Bukchon Conservation Project (2001~2004)

Date 2014-05-26 Category Cultural Heritage & Tourism Updater scaadmin
Hyun-Suk Min
Last Update


Paradigm Shift in Downtown Management: from Removal to Preservation

In the 1970s, small and decrepit downtown area was demolished to meet the new needs for modern urban life; sanitation, safety, functionality, beautification, etc. However an introspection was spurred about the old urban development policies to erase all the memories of the past centuries and at last lose the identity of Seoul as a 600-year-old capital. Enhancing the competitive edge of cultural values in the city, a new approach was proposed to regain its historical value. To break away from the old approach and preserve the historical and traditional values in downtown area, the Urban Development Council of Seoul proposed to the mayor that the city government should develop a new management approach for downtown area. This proposal led to establish the first ‘Downtown Management Plan’ in 1999. It was to enhance the attractiveness and competitiveness in downtown area by public-private cooperation. Under this plan, it was proposed that the city government should purchase valuable traditional housings (Hanok), repair them and restore the budget by selling or renting them out, in an attempt to preserve historical values of Bukchon. It was also recommended that the city should provide financial support or tax benefit for the Hanoks which it wouldn't purchase directly. To compensate for Hanok preservation, it was suggested that the city government should execute streetscape improvement projects on small alleys in Buchon and provide public parking lots and other community facilities for the convenience of residents.

Historical & cultural background of Bukchon

Neighborhood: 600 year old Residential Area

Bukchon was named after its location, a Village in the North of Chonggyecheon stream. It was home to royal members and high-rank officials in the Joseon dynasty. On the contrary, lower-rank officials and those who failed to advance into the public career resided mostly in Namchon, a Village in the South of Chonggyecheon stream. During the Japanese annexation, Japanese people settled around the Namchon area, leaving Bukchon a town mainly for Koreans.

Hanok: Traditional Houses

In the 1920s, housing companies purchased large plots of land in Bukchon and constructed small-and-medium-sized Hanoks with a standardized design to sell lower-income Koreans. Different from traditional Hanoks, the Hanok of Bukchon was the urban Hanok, appropriate to modern life style in the 1920s~30s. It was a new architecture built with modern materials, such as glass, tin, bricks etc.

Alley: Public Space Building the Sense of Community

The small alleys of Bukchon stretched along the streams that run toward the south from the northen ridge. The alleys, with housings along them, were the venue of daily lives. Children ran and played and neighbors talked each other, while grains or peppers were spread there to let them dry. An alley is truly a common yard shared by all the residents. With memories of the olden days, the alleys in Bukchon are still valuable as a landscape representing the history of Seoul. 

Bukchon preservation project

Restriction-oriented approach and its limits

① 1970s: establishment of regulations for preservation 

As well-reputed high schools moved to Gangnam area, the landscape of Bukchon changed significantly. A 'Folkloric Landscape Zone' was designated in 1976 in a bid to protect the Hanoks in Bukchon, but the designation had no legally-binding restrictions. Building height restriction was also introduced in 1977, but it only covered a small part of western Bukchon, not the whole area. 

② 1980s : Execution of protective measures

In 1978, Hyundai Engineering and Construction (HDEC) established a large office building with 15 stories on the former site of Whuimun High School. The preservation of Hanoks became since then a pressing issue and protective measures started to be put in place. In 1983, the whole area of Bukchon was designated 'Collective Landscape Zone Ⅳ', to preserve the Korean traditional architecture and maintain the aesthetic landscape in Bukchon. 'Restriction of Construction in Specific Zone' followed one year after to regulate the size and style of buildings in Bukchon area. Supportive measures were also introduced to preserve Hanoks : An ordinance was made in 1985 to afford the Hanok owners a 50% property tax discount, which Bukchon residents could benefit from. Despite of preservation policies, many Hanoks were demolished due to the road-widening projects ironically by public sector. This contradictory approaches provoked complaints among the residents.

