What makes a megacity sustainable

Date 2017-04-07 Category Urban planning Updater hyelyn
Shin Lee
University of Seoul
Last Update


In a recent academic review of megacity literature, Sorensen and Okata (2011) state that “in a profound sense, megacities are inherently unsustainable, with their vast consumption of resources drawn from distant “elsewheres” and their equally vast production of wastes that are routinely exported elsewhere.” They conclude the paragraph by referring to Satterthwaite’s (1997, citied in Sorensen and Okata, 2011) suggestion that “the goal is....not sustainable cities per se, but cities that contribute to sustainable development.”

This view of the concept of the “sustainable megacity” has implications, which are pertinent to the discussion of Seoul’s transformation from a megacity with its overwhelming burden of rapid expansion into what might be, arguably, referred to as a “smart megacity”. Quite importantly, the notion of the smart city inevitably involves the attributes of sustainable development, which will be addressed in a later section of this paper. Is it really the case that megacities are inherently unsustainable? Is the “sustainable megacity” an oxymoron? How about the “smart megacity?” Can a megacity be a smart city? Here, should the goal be to establish a city that contributes to smart development, rather than the smart city itself being the definitive outcome?

It may be futile to debate whether a city is sustainable, or smart for that matter, in any definitive sense. However, it is relatively straightforward to determine whether an attribute of the collective endeavors undertaken in a city contributes to sustainable development or smart-city building. Similarly, it would be relatively easy to see if several different types of attributes of public action results in greater sustainability or smarter development when presented in a city simultaneously, or better yet, when integrated as a coherent system. It would then be an extremely constructive exercise to identify such a set of collective endeavors in any city with a view to drawing lessons or transferring proven know-hows to other contexts where such a contribution to sustainable or smart development is greatly needed from the global perspective.

Before exploring what makes a smart megacity or what might contribute to sustainable development, it would be helpful to discuss what these adjectives signify and how the global urban community came to these popular ideas about the contemporary city and what they indicate.

What it is vs. what it aspires to be – Different uses of city descriptors

Giving a city different names or adding a variety of abstract descriptors before the word “city” is largely a post-modern phenomenon. Some cities have been named a “creative city,” for instance, and others have been referred to a “city of culture”; whilst the “world city” title has been conferred on somewhat differing groups of cities depending on the commentator and varying with time. During the modern times, cities used to be classified in certain ways –the sole basis for classification tended to be quantitative measures, such as size of population or economic output, or key functions of a city, such as port cities, administrative cities, trade cities, and so on.

Modern geographers (in human geography) were primarily concerned with the growth and development of cities, and sought to answer such questions as to why cities are where they are; or what makes a city grow or decline. Similarly, for urban economists, the most commonly used city classification criterion was the size of a city—with the classes being almost entirely limited to small, medium and large—as one of the basic hypotheses in urban economics was that the nature and size of agglomeration benefits or other economically significant phenomena are associated with a city’s size.

Urban planners in early modern times were a somewhat different breed, primarily in terms of their approach to the investigation of cities, from empiricists who examined cities on the basis of evidence, such as economists to early human geographers. Planners largely came from the tradition of design, hence, of imagination and creativity. Early urban planners would therefore be concerned with prescribing what things ought to be like (representing the “normative” perspective), whereas empiricists were primarily concerned with how things are (representing the “positive” perspective). As such, urban planners have continued to propose various models of the ideal city. Some of the city descriptors that we are familiar with today, including “sustainable,” “resilient,” or “smart” may be seen in the tradition of this normative perspective, that is to say that “sustainable” or “smart” are a kind of a state which a city might aspire to become. These abstract and value-based names are, therefore, different from a descriptor which is attached to some cities, because they are already what they are.

For instance, descriptors such as “small,” “large,” “port” or “historic” merely describe and characterize a city in a positive manner, whereas the words “sustainable” or “smart” indicate a character or a value that a city might aspire to possess as a central character or a representative value in a “normative” sense. When a city does possess and exhibit the key attributes of the core value and becomes an embodiment of that value, however, the descriptor then plays a descriptive role as well. Therefore, many cities would call themselves a creative city, for instance, when they would like to be one. But there may be a much smaller number of cities that are acknowledged as such by the rest of the world. The same ambivalence in naming a city applies to other value-based descriptors such as “sustainable,” “smart,” “resilient,” “livable,” “healthy” or “eco” city.

