A Week in Super-Fast Green-Growth South Korea

My first visit to South Korea introduced me to a remarkable country. Everyone I met, from the taxi driver to government officials, was unfailingly kind and courteous. I came away very impressed, on many levels. But the trip certainly started out in an interesting way …

South Korea is in a hurry. I felt this first-hand. It started with a car accident.

When riding in a taxi in a new country, especially when I notice that the drivers of vehicles on the superhighways seem a little on the cavalier side, I have often found it a good policy to sit in the back, put on my seatbelt (like a good Swede), and get my computer out. Best not to look at the actual driving.

For that reason, I really don’t know why my taxi ended up plowed into the side wall of the tunnel after smashing into the car ahead of us and sending another car into a spin. I was shaken up, but fine. I was still holding my computer, and I calmly saved my work, closed it, and got out of the smoke-filled car. The driver, whose air bag had deployed and saved his face, was saying something to me in Korean. I assumed it to be “Are you okay? Get out of the car!” and so I did that.

I sat up on the wall inside this tunnel and marveled at how most cars, in such a situation, just try to figure out how to get by and keep going — even though there was a car in the middle of the middle lane, facing the opposite direction, which seemed to me a clear signal that something was amiss.

There are many additional colorful details to this story, such as the ride in the tow truck or the sign language conversation with Korean police. But given that I was unhurt, and unable to tell anyone anything about what had actually happened, someone simply called a new taxi for me and I continued on to my meeting at South Korea’s Government Complex.

Since I had left early — to allow for trouble, which I certainly did experience — I ended up arriving exactly on time.

After the day of meetings (which were pleasant and productive), I was in no mood to take another taxi, so I rode the excellent subway system, two hours, changing four times, to get from south Seoul to Incheon. What landscape I saw was essentially the same everywhere: urban Asia. Small manufacturing operations. Shopping opportunities. Dense dwellings. The occasional hilly area (this is Korea after all), and some lovely parkland (Koreans appear to greatly appreciate parks).

The trains in Korea run so smoothly that most people who are standing do not even bother to hold on to anything. They just stand there. Many of the passengers were engrossed with their smart phones. Whenever I could sit, I pulled out my laptop and worked.

Back in Incheon, I got off the train a few stations early in order to walk home to the Sheraton Incheon hotel and get some exercise. The station guard who helped me get oriented was amazed that I was going to walk. The distance seemed to him improbably far. I knew it to be about 25 minutes, through another pleasant park, in the cool evening.

Incheon is a huge metroplex, very diverse and spread out, southwest of Seoul. Part of the city is old and historic, the site of Western culture’s main interface with the Korean culture in centuries past. Part is brand, spanking new, and has been built on land reclaimed from the sea in just the last few years.

In these newer parts of Incheon, one almost feels a sense of vertigo at the pace of growth. In just a few short years, tidal flats and low waters have been turned into “Tomorrow City” (the name of just one of the many futuristic building complexes) and many other tomorrow-ish things. The designers of these new parts have certainly been informed by “green”/sustainable ideas. My hotel is the only LEED-certified hotel in Korea. Across the street is “Central Park,” whose name, strategic location, and size are a clear reference to Manhattan’s Central Park. Incheon’s ambitions are similarly New York-ish: Korea’s tallest skyscraper was just finishing construction next to the hotel. And some of the nearby buildings look like support structures to the inter-planetary transportation device that is featured in the Jodie Foster movie about humanity’s first communication with people on other planets (“Contact”).

For this reason, the enormous Christian Bible exhibition (see photo), which occupied a huge portion of Central Park, and which had been partially destroyed by a typhoon and left in shambles for months, seemed all the more surreal. From my hotel window on the 14th floor, I looked out over Moses parting the red sea, a life-size replica of Jonah and the whale, a full-size (and that means enormous) model of Noah’s Ark, and dozens more. Everything was in bright colors. Everything was frayed; some things (such as a huge temple made entirely of porcelain plates) were partially, even dangerously, collapsed. A literal “stairway to heaven” invited one to climb up a winding road into the air, with no guardrails and certainly no certainty that one would return: in fact, if one did try to climb it, one would certainly end up falling to one’s heavenly doom (or perhaps, for the non-believers, doom of a more fiery kind).

Otherwise Incheon, or the part of it where I was living, was full of coffee shops and quick-marts, branded restaurants and high-rise luxury apartments. The roads appeared to be 12 lanes across, but there were never more than two lanes of traffic: Incheon is planning, Incheon is built, for future growth.

How much of that growth is green? S. Korea is, after all, the leading country in the world in terms of “Green Growth,” the policy of directing public investment into low-carbon technologies. Incheon city officials promised to send me some of the technical specs on what is happening there, which I look forward to reviewing, with keen interest. Meanwhile, I found this fascinating article in the journal “Environment” which details a recent set of scientific debates and political conflicts between conflicting “green” goals in the Incheon area. An enormous tidal energy plant, for example, would be “low-carbon,” but would come at the cost of the tidal flats that serve as rich breeding grounds for marine biodiversity.

It is impossible to assess, from a first visit, what is actually happening in Incheon. How “green” is the growth? There are signs of green-ness (e.g. the LEED certification on the Sheraton hotel) visible to the trained eye, but otherwise one would have to look at actual data to know how to evaluate it. Fortunately, South Korea has an entire Global Green Growth Institute whose purpose, in part, is to study these things (http://www.gggi.org/About/About_01.php). And you can read more about the national Green Growth strategy of South Korea here:  http://www.greengrowth.go.kr/english/en_main/index.do

What I do know, about Incheon (my home for a week) and about S. Korea in general, is that the level of ambition — for growth, for green-ness, and also for being a promoter of Green Growth on the international stage — is impressive. The scale of what is happening there is enormous. And it is happening with extreme rapidity.

Whatever is happening in Incheon, it is very definitely the future of this part of the world, growing before our eyes. And that’s something that every serious student of sustainability should study and reflect on.

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Note: If you want to learn more of the basics of Incheon’s green city program, focused on the Songdo International City region where I was staying, here is Warren Karlenzig’s good blog post about a visit there in 2009. To see how the city describes itself, visit:  http://english.visitincheon.org/

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