesh monsters sit overtop crowded parking lots everywhere. Underneath the nylon netting and booming drivers, Hyundai drivers play an oversize game of Tetris. Cars in packed parking lots are left double-parked in neutral with their owner’s phone number in the windshield. One can push the neutral cars out of the way or call the owner to come and move them.This trust in the benevolence of strangers also comes to fore in the final tactic.
3. Mixed-use Residential and Commercial Space:
Though waning in popularity with developers, Greater Seoul has an abundance of mixed use properties when compared to most North American cities. In and around Seoul you can find restaurants, bars, karaoke rooms, hair salons, grocery stores and boutiques all under stories of single family apartments. You could live your life almost exclusively within a four block radius of your apartment and never have to brave the snaking kilometres of congested highways or teeming subway cars. Judging by certain people’s winter footwear, they do just that.
2. Dominating New Space: When existing space is getting too crowded vast tracts of peripheral land are bulldozed to create New Towns out of thin air. Through public-private partnerships the federal government plans to construct 300,000 homes in and around Seoul by 2017. Dominance over nature is a common theme of modern South Korean development and it remains to be seen how the government’s recent “green policy paradigm shift” will change things. Still, these New Towns are more livable, vastly safer and less environmentally damaging than North American suburbia’s thousands of hectares of single family dwellings. Whether reunification will one day open up prime suburban real estate to the north before spatial limits are reached south of the DMZ is another matter all together.
1. The Acceptance of Zero Personal Space: You are not unique or special, and unless you are very old you do not warrant any extra space. In this homogeneous society friends are referred to as siblings and the physical discomfort caused by compatriots is written off as unintentional. Use the city’s public transport and you will witness this unwritten code that excuses even the most vicious of elbows or blatant line-cutting. No need for an “I’m sorry,” or “Hey pal, watch it,” shake it off and keep going. Yet, the majority of commuters are quiet and conscientious and this translates to the roadways as well. The absence of road rage is incredible considering the snaking kilometers of daily traffic found within Greater Seoul. Drivers wait patiently for long periods. With their hands off their horns, they remain calmly in their lanes and let merging traffic in graciously. This zen-like acceptance is something that can be hard for foreign residents to get used to, but once they adopt this code everyday life here is much less stressful.
Do you have any methods of coping? Feel free to share them below…