Management Policies for Seoul City Center & Changes

Date 2015-06-24 Category Urban planning Updater scaadmin
Last Update

Physical Heritage of the City Center

Since the Kingdom of Joseon moved its capital to Hanyang (present-day Seoul) in 1392, the basic urban structure of the city center has remained largely unchanged. Today, the heart of the city is comprised of villages where narrow alleys are lined with compact buildings huddled together on small urban lots laid out in irregular patterns.

But the city center’s urban frame began to experience fundamental changes when its population, commerce and industry grew under Japanese colonial rule. The spacious sites where the fallen kingdom’s government buildings and aristocratic mansions used to stand were taken up by various sorts of large structures such as public buildings, department stores and financial institutions, while new arterial roads like Taepyeong-ro and Yulgok-ro were built in grid patterns. Despite such changes however, the traditional urban layout – confined lots brimming with traditional houses, connected by squeezed streets – mostly endured in the areas surrounded by these arterial roads.
The downtown structure once again experienced momentous change during the Korean War. What the war destroyed was repaired by the Land Readjustment Program; small, non-uniform sites took fixed forms, narrow alleys were widened, and areas prepared for public facilities. The Land Readjustment Program however was designed as post-war restoration limited to destroyed areas. Other areas still retained the structure they had during the Joseon Dynasty.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, much of the city center was quickly taken up by unauthorized structures built by poor migrant workers. The downtown area at this time was nothing more than the kind of disorganized slum one can find in poor countries today: narrow roads, decrepit buildings cluttered the area, and the most basic hygienic and public facilities were non-existent.


City Center Management Policy in the 1960s: Awareness of the Need for Redevelopment

The need to redevelop the city center attracted more attention in the mid-1960s, once post-war chaos came to an end and the central government focused on economic growth. In order to perform its role as a city, Seoul felt the need for modern buildings and infrastructure at its center. At the time, land in the city center was divided into small lots, and it was understood that any integrated development would pose a challenge. The city government soon realized that it needed specialized measures – something more than the construction of new buildings – if it wished to realize effective redevelopment of the city center.

The Enforcement Decree of the Urban Planning Act was revised in 1965 to address this need. This was when the “redevelopment district” policy was introduced. However, it did no more than designate the areas where redevelopment could be carried out; it did not provide the means to integrate the minutely divided land and develop it as part of a consistent program. It was not for another five years that privately-owned land was open for redevelopment, except for the Seun Arcade and its vicinity, which the City of Seoul owned.
The importance of modernizing the city center grew considerably in terms of national development policies once the vision of “A modern nation” was established in government circles, and the city began setting its course. The Basic Seoul Urban Plan proposed to carry this out aggressively to transform the city center into an urban area with sufficient space and a number of skyscrapers. The simple designation of districts was not enough; there was a need for practical means to implement relevant programs. Seoul officials studied advanced methods of collective demolition and redevelopment used by the Japanese, and introduced the new concept of stereo replotting– integrating divided land under different owners into one building and dividing the share vertically. This had a decisive impact on city center redevelopment policies in Korea.

City Center Management Policy in the 1970s: the Urban Redevelopment Act & Promotion of Redevelopment

After being fully revised in 1971, the Urban Planning Act introduced new provisions that made city center redevelopment no longer a simple part of the land use plan but an “urban planning program”. Included in the law for the first time were stipulations on requirements, action plans, management and disposal plans, and liquidation of old housing: crucial institutional measures that drove the redevelopment programs. From 1973 to 1976, redevelopment districts were designated in 12 key areas in the city center – Sogong, Euljiro-1-ga, Seoul Station-Seodaemun, Gwanghwamun, Shinmun-ro and other areas