③ 1990s: Demolition of Hanoks due to deregulation

In summer 1990, a heavy rain caused some Hanoks to fall down, leading to casualty among residents. They protested that existing regulations on Hanoks severely infringed on their property rights. In response to the residents' constant demand for deregulation, at last the city eased the building height limit up to 10 meters in this area. Since then, many Hanoks were demolished and replaced with multi-family housings everywhere in Bukchon, rapidly destructing the traditional landscape. Projects for improving residential environment also strongly pushed these changes in Gahoe-dong and Wonseo-dong area. Building design review process was abolished in the landscape zones and Gahoe-ro(street) was widened.


Change to Collaborative Bukchon Preservation

Changing Hanoks with multi-family housings, the deregulation brought constantly the destruction of traditional landscape in Bukchon. At last, a community organization, ‘Bukchon Preservation Group’ requested a solution for Bukchon’s debilitating circumstances through the ‘Saturday Date with the Mayor of Seoul’ on Sep. 4. 1999. It marked the beginning of a completely new approach to solve the problem of Bukchon on the basis of cooperative partnership between residents, experts and the city government. Along with the voices of the Bukchon residents, the paradigm shift in downtown management played the key role in the preservation of Bukchon. In 1996, the Urban Planning Council of the city emphasized the necessity of a new approach to preserve historical and traditional values of the downtown Seoul. As a result, the first 'Downtown Management Plan' was set up in 1999. There were suggested various public investment tools to revitalize Bukchon and make it a residential area with its own charm: financial support for Hanok repair works, expanded tax benefit, public purchase of some Hanoks, etc. By registering his/her Hanok, a house owner can receive financial support for repairing and remodelling his/her house as well as property tax discount. The Hanok owner financially-supported should preserve his/her property. To make a legal basis for Hanok registration system, the city government revised its construction ordinance in 2001. This system started form July of the same year.  


Achievements and New Challenges of Bukchon Preservation

Preservation of Hanoks

After the preservation project started in full scale in 2001, 358 of 947 Hanoks in Bukchon were registered by 2005. As of 2005, a total of 224 Hanoks were given subsidy for repair or remodelling and 116 Hanoks were offered loan.


② Preservation of small alleys

Streetscape was improved in Gahoe-dong 31 and 11 as well as Bukchon-gil and Gyedong-gil. The small alleys with Hanoks in Gahoe-dong and Wonseo-dong had been seriously deteriorated in appearance by the electronic or telecommunication cables disorderly stretched around the houses, while the neighbors had been exposed to accidents and fire. The city government therefore conducted improvement projects on selected streets in the Bukchon; History & Culture Route and those streets where the impact of underground cabling would be significant and where the underground cabling work can be linked with other construction works such as renovation of water supply and sewerage or repavement. 

③ Public purchase and utilization of Hanoks

From 2001 to 2004, the city government purchased 10 Hanoks at the risk of demolition and six non-Hanok houses. One of them was reopened as the Bukchon Cultural Center that provides hands-on programs for visitors to taste the prestigious tradition of Bukchon. The exhibition hall in the center houses materials that tell the history and value of Bukchon and videoclips to show how preservation of Bukchon is important. The center also provides various information on cultural heritage and tours around Bukchon, as well as exhibition, music concert, other cultural events and traditional culture classes to teach traditional folkloric painting, tea ceremony, knotting, traditional Korean paper art, and traditional music. Other Hanoks the city purchased are used for public purposes as museum, artisanal workshop, and Hanok experience hall. The government built parking lots, small parks and other necessary public facilities on the site of the six non-Hanok houses around the wall of Changdeokgung Palace. 


