Welcome To Songdo, South Korea: The Smartest Of Smart Cities

Many have hailed the innovations of Songdo, a planned community near the South Korean capital of Seoul. But the city, which once served as a set for the “Gangnam Style” music video, also has its critics.

Looking up in Songdo
Looking up in Songdo
Christoph Neidhart

SONGDO — On Saturday morning, Mr. Lee brings the trash downstairs, one bag with combustible waste, the other with organic. His wife is already working at the cafe they own in "Central Park." There are two high-tech garbage chutes — green and red — in the collection point of the high-rise building where the Lee family lives.

Lee holds his identity card over the sensor. The hatch opens. Inside, he places the bags, which he purchased at the supermarket for about fifty cents. At the collection point, there are other bins for glass and plastic bottles and other sorts of refuse. A sign overhead warns: "24-hour video surveillance." Sensors in the garbage chute determine whether Lee has properly separated his trash and used the correct bags. If the machine accepts the deposit, they will be sucked through the pipe system under high pressure from a central station.

Songdo will eventually be home to 600,000 people.

This system means that no garbage trucks rumble through the planned community, which belongs to Incheon, a metropolis of three million residents west of Seoul. It's one reason why Songdo likes to call itself "the smartest of the world's smart cities."

Unlike Europe or Japan, South Korea still builds entire cities from the ground up — for example, the de facto administrative capital Sejong. The country has already planned the next "Smart City Korea" with financial assistance from Dubai.

Photo: Ken Eckert

In June, at the New Cities Summit in Songdo, an urbanists conference, Tom Murcott of the New York-based real estate development company Gale International, recounted the early years of Songdo. In 2001 his colleagues had flown in a helicopter with the former mayor of Incheon over a nearby tidal basin. "Can you see it?"" Murcott recalls the mayor saying, as he enthusiastically pointed below. They couldn't see anything. But then the mayor explained his vision, and Gale International signed on to the project: that of building a turn-key city on an artificial island.

Big Brother is here

Gale brought Cisco, the so-called "plumber" of the Internet, on board. Within a decade, where Murcott's colleagues had once peered at the sea, $35 billion worth of resident and office high-rises had been erected on elevated ground. Around 100,000 people are now living in Songdo, and some 60,000 jobs have been created. Large corporations like the construction group Posco have relocated here. It is forecast that Songdo will eventually be home to 600,000 people.

Cisco is wiring the new city and installing a communications system, which would allow people to contact the municipal administration from their televisions. Additionally, developers have installed 300 interactive security cameras, equipped with emergency call systems. Everything is monitored in a control center with a gigantic data screen.

In Songdo, everything has a "U" in front of it: U-traffic, U-safety, U-governance, U-health, and of course U-entertainment. The "U" stands for "ubiquitous," omnipresent. In other words: Big Brother is here.

There is very little that is recognizably Korean in Songdo.

The eight-lane streets that cut through Songdo are certainly reminiscent of the urban planning dreams of the past. At the New Cities Summit, a sociologist called Songdo "a skyrocketing suburb." The automobile is king, especially electric vehicles. The city has already deployed charging stations for them. There are also bike paths and indoor parking spaces. Despite prohibitions, residents grow vegetables on the undeveloped land.

In Central Park, which Murcott says he built to emulate its New York namesake, a seemingly thousand-year-old palace sits among futuristic buildings. In fact, it is a luxury hotel in old Korean style. Otherwise, there is very little that is recognizably Korean in Songdo — apart from the restaurants.

A bridge spanning more than 21 kilometers connects the Incheon international airport to Songdo, which was thought as an Asian hub for multinational companies. Four international universities have established a campus here. Well-to-do Koreans have bought the majority of apartments, sometimes as speculative ventures. Mrs. Lee and her husband originally come from Seoul. She says that the coastal air is good and the city is safe. She also values the proximity to the airport "although we can only seldom travel, but I have been to Germany twice." Many young families have moved to Songdo. Some say it has the best schools in Korea — they are certainly the newest.

Running in Songdo — Photo: siska maria eviline

A city worker, who admittedly doesn't want to live here, says the newcomers value Songdo's global appearance. "International means success in Korea, and success means wealth," he says. Koreans attach great importance to status symbols, and living in Songdo is one.

In the interior courtyards of the high-rise clusters, there are playgrounds and fitness stations, benches and plant-lined pools. Mothers photograph their children. There are bronze statues of musicians scattered about.

Songdo was planned to be a model for the future. According to a UN report, by 2050, there will be 400 million more people in Indian cities, almost 300 million more in China, and 200 million in Nigeria. Consequently, these three countries together will need to build a new city every month equivalent to the size of Munich. No wonder that Chinese mayors make a pilgrimage to Songdo to study it as a model.

Far from perfect

Opinions of Songdo are divided. At the New Cities Summit, the city was criticized as pedestrian-hostile and sterile: a typical top-down project that never thought to inquire about residents' needs. Today, good urban development takes such input into account during the planning stage. By contrast, the city's founding fathers and developers celebrate Songdo as the self-evident future. More than half of all urban spaces where humans will live in 2050 have not yet been built. Therefore, it's vital that construction companies and authorities get urban design right. And Songdo has done much correctly. It was the first city to receive LEED certification, an accolade for environmentally-friendly performance in energy, transportation, trash and water. Songdo separates drinking water and greywater. The latter is used for irrigation, industry, public toilets, and street cleaning.

Psy did not film the music video for "Gangnam Style" here by chance.

As idealized as the city claims to be, the "Instant City" of Songdo is far from perfect. The garbage collection point in the courtyard of the Lees' high-rise is filthy, like all the others. It stinks. In the next courtyard, the high-tech garbage chute is obstructed. And since Big Brother hasn't fixed the problem yet, residents just leave their bags of trash next to the bin. In front of another collection point is a pile of old furniture. When asked, city authorities admit that the system used to suck the refuse from the proudly displayed, high-tech vacuum to a larger collection point. There, the trash was compact-pressed and transported away by truck.

Songdo's "Central Park" — Photo: Martijn Koster

Shortly before midnight, the wide streets are empty. Mrs. Lee has closed her cafe. Here and there, a young woman scurries home, her gaze directed toward her smartphone. A young man whizzes by on his hoverboard, that is, a skateboard with an electric motor and neon-lit wheels. A young couple crosses an intersection on an electric scooter, forcing a quietly approaching limousine to come to an abrupt stop. The night suspends the strict separation between streets and people. The K-Pop star Psy did not film the music video for "Gangnam Style" here by chance: Songdo's synthetic feel drew the singer here. In an ornamental little creek between the high rises, frogs are still croaking. A little life takes over the artificial city.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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