The rise and fall of great cities

There are about 2.5 million cities in the world today, and they are all different. Early scholars and commentators rather commonly used the adjective “great.” The word appears in the title of Jane Jacobs’ best-known book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Whereas Jacobs was probably the first to ignite an interest in, if not a fascination with, cities in the qualitative sense, while highlighting the importance of non-materialistic qualities such as conviviality or urban vibrancy, the word “great” is inevitably associated with a quantitative property. There have always been cities called “great” even in ancient times, but it was only after the Industrial Revolution when a significant number of cities grew to a scale that was easily distinguishable from the rest—in the sense of what they possessed and produced—and rose to join the world league of great cities. Some great cities of the past have withered over time, however, while others have stood the test of time.

City descriptors with normative connotations such as creative or culture became fashionable with the emergence of urban entrepreneurialism and city marketing around the 1980s, although largely in the Western part of the world. That was when industrial cities, whose past prosperity and wealth was largely accumulated on the basis of manufacturing, proactively sought ways of recovering their greatness by attracting different sorts of activities, such as cultural or creative ones, as they underwent the process of deindustrialization. In this context, place rebranding and city marketing were seen as modes of urban regeneration and competitiveness building. Hence, cities, or municipal governments, began to see their role as an entrepreneur rather than as a manager.

In contemporary terms, great cities must have the status as a world city. A great deal of research has been undertaken to define, describe and theorize the world cities phenomenon, but it is still subject to debate as to which cities make the list. Amongst a few widely known world city scholars, however, there is no one who has denied the world-class city status of New York, London, Paris, or Tokyo (Friedmann 1986; Sassen 1991; Know and Taylor 1995). Amsterdam is often included too. So are Seoul and Sao Paulo. Some scholars have published a more generous list including a few megacities in developing countries (Lo and Yeung 1996). The world city discourse is now somewhat dated, so the rapidly emerging, globally important great cities of China did not figure in the classic world city discussions, for instance. The most consistent criterion to assess the world-class city status of a city is to ask whether the decisions made in that city influence actions in the rest of the world, and to what extent does such a city exert its influence over other cities in the world, if indeed it does.

Economic dynamism is likely at the core of any great city. It is the magnetic power that continues to attract people, but it comes with strings attached in all known cases. The great cities of today and of the past alike have had their own big share of problems. This combination of great problems with great cities was seen as inevitable.

Ever since cities emerged in history, especially after they grew large with the help of transportation technology that evolved over time, cities have been seen as a source of opportunities and problems at the same time. What defines a city is simply the size of the population who live there. If an area can be visibly distinguished from its surrounding areas due to the population concentration, and the number of people living there exceeds a certain administratively determined threshold, it is defined as a city.
This concentration of people creates opportunities which are not available outside the area of concentration, but concentration inevitably means magnified conflicts and contests. Both agglomeration benefits and negative externalities (the secondary, unintended effects of what we do to live) exist in great quantities in great cities.

The industrial cities largely located in the West shared virtually the same set of urban problems: congestion (people and vehicular traffic), environmental pollution, decline of the city center, slums, homelessness, safety, public health, spatial segregation/disparity, high impact disasters due to occurring in an area with a dense population, and so on.

These consequences of industrialization and urban expansion aside, great cities in the world have enjoyed the prosperity they achieved, their popularity (or magnetism), and their status of being great. If, however, the problems grow out of proportion and eventually outweigh the attractiveness of the city, it ceases to be great, as seen in many industrial cities in the West. These cities had to undergo what is now commonly known as urban regeneration in order to recover their greatness. The key here lies in keeping the level of nuisance in check.

A move towards not-so-great cities: quality rather than quantity

However, do we all aspire to make our cities into great cities that boast great achievements and influence and, in return, tolerate the consequences of those achievements? Is greatness in terms of quantity what we aspire to today? The evolution of urban discourse does not suggest that this is the case.

Garden Cities

Throughout history, urban thinkers have proposed various models of a city in which human interactions are accommodated on the urban scale but, through design, excessive urban predicaments are minimized or even prevented. Early thinkers tended to focus on the balance between town and country; or the harmony between the built environment and the natural environment. This would be done by placing sufficient green areas – buffers – within the city as a way of mitigating harsh urban environments and the problems habitually associated with harsh and hard surfaces. Howard’s Garden City (1902) is probably the best known among these models and has had an enduring influence on subsequently proposed notions of urban planning along an extensive time spectrum, ranging from Howard’s own contemporary, namely Raymond Unwin and his Garden Suburb and the British planning tradition ranging from “greenbelt” and “New Town” to the “New Urbanism” movement of late.