④ Preservation of historical- and cultural value and creation of touristic value 

Bukchon is popular as a filming location of many TV dramas and movies, as it has unique historcal and cultural values with Hanoks of different times from the Joseon dynasty to the modern era. As 4-year-Bukchon project completed successfully, tangible and intangible historical and cultural assets in Bukchon are well revitalized and media outlets from home and abroad are increasingly interested in the changes of Bukchon. The public awareness on the value of Bukchon has also been raised. In recognition of such positive developments, the Bukchon Project won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in 2009. It also provides many hands-on experience opportunity for its visitors through diverse programs from traditional workshops, museums and guest houses. The number of visitors and tourists is constantly increasing as Bukchon becomes a major tourist spot of Seoul. The international visitor survey by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2012 showed that 9.1% of foreign visitors came to Bukchon: the third-highest visiting rate following the COEX and the Hanok Village in Mt. Namsan. In particular, 11~12% of visitors coming between March and June visited Bukchon. 1.2% of total visitors responded that Bukchon was their favorite place in Korea. 

⑤ Change of citizen mind set on Hanoks and intensification of citizens' participation

At the first phase of Bukchon project, there were not many NGOs' activities to recognize the historical value in Bukchon. Over the course of preservation project, however, more and more local residents and NGOs became interested in Hanoks of Bukchon and volunteer protection activities increased. The success of Bukchon project showed how civil society can participate in urban designing process on its own initiative.  

<Table > Major NGOs relevant to Bukchon



City alliance for a walkable city (City alliance)

From 1998, the alliance conducts Insa-dong Reception, Insa-dong School, Insa-dong street festival with children, and small shop preservation movement in order to protect history and culture of Bukchon. It also runs the Bukchon Cultural School to share the historic and cultural values of the area with others.

Bukchon Preservation Group

A community organization of 500 registered members and Bukchon residents. It aims to prevent the destruction and demolition of historical and cultural heritages in Bukchon.

Bukchon Cultural Forum

Established in January 2001, the forum is a non-profit organization of people residing or working in Bukchon. Its members have explored practical ways to protect historical environment of the area, improve living condition, combine tradition with modernity, and find creative development ideas. They also monitor the policy and institutions of the local and central governments with regard to Bukchon and other urban community issues, in order to incorporate experts' perspective in the government projects. 

Association of Citizens who Love Hanok

The association aims to improve weaknesses of traditional housing while succeeding its beauty. Its members include those who live, want to live or agree to live in Hanoks. Through online and offline activities, the association endeavors to protect the traditional culture of Korea. 

Association of Hanok Protectors

The association is a group of people who are deeply interested in the traditional Korean culture, particularly in housing. It aims to help protect the traditional Hanok village, keep the beauty of the city, and preserve and maintain cultural assets and heritages. 


Areumjigi is a group with a view to preservation of cultural heratitage. It conducts movement to protect both recognized and non-recognized cultural assets, proposes policies, and offers public training programs. 

Hanok Cultural Center

In order to spread the knowledge about Hanok and traditional living culture, it offers lectures about the architecture of Hanok for architects and the general public, runs a website, publishes "Hanok Culture" magazine and participates in the events organized by the UNESCO and local governments as co-planner or advisor. 

Gahoe traditional folkloric painting workshop 

Opened in 2002, it hosts an exhibition of 1,500 traditional folkloric paintings, talismans and other folkloric materials. It also offers hands-on programs that allow visitors print talisman and take rubbing of roof tiles with demon face. 

Source: http://bukchon.seoul.go.kr

⑥ Rise of property value

The land price in Bukchon hardly budged for years between 1997 and 1999. After the preservation project launched in 2001, the land price jumped 28% by 2003. The price rise accelerated from 2004 to 2007, marking 57% jump. 


New Challenges: Side effects of Successful Preservation

① Tension between increasing commercialization and historic residential area Bukchon 

Even though Bukchon preservation project contributed significantly to improving the existing Hanoks and revitalizing their cultural values, it also incurs commercialization. Increase of Hanoks for commercial purpose undermines the unique atmosphere of residential area and weaken the identity of Hanoks by excessive reshaping. The living condition is deteriorated by vehicle traffic, noise, smell, jumbled signs on alleys, etc. Solutions need to be devised to the increasingly serious destruction of residential environment, due to noises and safety issues incurred by the increase of visitors.  