Despite this designation, private sector-led redevelopment did not take place as actively as hoped due to complicated land acquisition procedures and the need for vast sums of money. For these areas where redevelopment was not completed by private investors within a certain period of time, the City of Seoul took charge of the development or commissioned the program to a third party, pursuant to the newly introduced “Special District Improvement” system. In addition, the Act on Temporary Measures for the Promotion of Development in Specific Areas (1972) was established, providing incentives (cuts to property, transaction, and acquisition taxes) for specific areas included in the urban redevelopment program area.
Regardless of such measures to promote it, redevelopment of the city center was still sluggish. The Urban Redevelopment Act was passed in 1976, providing systematic institutional measures and independent legal grounds for the urban redevelopment program. Designed to modernize the city and maximize the use of available land, the Act defined the requirements for designation as a redevelopment district to ensure redevelopment programs were implemented in areas where the land needed to be used to its maximum capacity. Basic procedures for program execution were also set out where the redevelopment plan would be drafted and determined by the central and local governments while the private sector would be in charge of implementation. To redevelop a city of a million or more people, establishment of a basic urban redevelopment plan was necessary, which could then be carried out in line with long-term urban plans.
In November 1977, the City of Seoul passed the Redevelopment Program Ordinance pursuant to the Urban Planning Act and put forward the Basic City Center Redevelopment Plan (1978), aiming to restore the key functions of the city center in Seoul, supply and enhance the facilities with consideration for future improvements, and create peaceful urban spaces for residents of the city. In the Basic City Center Redevelopment Plan, the following areas were deemed as “seriously deteriorating”: areas with a concentration of dilapidated buildings and small places of business; areas lacking in facilities and space; areas to which functions were inappropriately moved; areas with a mix of residential and recreational/amusement facilities placed in a disorganized fashion; and areas negatively affecting the aesthetic view of the city. The Plan suggested removing or recovering most of the traditional urban structure for redevelopment. Accordingly, a phased demolition/redevelopment plan was proposed for all areas except for the historically significant Insa-dong, Jongmyo area, and Hyoje-dong etc. and areas designated for preservation or restoration.
The urban redevelopment policy began with much enthusiasm but soon encountered a roadblock in 1979 due to extremely high tensions with North Korea. The government realized the national security aspect of development concentrated in Seoul, being within firing range of North Korea, and development of the Gangnam area was emphasized to disperse the population. This brought strict regulations on height and floor space ratios of the buildings within the Four City Gates area. The requirements for urban redevelopment became stricter; the required land area and the requirements for consensus among the land/building owners became more rigorous. The policy moved away from majority owners purchasing the rest of the land and implementing the program to all land owners being involved in the redevelopment. Other requirements included drafting plans to provide for residents evicted by the urban redevelopment.

City Center Management Policy in the 1980s: Accomplishments in Preparation for International Events

Districts were actively designated for urban redevelopment in the 1970s, but the government’s containment policy for the city center tamped down redevelopment until the early 1980s.  When Seoul was chosen as host for the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics, urban redevelopment policies were rekindled. South Korea was determined to show off a modern Seoul to the international community at these events, and urban redevelopment was considered the means to make the showcase possible in a short period of time. The city government established a 5-year urban redevelopment plan and selected 124 districts, spanning over 600,000 m2 along major arterial roads, as the target area.
As a way to promote this urban redevelopment, the government revised the Urban Redevelopment Act in 1982. Eminent domain, which only applied to certain public programs and to a limited extent, was also granted to private entities pursuant to the revised Urban Redevelopment Act. This was to prevent postponement of programs due to objections by some landowners. Adjusted regulations on deposits for programs implemented by third-party developers made such development considerably easier. In 1983, a third party was approved as the developer for 3 districts (District #5 in Euljiro-1-ga, District #2 in Mugyo, and District #12 in Seorin) for the first time. The government-affiliated Korea Land Corporation (the Korea Land Development Corporation at the time) was able to work with the Korea Housing Corporation to carry out the urban redevelopment program as well.
Following these mitigations, the City of Seoul announced its own in February 1983, through plans to relax floor space ratio requirements and provide tax incentives. The ratio for the urban redevelopment program in the commercial zone within the Four Gates was increased from 670% to 1,000%, and taxes on transfers, acquisition, and registration were removed.
Such legal and institutional measures ensured profitability under the urban redevelopment programs, and the government’s aggressive economic stimulus policies in the early 1980s quickly pushed up real estate prices in the city center, encouraging large corporations to get involved on a larger scale. The Korean economy flourished, driven by low oil prices, low international interest rates and the weak Korean won against the Japanese yen. The demand for office space in Seoul skyrocketed, which further boosted urban redevelopment. For the years between 1983 and 1986, urban redevelopment programs were approved in 76 districts, and the trend remained in place until the Olympics in 1988.

