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Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Stream symbolizes Korea’s past, present and tomorrow

by Lee Se-mi | photographs by Kim Hong-jin

Cheonggyecheon Stream served as a political center for the monarchy as well as a place where people made their livelihoods and celebrated special events during the Joseon Dynasty. After being covered by a highway overpass, the stream found new life through a 2005 renovation project. Today, Cheonggyecheon Stream is flowing in the heart of Seoul and once again breathing life into the city.

Situated on the border of the Jongno-gu and Jung-gu districts, Cheonggyecheon Stream is a tourist attraction and a resting place for citizens. Nearly every week of the year, people gather along the stream for various cultural festivities and events. The stream’s modern form is the result of the Cheonggyecheon Stream Renovation Project that took place between September 2005 and July 2007. The project was led by then-mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak. The 6km-long, newly renovated stream begins at the Dong-a Ilbo building in Gwanghwamun and flows to the Sindap railway bridge in Seongdong-gu District.

Cheonggyecheon Stream was called Gaecheon during the Joseon Dynasty. Gaecheon means to "dig a stream," indicating that the stream was modified to meet the requirements of everyday life. The stream was originally a natural watercourse that formed where water gathered in the center of Seoul from the mountains surrounding the city. Consequently, heavy rains would cause flooding in the area, damaging surrounding houses. Due to continuous damage in the area, King Taejong, the third king of the Joseon Dynasty, started to structurally maintain Gaecheon.

While Taejong confined his renovations to the stream’s main channel, his successor, King Sejong the Great, worked to control the stream's sub-branches. All the small tributaries that flowed into Gaecheon were renovated and supyo, or pillar with gradations to measure water levels, was installed in Gaecheon to prevent flooding. King Yeongjo renovated the stream further by piling rocks on the banks and altering its flow so that it went in a straight path.

A cultural event held at Cheonggyecheon

The name Cheonggyecheon Stream, which means "clear flowing stream," first appeared during the Japanese colonial rule. Presumably, the stream got its name in 1914 when Japan renamed all the streams. Following the 1945 liberation from Japanese rule and the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Cheonggyecheon Stream area became the slums of Seoul. The government decided that the only solution to the economic blight in the area was to completely cover the stream.

Construction began in 1958, and by 1970 Cheonggyecheon Stream was hidden under an overpass. In the 1990s, the area was a hotbed of noise, automobile exhaust fumes and traffic congestion with the gathering of large and small shopping districts specializing in tools, printing and lighting. Finally, in 2003, the Cheonggyecheon Stream Renovation Project was implemented to create a green center, leaving behind the area’s polluted past.

New paradigm for eco cities

The Cheonggyecheon Stream Renovation Project helped spark an interest in the environment in Seoul and was the city’s first step toward becoming an eco city. Since the renovation project, other waterways in the Seoul metropolitan area have seen revitalization projects including the Seongbukcheon, Jeongneungcheon and Hongjecheon streams. Such streambased urban environment renovation projects have become models for other cities like Tokyo and Osaka, who are interested in making their metropolises more eco-friendly.

Cheonggyecheon is stage for many cultural events (above left, middle) / Gwangjang Market (above right)

Cheonggyecheon Stream is a leading tourist destination in Seoul today. The banks are filled with plazas and parks that feature landscape architecture, fountains and special lights that give the stream a different feel at night. The trails on each bank of Cheonggyecheon Stream are perfect for tourists, because they connect popular sites such as Gwanghwamun, Jongno, Insadong, Myeongdong and Dongdaemun. Visitors to the stream can eat at a variety of nearby restaurants or immerse themselves in one of Seoul’s oldest and most famous traditional markets, Gwangjang Market.

The Cheonggyecheon Stream of Korea’s past, where children would swim and nobles would gather, no longer exists. But the stream is slowly collecting new memories from its visitors. Five years have passed since the renovation project and the future of the Cheonggyecheon Stream area is bright.

Article from Korea Magazine, March 2011

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