Sustainable towns and cities

Approximately one century after the publication of Garden Cities of To-morrow (Howard 1989), the idea of sustainability was introduced. Our Common Future, more widely known as the Brundtland Report, was published in 1987, engendering the most popularly known definition of sustainability. We have since then quite positively and consistently embraced the idea. A multitude of ideas that are supposed to help cities remain sustainable or grow in a sustainable manner have been presented to the global urban community.
For instance, UN HABITAT made an attempt to instill a set of practical principles of sustainability when applied to urban and neighborhood planning. The “five principles are as follows:
1) Adequate space for streets and an efficient street network: The street network should occupy at least 30 percent of the land and include at least 18 km of street length per km².
2) High density: At least 15,000 people per km², i.e. 150 people/ha or 61 people/acre.
3) Mixed land-use: At least 40 percent of floor space should be allocated for economic use in any neighborhood.
4) Social mix: The availability of houses in different price ranges and tenures in any given neighborhood to accommodate different incomes; 20 to 50 percent of the residential floor area should be set aside for low cost housing; and each type of tenure should be no more than 50 percent of the total.
5) Limited land-use specialization: This is to limit single function blocks or neighborhoods; single function blocks should cover less than 10 percent of any neighborhood (2014)”.

Even though there is no mention of green space in this UN HABITAT description, it is hard to doubt that, in anyone’s imagination, the picture of a sustainable town or city includes abundant shades of green. As such, the physical structure or appearance of sustainable cities might share common characteristics with that of the Garden City. However, as can be seen in the above five principles suggested by UN HABITAT, the focus here with regard to sustainable towns and cities is on the ecological impact of urbanization.

The crucial difference between Howard’s Garden City and the sustainable city is that environmentalism lies at the core of the contemporary idea of sustainable cities. This would also mean that the shared goal is to achieve sustainability on the global scale and not just at the individual city level. The global community is more conscious than ever of the implications of what shape of development path an individual city follows. Prosperity may be achieved at an individual city level, but the often environmentally damaging impacts of a city’s prosperity are shared by all.

The wide diffusion of the sustainability concept, as well as its influence over nearly every aspect of collective actions that are undertaken in cities around the world, shows how our values and preferences have evolved over time. There probably are, among cities and people, those who prefer not-so-great cities – especially in terms of their physical size (of input and output; of population, land and productivity) and the size of negative externalities. The emergence and presence of sustainability as an overarching concept over the past quarter of a century suggests that our aspiration for greatness in terms of population and economic output is being replaced, at least in part, by the aspiration for cities with a low ecological impact. The variety of names for an ideal city that has penetrated into our day-to-day conversation as well as into academic discourse, such as sustainable cities, eco-cities and livable cities, and the intensity of the influence these concepts have on current urban practices might well indicate our contemporaries’ greater concern for quality rather than quantity.

Resilient Cities

More recently, however, “sustainable” has not seemed to be good enough or as fashionable as it had been until a decade ago, and the new buzzword has arguably become “resilient” in the core urban discourse. Leaving aside the purely equilibrium-focused viewpoint, a more inclusive definition of resilience that is useful for urban planning refers to “the ability of a system to adapt and adjust to changing internal or external processes (Holling, 1973; Gunderson et al, 1995; Pickett et al, 2004).”
According to a widely accepted definition of resiliency in cities, a locale is resilient if “it is able to withstand an extreme natural event without suffering devastating losses, damage, diminished productivity, or quality of life and without (receiving) a large amount of assistance from outside the community (Mileti, 1999, pp. 32–33).”

The Smart City

In the meanwhile, the adjective “smart” appears to have gained an astounding level of popularity, particularly amongst policy makers and practitioners.

Whilst “resilient” does not really seem to have gained traction outside academia, “smart” has indeed attracted considerable attention from governments in both the developing and the developed world, although the reaction appears to be more pronounced in the former. In fact, it was global technology firms that were responsible for the particularly rapid spread of this new “brand” of city (Holland 2014).

