Gwanghwamun street closes for car-free market
Mar 20, 2013
Pedestrians took over the street in front of Gwanghwamun in downtown Seoul last Sunday. As part of the city’s pedestrian-friendly initiative, the southbound half of the wide road of Sejongno was cordoned off from traffic to make way for a special new street bazaar.
The 550-meter stretch of road passing in front of Sejong Center for the Performing Arts was sectioned into different markets with tents, booths, and stages, attracting a high number of visitors throughout the day.
“Instead of walking on the limited space like the sidewalk or the Gwanghwamun Plaza where you are stressed even more due to the noisy traffic of both sides, you can enjoy an open, wide public space,” said Nikola Medimorec, a German student pursuing a master’s degree in urban geography at Seoul National University. “The best thing for me was the multicultural section. I was able to sit down in the middle of Sejong-ro while enjoying the special atmosphere of a six-lane road without cars.”
Participating marketeers included representatives from Seoul’s traditional markets such as Gwangjang and Junggok markets, as well as private citizens and foreign residents. The farmers’ market ran 60 booths selling regional specialty agricultural products and foods. The used goods market, selling anything from clothes and books to children’s items, had 300 participating vendors including 50 children’s teams run with family support. Seoul Global Center ran its regular Foreigners’ Flea Market, allocating ten booths for foreign residents wishing to sell surplus household items. The Nepalese Association of Korea also managed a special space offering a variety of cultural activities, performances, and national delicacies.
Although the market proved an attractive draw, there were also many activities for kids including inflatable playgrounds, as well as artistic workshops, street performers, and street concerts put on throughout the day by Hanullim Saxophone Corps, fusion group The Holic, and Korea Junior Big Band.
After closing off the road at 5 a.m., the festivities literally started with a bang at 8 a.m. with the opening gunshot of the 84th Seoul International Marathon. Marathoners gathered in front of Gwanghwamun Gate, heading south and passing through the plaza to Sejongno Intersection, then winding through the city’s streets before reaching the finish line in the Olympic Stadium in Jamsil. The men’s and women’s competitions were both won by Kenyans Franklin Chepkwony and Flomena Chepchirchir, marking the first-ever Kenyan double. The 42.195-kilometer road race, which holds IAAF Gold Label status, typically attracts around 20,000 people each year.
Sejongno took part in pilot tests of the car-free market last year, and now the six-lane-wide road is moving toward designation as a weekend pedestrian-only road. After the inaugural day on March 17, it will be held on the third Sunday of every month, ending in October. Depending on the success of the program, the city government may increase the frequency of the event to weekly for the second half of the year.
Prior to the first car-free day of the year, the city government held an online contest soliciting suggestions for activities the car-free days, as well as a name for the event. Submissions ranged from transforming the street into an art gallery or amateur theater to a playground for children or venue for sporting events.
Medimorec, who co-authors the urban development blog Kojects.com, had his own suggestions for the event. “My proposal focused on sport events like small-field soccer, basketball and traditional Korean games,” he said. “In my personal opinion, the best solution is to have a variety of events because that keeps people interested in visiting the place multiple times. The space is already well used if people are walking, socializing, and getting entertained there. That’s much better than wasting this space for cars.”
The city government also plans to introduce car-free days in many other pedestrian-heavy districts across the city. The main road in international cultural district Itaewon will introduce a ban on cars on weekends. Famous high-rent district Gangnam also has plans to introduce a similar event. Another street that may experiment with such a plan is the traditional products street running from Jongno 3ga Station up to Donhwamun, the palatial front gate of Changdeokgung.
As well, the alleys of Itaewon renowned for their international restaurants, the bustling youth culture streets surrounding Hongdae Playground, and the fashion streets of Dongdaemun Design Plaza will be converted into wholeday pedestrian-only streets. A wholeday pedestrian-only street would see vehicular traffic banned during peak hours, allowing business owners to drive in and out when the streets are less crowded.
The city has a total of ten projects intended to improve the pedestrian environment and increase pedestrian traffic. Five districts are slated to be designated pedestrian-friendly zones by 2014, upgrading sidewalks and introducing road safety features.
Expectedly, traffic was heavy in downtown Seoul on Sunday, and the road closure events have generated complaints from frustrated drivers. However, it is expected that the population will adapt over time. The long-term goal of the city government’s initiative is to foster a more pedestrian-centered society in the long term, ultimately reducing citizens’ reliance on cars.
“The car-free initiative at Sejongno is a great thing because it shows that space in the city is for pedestrians and not for private vehicles,” said Medimorec. “Seoul sends a clear message through this pedestrian-friendly policy: our city belongs to the citizens.”
If the project is a success, the car-free zone may be expanded to both sides of Sejongno. There have also been talks about closing the road to cars permanently, although no concrete plans have been made.
By Jon Dunbar
Department Global Communication and Contents Division