The Han River is one of the natural features that defines Seoul, cutting through the heart of its sprawling vastness. It’s far from beautiful though, its waters grey and uninviting, its sides stacked with highway overpasses and dull apartment complexes. The city is slowly fixing this, trying to rehabilitate the shabby grey beast that is the Han River and enliven it with riverside parks and funky bridges – a vision of a cleaner, greener, more liveable space. Part of that vision is actually on the Han itself – the island park of Seonyudo.
Formerly an industrial complex housing a water treatment facility, it had as much charm as the raw sewage in its tanks. So the city decided to give it the ‘Han river renaissance’ treatment, opening up the complex and transforming it into a nature park, incorporating the old industrial architecture into a fantastic green space. The open water tanks now house lilies and lotus plants, unfurling serenely in square rows; old pipes and waterways gurgle with fresh purpose, channelled through landscaped parkland; concrete pillars now exposed and wrapped in ivy. The whole island feels like nature woke up one day and reclaimed the grey buildings with vines and trees, strangling industry and flowering with life anew. And then it let the artists and the architects in, to tame and sculpt it. The final result is equal parts greenhouse, garden and art installation.
Places like Seonyudo are green victories, the champions of passionate, thoughtful city planning and urban renewal. The Seoul city government is very big on talking green, and there are enough successful examples that show this policy in practice. But Seoul remains a big grey mess of traffic and ugly buildings, unplanned and uninspiring. At the front gate of the park a massive bridge roars night and day with traffic, and the calm garden quiet of Seonyudo seems to vanish in a concrete minute. But it is there, an emerald ‘midst the grey. Let’s hope the city can uncover a few more like it.