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Finding Community in the World's 'Smartest City'

In South Korea's high-tech metropolis, human connections are few and far between.
Songdo City, South Korea.

Songdo City, South Korea. 

Three years ago, 35-year-old Lee Mi-Jung followed her husband from the small coastal city of Pohang, best known for its steel industry and fish market, across the South Korean peninsula to Songdo. Billed as the world's "smartest city," it promised her all kinds of conveniences: an efficient trash system, an abundance of parks, as well as a vibrant international community—all wrapped in a walkable, sensor-laden showpiece of 21st century urban design.

"I'd [imagined] this would be a well-designed city, that it would be new, modernized, and simple—unlike other cities," says Lee, who used to work as an English teacher. "So my expectations were high."

While there are no holograms or robot butlers, Lee says that, as far as futuristic conveniences go, Songdo does deliver. Pneumatic tubes send trash straight from her home to an underground waste facility, where it's sorted, recycled, or burned for energy generation; garbage—and garbage trucks—are virtually non-existent. Everything from the lights to the temperature in her apartment can be adjusted via a central control panel or from her phone. During the winter, she can warm up the apartment before heading home.

As for that vibrant community? That's been harder to find.

"When I first came here during the winter," Lee says, "I felt something cold." She wasn't just talking about the weather, or the chilly modernism of the concrete high rises that have sprung up all over town over the last decade. She felt a lack of human warmth from neighborhood interaction. "There's an Internet cafe (online forum) where we share our complaints," she said, "But only on the Internet—not face to face."

The Songdo International Business District, as it's formally known, was built from scratch, on reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea. The 1,500-acre development sits an hour outside of Seoul and is officially part of the city of Incheon, whose proximity to the international airport and the sea makes it both a transportation hub and the gateway to Korea.

It's the heart of the greater Songdo city, and from its conception in 2001, the IBD was envisioned as a sustainable, low-carbon, and high-tech utopia. For Koreans, the city would have all the perks of Seoul—and more—but without the capital city's air pollution, crowded sidewalks, and choking automotive traffic. And for foreign corporations looking for access to Asian economies, Songdo as a whole would be a glitzy business capital to rival Hong Kong and Shanghai. "The city aims to do nothing less than banish the problems created by modern urban life," as one 2009 story declared.

To accomplish that, Songdo's buildings and streets bristle with sensors that monitor everything from energy use to traffic flow, all with an eye toward sustainability. The district has over 20 million square feet of LEED-certified space—"the highest concentration of LEED-certified projects in the world," according to its developers, and 40 percent of all such space in South Korea. There's a state-of-the-art water-recycling facility and generous swaths of greenery sprinkled throughout—the biggest one being the 100-acre seaside park modeled and named after New York City's Central Park. The New York City architecture firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox designed the city's plan, with developer Gale International serving as the majority partner in the project. The cost? Around $40 billion.

What it doesn't have: enough people.

Originally slated for completion in 2015, Songdo remains a work in progress. Tax incentives and other perks were supposed to attract a thriving community of foreign businesses and workers, but in the last 15 years, only a handful of companies, non-profits, and universities have opened offices in Songdo. They include the Green Climate Fund, which occupies the landmark 33-story G-Tower, IBM, George Mason University, and the State University of New York. The population of the entire city has now exceeded 100,000—with over half of the population residing in the business district. That's only a third of the way toward the original 300,000 goal. "I had expected this city to be like Singapore and Hong Kong, where there are many foreigners, but that has not been the case," 45-year-old Paik Dae-Il, who's lived in Songdo for the last 10 years and works in the hotel industry, tells CityLab through an interpreter. "Projects for big offices often get canceled. Instead, it's been apartments, apartments, apartments." So what did Songdo get right? And is it too late to fix what's going wrong?

