Some Korean environmental associations have criticized the operation for its high costs. They condemn it as a purely symbolic project, one that will have no real consequences in affecting the environmental health of the city. It is true that the orientation of the people promoting the plan was not towards ecological recovery. What has been created is not the re-naturalisation of an existing water course; nor is it appropriate to speak of a historical restoration, because the original character of the site was irremediably lost long ago: old Seoul was a city of little wooden houses, while the modern capital is a forest of skyscrapers.
To understand the entire operation, it is more useful to look elsewhere.
The colourful and fairly informative website devoted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to the Cheonggyecheon Project, opens with the slogan: “With the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon, Seoul will change, and Korea will change”. What does it mean? In which sense is this project seen as an operation capable of bringing dramatic renewal not only to the capital city of the Republic of South Korea but also to the whole nation? That slogan emphasizes that the project is derived from a radical action – the destruction of an urban highway – which is considered as the first stage of the great change for the city of Seoul. One association might be the fall of the Berlin Wall; pieces of the dismantled highway are sold as souvenirs, just like fragments of the Wall in the capital of Germany. They are tangible signs of an epochal event, which justifies the level of self-celebration in the whole intervention.
A little further in the abovementioned website, the goals of the project are clearly laid out: according to a scheme dated 2002 – i.e., before it was implemented – the Cheonggyecheon project was to foster the “development of Seoul’s capital identity”, the “building-up of a new paradigm in city management” and the “enhancement of Seoul’s industrial competitiveness”. The objectives listed in the scheme sound like marketing goals: reconstruction of the Cheonggyecheon might be seen as an operation in ‘branding’. According to the Oxford Dictionary, branding is that technique organized for the ‘promotion of a particular product or company by means of advertising and distinctive design’. The product, in our case, is the metropolis of Seoul. (…)
One of the main aims connected with the Cheonggyecheon river and urban park was linked to the idea that it would foster massive potential for economic regeneration and city development. Another goal of the Seoul city administration with this project was to create a recognisable and powerful landmark, a distinct symbol to represent the city of Seoul – and, by implication, South Korea as a whole – with its own unique identity to the entire world. The reconstruction of Cheonggyecheon, through which the city is promoting a specific identity for a downtown area otherwise indistinguishable from that of so many modern Asian cities, is a feat of territorial branding. This is a new frontier for landscape architecture.