② Gentrification and Increasin Financial Burden due to surging property price

As the society becomes more interested in the value of Hanoks, their property price rises. This boosts speculation which causes gentrification. This change hampers the community cohesion in Bukchon. Negotiations for public purchase of Hanoks also become difficult, as owners demand market price instead of appraised price. Such a difference is a factor of conflict between the administration and the residents.


How we worked

Organization of Bukchon project

The Bukchon preservation project was conducted in cooperative partnership between residents, experts, and the city government. The Seoul Metropolitan Government(SMG) operated the Hanok registration system and purchased in cooperation with SH Corporation and relevant public agencies. The residents, on their part, strived to restore the originality of traditional houses, while offering tourist programs in cooperation with NGOs. Community organizations such as Bukchon Preservation Group, Association of Citizens Who Love Hanok participated in the development of Bukchon Preservation Plan, in cooperation with the Seoul Development Institute and Haud Engineering & Architecture Co. Ltd. The Seoul Development Institute and Haud devised the plan in line with the administration's direction and residents' request.


New institution: Hanok Ordinance

On May 20. 2002, the city government enacted the Hanok Ordinance in order to carry out Bukchon project in a more organized manner. The ordinance aims to maintain the architectural beauty of traditional houses and improve their cultural value. It stipulates the eligible target, Hanok registration process and validity, repair subsidy and tax discount, establishment and operation of Hanok Council. 

Process of Hanok registration

A property owner submitted the application for registration to Jongno-gu office. Jongno-gu office transferred the application to the Seoul Metropolitan Government for deliberation. The Hanok Council decided to render registration and the city government notified the result to the applicant. Upon receiving notice, a resident could apply the financial support from the city to repair his/her own Hanok.


The Seoul Metropolitan Government set KRW 84.4 billion for 4 years from 2001 for the Bukchon preservation project. In accordance with the Hanok ordinance, a registered Hanok owner was given repair and remodelling subsidies equivalent to two-third of exterior repair cost (up to KRW 30 million). The credit lines for each project was KRW 20 million for interior refurbishment. During the Bukchon preservation project, 358 Hanoks were registered and given municipal support for remodelling and repair. A total of KRW 6,684 million was offered in subsidies to 224 registered Hanoks, while KRW 2,157 million was offered in loans to 116 registered Hanoks.

Hardships and newly emerging Challenges

Hardships and Responses to them

① Persuasion to solve conflicts and distrust

In Bukchon, the rift between the city and the residents, and the rift among the residents themselves were deepened over the question of development or preservation. After the government adopted the building height limits in 1977 and designated a collective landscape zone in 1983 to preserve the Hanoks in Bukchon, the residents were outraged by the infringement of property right and strongly protested. Some of them even organized in 1988 a working committee for nullification of the governments' restrictions in Bukchon. When Jongno-gu office announced redevelopment plan in 1997, conflict arose between the city government and Jongno-gu office. In 2000, as the city government devised a framework for Bukchon project, the protest of residents became stronger and more organized. The city planned three sessions of briefing for residents to help them understand about the project, but two of them fell through due to the strong opposition of some residents. The city government therefore organized separate meetings to convene the residents for and against the preservation project each. In particular, a meeting with the mayor was hosted in order to persuade those who were against.


② Opening field office for quick response to residents' requests

After the Hanok registration system launched in full scale in July 2001, a field office opened at Gye-dong 135-1 on August 28 of the same year, in a bid to deal with the residents' request quickly on the spot. The Hanok at Gye-dong 135-1 was the one purchased by the SH Corporation. Five public officials from the Seoul city government worked there full time to inform residents of the procedure of Hanok registration and the methods for repairing Hanoks.  