On a cool Thursday afternoon, I hop into a SOCAR, from Korea's car-sharing start-up, for an evening tour of the district with urban architect and resident Alberto Gonzalez. By now, the traffic has picked up as the workday finishes. Buses are somewhat full, and a few bikers and pedestrians can be seen on either side of the roadways. We hit popular spots like Triple Street—the massive outdoor shopping mall on the southeastern end of the city—and pass by the various universities and biomedical companies that have set up shop here.

For a place that is striving to become car-free, the roads of Songdo are crazily wide, spanning as many as 10 lanes. This is partly to adhere to national building codes that mandate street width and fire access, and partly an homage to the wide, tree-lined boulevards of Paris. "It's responding to what we call a modernist paradigm in urban design," Gonzalez says. "So it has a lot of these really wide avenues—some of them too wide—and then you have also these massive footpaths and large parks."

The upside, says Gonzalez, is that they're wide enough for city planners to, say, put in a light rail or streetcar network, which may bring Songdo one step closer to fulfilling its car-free promise.

On paper, Songdo boasts an impressive public transportation system, built in anticipation of that car-free future. The subway here connects to both Incheon's existing system and Seoul's intricate rail network. Buses link hubs like Triple Street to neighborhoods and university campuses. Other bus routes ferry commuters directly from Songdo to trendy Seoul neighborhoods like Hongdae and Gangnam. To promote walkability, developers placed venues like shopping malls and convention centers within a 15-minute walk from Central Park and are building out an extensive biking infrastructure; they also promise a bus or subway stop within 12 minutes of every neighborhood.

In practice, though, cars are still a common sight in Songdo, and, for residents like 32-year-old Lindy Wenselaers, an essential tool. An expat from Belgium who's lived in Songdo for over a year, Wenselaers ended up buying a car only five months in—she could no longer face a 20-minute walk to the nearest grocery store in the Songdo's wintry weather.

Wenselaers lives outside the IBD, on campus housing provided by her employer, Ghent University. Her apartment is pretty basic, but she marvels at a friend's apartment in a different neighborhood. It has elevators that talk to the garage, so when she keys in a code at the entrance, it immediately signals the system to send an elevator down. "Pretty nifty," she gushes.

The high-tech amenities, however, haven't helped her connect with other people. She laments the lack of direct connections from one part of town to another; on weekends, she often drives an hour to Seoul.

At one point, we find ourselves on a more narrow street, and suddenly Songdo comes alive. Here, it feels a little like we're in Seoul, but with a more manageable crowd—perhaps the exact kind of vibe developers had in mind. Shoppers come in and out of snack shops, cafes, and make-up stores (all of which are ubiquitous in Seoul). And, like Seoul, the buildings are what Gonzalez calls high-density mixed-use buildings, with a different store on each floor. Except these have seven floors, and each floor houses multiple units. One building had it all: bars, a church, and at least seven hagwons, or crammersprivate after-school academies to feed South Korea's demanding academic achievement culture.

"Those are like an activity machine," Gonzalez says. And while they attract a lot of foot traffic, it's evident that many people still prefer to come by car. "This is one of the most active areas of Songdo, and it's super ugly," he says as we cautiously navigate around cars and school buses parked—likely illegally—along the curb.

For a high-tech city of the future, parts of Songdo feel more like a sparsely populated American 1970s suburb—just arranged in a grid form—especially as you leave the business district. The wide roads and sprawling scale means that human activities are located far apart from one another. Occasionally you see small touches, like an artificial hanok village (a traditional village where houses with old-school architecture remain intact) to remind you that, yes, you are still in Korea. It's not exactly a "Chernobyl-like ghost town," as some reports have claimed, but is is eerily quiet as we drive past cluster after cluster of concrete residential high-rises, all identical. Many are empty, partly the result of Korea's rush to build out Songdo in anticipation of the arrival of foreign workers.

"Pali pali, as they say in Korean," says Gonzalez, referring to the country's "hurry-hurry" culture. "If it keeps going this way, then this is a big missed opportunity. I think [there's] enough of this concrete jungle."