As such, the smart city is often associated with a “technological fix” or an attempt to resolve all types of urban problems through technology. A more useful and sensible definition of the smart city, however, refers to a city which is “more economically prosperous, equal, more efficiently governed and less environmentally wasteful” (Holland 2014), and it does not necessarily prescribe how to reach that state of a city, suggesting that the “question of how” is open to new ideas or innovations, be it through technological innovation, innovative use of existing technology or simply new ways of doing things as long as the new inputs and processes can bring about different outcomes from business as usual.

It is more commonly linked to such ideas as “doing more with less”; growing positively with fewer social costs; and, at the same time, responding to diverse human needs, demands and values. The emphases on diversity and inclusivity call for the ability of the city to coordinate and integrate different facets of municipal affairs, domains and goals.

Comparing contemporary ideas of a desirable city: Similarities and differences

When one looks closely into what each of the three models means and their respective components, these ideas for a city with differing names have much in common, while remaining quite distant from the early models proposed by Howard and modern urban thinkers of his time (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Conceptual diagrams representing the three models of city: sustainable, resilient, and smart

Sources: http://www.ci.neenah.wi.us/departments/sustainable-neenah-committee; http://www.100resilientcities.org/resilience#/-_/; https://itunews.itu.int/en/About.aspx

These three contemporary notions represent leading values of our time in the realm of city making. The three alternative models, however, share the following common objectives:

1) To make materialistic progress with less social or environmental harm.

2) To maintain a balance between the three competing values – economic, social, and environmental.

The differences are rather subtle and may be characterized as follows:

  • Sustainable: Slow economic growth is allowed, tolerated, or (possibly) preferred for the sustainability of both society and the environment.
  • Resilient: Preparedness for (future) challenges is highlighted and may come from various quarters (planning, leadership, etc.), but economic power as the source of resilience is crucial. Resilient cities are more proactive than sustainable cities.
  • Smart: Cities in this category might seek a third way of doing business to maximize materialistic prosperity and address all negative impacts on non-materialistic values through some innovative, “smart” means. It is as if they were asking the question: Is it even possible at all not to compromise the materialistic potential while ensuring the protection of non-materialistic values? Smart cities might be the most proactive and ambitious among the three notions of city.

If we agree with these inexplicit differences between different names or brands of city, it is scarcely surprising that the idea of smart city or smart development appeals to rapidly growing cities in the developing world, which are faced with the need to increase their materialistic wellbeing while addressing or preventing the foreseeable consequences of rapid development. It does feel that the smart city promises greater prosperity than the “sustainable or resilient cities,” to which the developing countries are bound to aspire most.

Despite the similarities discussed earlier, the audience of contemporary urban discourse seems to have its own perceptions about alternative notions which are generally shared. For instance, cities such as Curitiba, Freiburg, Copenhagen and Mälmo are frequently cited with the sustainable label attached to them, whereas a different set of cities such as Singapore, Seoul and Amsterdam are more often referred to as smart cities.

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that sustainability as a value and its practical implications are embodied in the smart city model. In other words, a city which is not environmentally or socially sustainable cannot become a smart city. Likewise, a city which is not resilient and is unable to withstand external threats cannot be considered a smart city, or a sustainable city for that matter. Attempts to link resilience and sustainability have also been made, though they may not be particularly inventive given the objectives and values shared in large part by the two ideas (Asprone and Manfredi 2015).

After all, these three models represent the values and objectives that contemporary as well as future cities would aim to achieve. Given that these models share similar values and the objectives do overlap across all three of them, it might not be a particularly fruitful exercise to discern between them. The analysis above suggests that smart cities could embody the attributes of both sustainable and resilient cities and, in addition, they are thought to cater to a more proactive approach to development. It might be sensible to adopt a more, albeit marginally, inclusive concept and ensure that all the core values subscribed to by the three notions are well covered.

A glance at Seoul

The following description is taken from the World Bank’s website:
“Korea has experienced remarkable success in combining rapid economic growth with significant reductions in poverty. The government of Korea’s policies resulted in real GDP growth averaging 10 percent annually between 1962 and 1994. …. Korea is the first former aid recipient to become a member of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). …. Korea's experience in sustainable development, providing infrastructure and better services to improve the lives of the people, and its transition to a dynamic knowledge economy, provides lessons that can benefit many other developing countries.” (The World Bank 2015)

As illustrated in this paragraph, the dramatic economic transformation that Korea has achieved just in 60 years since the Korean War is relatively well known. What is less widely known is how it has been addressing the undesirable impacts of exceedingly rapid urban transition and equally rapid industrialization; how the country has made concerted efforts to promote spatial and social equity, for instance, by reducing regional disparities in development and rural-urban differentials in terms of the opportunities and the quality of life which accompanied the spectacular expansion of the wealth of the nation. In effect, Korea’s transformation has not been limited to the economic realm but has also permeated into other realms, which are currently valued just as much, including the environment and society.