③ Creation of Hanok registration system

The Hanok registration system was based on the residents' own choice and determination. Those who registered their Hanoks voluntarily were given financial support for repair and remodelling as well as discount or free pass in public facilities such as parking lot. Also, registered Hanoks were prohibited from deliberate demolition and subject to repair and remodelling regulations. This measure was in a bid to preserve the unique features of Bukchon Hanoks. No deadline was imposed for registration, so that the residents could register their homes anytime they wanted.

④ Public purchase of Hanoks for market price

In order to show its determination and propose the models of Hanok repair and remodelling, the city purchased some Hanoks via SH Corporation. In principle, public purchase of property was made based on the appraised price, but the city reviewed the market prices of the neighboring areas in order to make the transaction at the level as close to the actual prices as possible.  

⑤ Resolution of contradictions with existing legislations

The Bukchon preservation project aimed to protect both the residential Hanoks and the small alleys in the area. The construction act stipulated that in any new constructions around the alleys, the building frontage line should be pulled back to the extent to secure a four-meter width of the alley. It is to ensure the traffic of pedestrians and vehicles. However this rule might lead to the destruction of alleys no wider than four meters in the Bukchon area. The city government therefore designated a large part of Bukchon as a Hanok preservation area and this minimum width regulations were eased. This was how the narrow alleys of Bukchon could be protected and preserved.

Conclusion and lessons learned

① Significanc of historic preservation

Bukchon is located at the heart of the historical downtown of Seoul. It has both history of multiple layers of time and contemporariness as the place for daily life of the citizens. Naturally, it is a place full of humane features, stories of the past and experiences of the old generations. These are what makes Bukchon historically important. In the city, where much of its part were already demolished and redeveloped and no trace of the past can be easily found, Bukchon retains the old shape of the city that can fortunately connect us to the past. Protecting such a place is important in ensuring diversity, temporality and identity of the city. 

② Collaborative approach based on voluntary participation of the residents

The Bukchon preservation project adopted the Hanok registration system, minimizing the residents' opposition. By prohibiting registered Hanoks from demolition and imposing the Hanok repair and remodelling guidelines, the city endeavored to preserve the originality of Hanoks. Also, a part of construction cost was supported for those who wanted to change their non-Hanok residence into Hanok. However, the Hanok registration system was not flawless, given that it couldn't prevent the disappearance of non-registered Hanok.

③ Expansion of Historic Preservation after Bukchon Success

As Bukchon were revitalized, citizens' awareness improved on the Hanoks. The city of Seoul announced in 2008 the 'Hanok Declaration' and expanded the scope and target of existing Hanok preservation policy. The declaration widened the scope of the city's Hanok policy from Bukchon to the entire Seoul. Insa-dong (2009), the area around the Unhyeongung Palace and Donhwamun-ro (2009), and the area west of the Gyeongbokgung Palace (2010) were designated as additional Hanok preservation areas. These areas are eligible for the support pursuant to the Hanok ordinance of Seoul. At the same time, the city government turned more aggressive by creating a new Hanok village in Eunpyeong. It is to go one step further from merely protecting the existing ones through repair and remodelling support.Now some ward offices are taking actions to preserve Hanoks in their administrative jurisdictions. Seongbuk-gu(ward) office was the first to adopt an ordinance on the preservation of Hanoks in Seongbuk. It aims to protect its Hanok area that was not eligible for the city's Hanok preservation policy. Seongbuk-gu office also runs a Hanok academy for its residents to learn about the Hanoks and experience urban life in Hanoks.







Department / Contact

  • Housing Policy Office / ManYun, Kim
  • International Relations Division  /  82-2-2133-5264  /  international@seoul.go.kr
  • Global Future Research Center  /  82-2-2149-1418  /  ssunha@si.re.kr

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