Yet the pace of Songdo hardly embodies that sense of hurry, in part because of how empty it feels, and its curious urban silence. "There's a ton of people living here, but you don't really see them," Wenselaers says. "So the city is alive, but it's invisible."

Many of those who work here live in other parts of Incheon, where housing is cheaper. Some even live in Seoul, taking advantage of the intercity express buses. That means for residents like Wenselaers and Lee, it's particularly hard to find a more permanent community.

Wenselaers did find a way to meet other Songdo residents—on Facebook. They post about events, review cafes and shops, and generally lend support to one another. There's even a group just for expat women. Even so, she says it can be hard to fit in: Korean natives often keep to themselves, and rest of the population appear mostly to be young families with small children—Songdo has become a focus for South Korea's efforts to boost its birthrate. "For younger people, it's a bit more of a lonely city, actually," she says.

Lee echoes Wenselaers' sentiment. "I'm struggling a bit because I don't have much things in common with my neighbors," she says. "Usually the [community groups] are for moms, or for middle-aged or married men to go golfing or fishing." She's also struggling to find a job in Songdo as an English teacher, since schools tend to favor hiring foreigners. But Lee is staying positive, and trying to make Songdo work. Seoul is too busy for her, and her hometown too dated.

The latest plan for Songdo is to build on its success in attracting biotech firms, and turn it into "the world's best bio hub." Already, the city is home to 25 large bio companies and 60 smaller labs. The Incheon Free Economic Zone Authority—which oversees the three regions, including Songdo, designated to be the international business hub of South Korea—will devote 990,000 square meter of lands to medical research and development in hopes of attracting more global health-care firms.

An "American Town," headed by the Seoul-based real estate firm KOAM, is still in the works: It's hoped that this might to attract Koreans who immigrated overseas to places like the United States and are looking to return to their homeland for retirement. If all goes as planned, the new development could beef up Songdo's population with 3,000 families.

IBD lead developer Gale International has said that the business district would be complete by 2018; currently it's about 70 percent built out. "We hope that, in a few years' time, the city will attract even more global thinkers who utilize Songdo as the platform it was envisioned to be," company chairman and chief executive officer Stan Gale says in a statement to CityLab. That is, "a testbed for new 'smart city' technologies and solutions; a dynamic center of global dialogue on urbanization and sustainability."

Despite the delays in reaching the project's earlier population benchmarks, Gale says he's thinking long term: The company's goal is to create a resilient city, one that can "last for decades, and, hopefully, for centuries." And, well, that can't be rushed. The comparatively deliberate pace of Songdo's emergence might only look slow if you compare it to the explosive growth of, say, Chinese industrial cities like Shenzhen. "In short, a project of this scale and ambition takes time. I am very proud that we have implemented a phased development plan that has provided for thoughtful development, as opposed to the breakneck development speed that you may find in other parts of Korea and Asia."

Meanwhile, the master builders who are exploring the possibilities of scratch-made smart cities have also been keeping a close eye on Songdo's progress. Some observers of these utopias-in-progress acknowledge its relative success compared to, say, Dubai's ghostly Masdar City, whose "greenprint" is only 5 percent completed. Others are making efforts to avoid duplicating Songdo's top-down smart-city formula. Google's Sidewalk Labs, for example, is now planning to create Quayside, a $1 billion waterfront development in Toronto that promises to be "the world's first neighborhood built from the Internet up." But in that case, the company has made much of its efforts to include community outreach early on in the planning process, and that more modestly scaled project looks to be more closely connected to its larger host city.

Gonzalez is also giving the city the benefit of the doubt; after all, the project isn't finished yet, and he says critics are too quick to judge it as a failure, thanks in part to what he calls the "marketing hype" that accompanied the rise of what had been breathlessly billed as the "world's smartest city."

"I think [the people behind Songdo] deserve a little bit of that criticism for trying to be a world class paradigm [for smart cities]," he said. "Of course there are a lot of things to improve on—mobility and car use being the No. 1 problem. But I think it's a comfortable place to live."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.