Clearly, Seoul has been at the center of transformation which the country as a whole has gone through. As the greatest contributor to national economic growth, the city has undergone even faster growth in terms of population and activities, and therefore had a greater share of the impacts generated by rapid development. Just as the country has been making various attempts to address the consequences of rapid development, the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) has continually endeavored to deal with the undesirable outcomes of the extraordinary growth it has achieved within an extremely short span of time. Years of such strenuous efforts have begun to show signs of transformation from the previously quantity-driven, pro-development industrial city into a so-called smart city, or a city that regularly crops up on the list of exemplary cities in some specific senses, such as a city with a smart transport system or a superior e-governance system.

The sets of statistics (Figure 2 – 4) given below might give an idea of the extent to which some of the acute urban problems facing most fast growing cities have been dealt with in Seoul.


Figure 2. The share of sustainable transport modes in Seoul

Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government (2015)


Figure 3. Trends in the number of households and the number of housing units

Source:  Seoul Statistics Yearbook 2000, cited in Seoul Institute (2003)


Figure 5. Percentage of people recycling in selected cities, 2011

Size matters and so does speed: Dealing with mega-size urban problems in a short span of time

What about other cities that are often named as sustainable or smart cities, such as Curitiba, Freiburg, Copenhagen, Barcelona, or Singapore? Have they all not done what Seoul has done with regard to sustainable transport, high recycling rates, sufficient housing supply, effective e-governance and so forth? They may have done so—to varying degrees and in differing combinations of policy areas—but there appear to be some differences.

First, Seoul is quite different from other oft-cited sustainable or smart cities in terms of size. How many megacities in the world are also representative of the sustainable city? It is also one of the few sustainable or smart cities to have emerged from the developing world to which it still belonged not so long ago. How many of the megacities which used to represent a city paying the price of hyper-urbanization and super-fast industrialization until about twenty years ago have turned into one of the few cities representing the highest rates of recycling in the world? All of the recycling cities included in the previous figure come from the traditional first world (or countries which completed their industrialization by the early 1960s) except Seoul.

Megacities are thus called because they exceed certain thresholds in terms of population size, and for no other reason—with the caveat that the threshold is something of a moving target as the cities in the world generally grew further and faster with time.
The difference in size means the scale of the problem is conspicuously different. It may help to be reminded of the quote that appeared at the start of this paper: “…megacities are inherently unsustainable, with their vast consumption of resources drawn from distant “elsewheres,” and their equally vast production of wastes that are routinely exported elsewhere (Sorensen and Okata (2011).”
Figure 5 shows the size of growth in terms of urban population increments in Seoul over time. Its population grew by 270,000 per annum (22,000 people per month) for three decades, from 1960 to 1990. The speeds of growth are also indicated as the slope of the curve.

Figure 5. Seoul’s population growth over time, 1920-2014

Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government

The size and rate of Seoul’s growth over the past century is compared with a few other world cities in Figure 6. Singapore, a city that is as often referred to as a smart city, is also included in the graph. Seoul’s steep population growth between 1960 and 1990 clearly stands out from the rest of the city group illustrated.


Figure 6. Population growth rates, 1900-2000, for selected cities

Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government

The rapid population growth in Seoul ran parallel to the rapid date of economic growth, as Figure 7 indicates. Similar to the preceding comparison (Figure 6), the subsequent chart (Figure 8) highlights that the rate of economic growth in Korea has surpassed that of most other countries, including some rapidly expanding economies in the developing world.

Figure 7. Economic growth rates in Seoul, 1960-2010

Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government


Figure 8. The rate of economic growths, 1961-2011, selected countries

Source: The World Bank (2010)

These two sets of statistics clearly reflect how Korea and its primary city Seoul have undergone extremely compressed economic development, which did not leave much temporal room for the urban planning that was needed to keep pace with the continuous and rapid growth of the city. The span of time available to absorb the shock of rapid growth and deal with the consequences of fast-tracked growth was simply not sufficient.
As a matter of empirical fact, the time taken for industrialization has increasingly lessened over the centuries behind us, as Figure 9 illustrates. This is not because newly industrializing countries have been more able than their predecessors, but rather because of the greatly enlarged world market.