City Center Management Policy in the 1990s: Criticism & Reflection on Existing Urban Redevelopment

After the Olympic Games in 1988, the urban redevelopment programs did not attract as much attention as before. It was no longer a priority on Seoul’s to-do list, and area designation for the urban redevelopment did not grow noticeably. However, the 1990s were characterized by growing public interest in the city center environment, which led to a number of policy changes.

Primarily the redevelopment method of demolishing traditional urban structures and buildings fell out of favor: full demolition destroyed historic value and replaced it with high-rise, high-density development. In July 1990, the government revised the Enforcement Decree of the Urban Redevelopment Act and adopted restorative and preservationist redevelopment methods. The government sought to preserve the urban structure and its cultural heritage and to revitalize the area, but the new methods could not be applied to the actual redevelopment program. No specific procedures or methods were developed, and it was not easy to consider the program feasible when redevelopment depended on private financing.

In the previous 20 years of urban redevelopment, critics had argued that the program decreased the residential areas in the city center and caused a donut effect in the evenings. In April 1990, the City of Seoul responded by offering an incentive (relaxing the floor space ratio regulations) to those providing residential space in new buildings through the redevelopment program. Furthermore, the Basic City Center Redevelopment Plan was changed to designate “mandatory residential-commercial areas” where a third or more of the total building area should be residential, and “recommended residential-commercial areas” by which the addition of residential space led to incentives. However, these too did not produce visible results. Reducing the maximum allowed floor space ratio from 1,000% to 670% canceled the effects of the relevant incentives, and added to the fact that there was almost no demand for such residential/commercial buildings in the city center. In 1996, Seoul modified the Basic City Center Redevelopment Plan to remove the distinction between the mandatory residential-commercial areas and recommended residential-commercial areas; instead, all areas within the Four Gates boundary were designated as recommended residential-commercial areas in order to attract voluntary introduction of residential functions.

City Center Management Policy in the 2000s: Meticulous City Center Management to Restore Identity

From 2000 onwards, city center management policies broke free of demolition-oriented modernization and development and adopted an approach of preserving the unique characteristics of city areas while adapting to the rapid economic changes. While the old regulations applied a uniform method of development, the new approach was more inclined toward deregulation to attract more private investors while utilizing public investment to improve the environment and enhance the competitiveness of the city center. This change of policy originated from some of the plans established at that time, beginning in 2000.

In 2000, the Basic City Center Management Plan was put in place. It was the first city center plan for Seoul, a guideline in nature, drafted not for program execution or development but for ideal management of the city center. It was a strategic means to preserve city center identity and achieve economic prosperity, with an emphasis on improving the area via public investment and promotion of private investment via deregulation.
Furthermore, the City Center Development Plan (2004) was devised to restore the Cheonggye Stream project scheduled to be completed in 2005. This Plan brought the restoration together with a long-term vision and principles for development of the whole city center, especially near the stream area. It sought to promote aggressive public investment to improve the historical and cultural environments of the city and convenience for pedestrians while developing private-sector involvement in revitalizing the city center. It was a continuation of the policy foundation – a balance between development and preservation – set out in the Basic City Center Management Plan (2000).
With the policy framework and changes from the two development plans, the Comprehensive City Center Recreation Plan (2007) was established. This action plan proposed four south-north axes: a historical axis, a tourism axis, a “green” axis, and a compound axis, each of which would have its own programs. The Open Nam Mountain project was also planned to provide better access to the mountain.
Citizens and various entities increasingly desired to be involved in the planning to enhance effectiveness. In response to this public demand, the Historical City Center Management Plan (2014) was established after discussion with both citizens and experts. It was a comprehensive plan, developed to restore the historical identity of the city, providing for strategic plans and guidelines according to issues and comprehensive management of development, preservation and restoration of the districts spanning the whole area of the ancient city of Hanyang.



2001, “Spatial Transformation of 20th Century Seoul”, The Seoul Institute.
2000, “Basic City Center Management Plan”, Seoul Metropolitan Government.
2004, “Basic City Center Development Plan in Connection with Restoration of Cheonggye Stream”, Seoul Metropolitan Government.
2007, “Comprehensive City Center Recreation Plan”, Seoul Metropolitan Government.
2014,“Historical City Center Management Plan”, Seoul Metropolitan Government.


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