Figure 9. Time taken for industrialization for selected countries

Source: Yoo (1997)

The successful urban management of Seoul ought to be looked at from the context of the exceedingly rapid changes that occurred in the city. At such rates of growth, the magnitude of urban problems is normally overwhelming and continues to grow at an alarming rate in the absence of appropriate intervention, as has been the case in numerous megacities in the developing world. The following pair of illustrations (Figure 10-11) will give perspective on how Seoul has been faced with some of the negative externalities of rapid urban expansion most frequently associated with megacities.

Figure 10. Increases in the number of motorized vehicles in Seoul, 1958-1988

Source:  Seoul Statistics Yearbook 2000, cited in Seoul Institute (2003)


Figure 11. Increases in waste generation in Seoul

Source: Ministry of Environment cited in Seoulsolution 2014, Recycling (Smart Waste Management in Seoul)

Negative externalities are not necessarily proportional to population and economic growth

Are negative externalities proportional to growth in a city’s population and economy? History seems to suggest that they are not. The City of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas long suffered from urban smog associated with high atmospheric ozone levels. The basin-like topography, abundant sunlight and low mixing heights resulting from the marine layer all work against atmospheric air quality in Los Angeles, and the city has been growing fast compared to other leading cities in the country. Despite these natural characteristics and urban indicators, ozone levels have been decreasing over the past few decades while the city’s population and economy, as well as the number of vehicles in the area, have continued to grow (Figure 12).

The decrease that began in the mid-1970s is not a coincidence. It was in that decade that a set of very aggressive policy measures were adopted by the city to reduce emissions from various sources including automobiles, a key contributor to urban ozone levels. Los Angeles clearly illustrates the ability of public policies in changing the nature of the relationship between growth and growth-related negative externalities.

Figure 12. Ozone levels over time, Los Angeles

Source: South Coast Air Quality Management District (2007)

Trends in social costs of rapid growth in Seoul

In the absence of an established set of sustainability or smart city indicators, a set of measures that are often used to represent sustainable or smart growth—including energy efficiency, emission rates, waste discharge and efficiencies in land consumption—are considered below in an attempt to appraise the state of urban management in Seoul (Figure 13-15).

Figure 13. Waste generation per person

Source: Ministry of Environment, cited in Seoulsolution 2014, Recycling (Smart Waste Management in Seoul)


Figure 14. Transport-related emissions per person

Source: World Bank 2009



Figure 15. Energy (road sector) consumption and GDP

Source:  World Bank (2014)

In the absence of an established set of sustainability or smart city indicators, a set of measures that are often used to represent sustainable or smart growth—including energy efficiency, emission rates, waste discharge and efficiencies in land consumption—are considered below in an attempt to appraise the state of urban management in Seoul (Figure 13-15).


Figure 16. Trends in the size of green areas (km2)

Source:  Seoul Statistics Yearbook 2000, cited in Seoul Institute (2010)

In the absence of an established set of sustainability or smart city indicators, a set of measures that are often used to represent sustainable or smart growth—including energy efficiency, emission rates, waste discharge and efficiencies in land consumption—are considered below in an attempt to appraise the state of urban management in Seoul (Figure 13-15).

Figure 17. The intensity of economic activities in Seoul

Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government 2015

Yet the country has managed to develop a relatively healthy urban hierarchy, unlike some other countries marked by the presence of an overwhelming primate city, a trait often associated with developing countries (Figure 18).

Figure 18. Korea’s economic density map

Source: World Bank (2009)

Korea, in the meantime, has shown a pattern of relatively strong growth in its income level, as the following chart (Figure 19) suggests, despite the fact that it is an accepted norm that income levels and income growth rates are inversely related.

Figure 19. GDP growth rates and income levels

Source:  World Bank (2007)

The trends of certain urban problems in Seoul, such as waste generation, the deficiency of green or open spaces, or pollutant emissions from motor vehicles, quite manifestly support the proposition that social costs, or negative externalities, are not necessarily proportional to the population or economic growth, as was the trend in urban air quality in Los Angeles. Seoul has rather successfully managed the key urban problems in Seoul while continuing to demonstrate relatively strong signs of economic growth for its income level. Without wishing to suggest that this exactly fulfills the requirements for a smart city (and a definitive and well-established evaluation framework for smart city does not exist in any case), it is hard not to relate these trends in social costs to the key objectives of a smart city discussed earlier, namely, those of “doing more with less” and “growing with fewer social costs.” 

What has enabled the successful urban management in Seoul?

What was most instrumental in achieving not just rapid growth but also efficient and smart management of this city, which was once subject to the consequences of its rapid development in nearly every respect?

Is it the high density that made the smart transition possible? Indeed, Seoul’s urban density is among the highest in the world. The city has thousands of high-rise apartment buildings, which house a very large proportion of the residential population. This pattern of housing is followed up even in the new towns that have been developed away from Seoul in an attempt to redistribute the city’s over-concentrated population. There is no doubt that such population density contributes to the smart use of land and energy resources, as the two previous illustrations aptly demonstrate.

Or is it the public resources made available to the city that have been the key to the successful management of the city? Perhaps, the city did make smart use of what was available in terms of financial resources in building up the infrastructure it needed to accommodate its ever expanding population and activities. Korea is known for its effective and well-established public investment management system, which means an equal amount of financial resources could well have resulted in a greater amount and higher quality of public infrastructure than in a country without such a system.

As such, both urban density and public resources (and their efficient use) have their place in the explanation of Seoul’s achievements in urban management. By no means, however, are they sufficient conditions for making a city smart, as not all megacities with comparable, or even higher, densities (such as Manila) or megacities with comparable levels of resources (such as some Latin American cities) have shown similar trends in managing their urban problems.

The explanations will inevitably have to be more complex than what can be covered in this brief discussion. Subsequent discussions, therefore, will help explain the contexts, planning and implementation processes, governance, political climate or founding infrastructures in different but relevant policy domains.

What can be highlighted here is that Seoul’s success in urban management clearly exemplifies the ability, or even the power, of public policy, as seen in the earlier example of Los Angeles. The SMG proactively and persistently implemented a set of policies aimed at addressing the key urban problems to which all rapid developers would be doomed without appropriate intervention of some form. The secret also lies in selecting and prioritizing among competing needs and domains of policy, for public resources are ultimately finite regardless of the income level of the city. The selection was not dictated by any high moral values, however, but rather by practical needs and implications.

For instance, without the smooth circulation of people and goods, the life of the city’s inhabitants and the city economy would suffer, if not reach an impasse, even if some other excellent policies seeking to promote equality in the city or the quality of local residents’ life were adopted and implemented. This probably is where Seoul has been successful, i.e. reaching a consensus in the setting of priorities.

But what has the city actually done in practical terms? In a nutshell, the city has developed a coherent and practical institutional framework that ensures the implementation of a given policy and the attainment of the policy goals for each policy area, often backed with comprehensive data of pointed relevance, state-of-the-art technology, and the best available knowledge sourced by teams of highly qualified quality researchers and officials; and, where needed, it has streamlined the relevant institutional framework (including the enactment of special laws, if necessary).

While these policies were developed within a coherent strategic framework, each policy initiative was in fact developed as an individual building block. Initially, these were designed and implemented separately, but when they were all completed at least in phases, they then made sense as a whole.

The highlights


Seoul’s transport system addresses the two quintessential transport issues, accessibility and mobility. High degrees of accessibility have been achieved by establishing one of the world’s most convenient public transport networks, and one that is within easy reach of most of the city’s inhabitants. Decent levels of mobility for the city’s size are provided through the balance between the extensive road network and the truly integrated public transit system, the popularity of which ensures that the number of motor vehicles on the road is kept in check. Information and communication technology including big data played a significant role in the construction of Seoul’s smooth circulation and accessible transport, including the integrated monitoring system, Seoul TOPIS (Transport Operation and Information System) and the development of the ingenious nighttime hour bus service network, Night Owl Bus.

Another key component of the transport policy package includes the 2004 Bus Reform, which enabled Seoul’s transit system to become truly integrated by combining all four elements of transit integration, namely, service integration, fare integration, interchange facilities, and information. A set of travel demand management measures is also in place, and a built environment conducive to soft measures such as walking and cycling is under development, both of which will contribute to guiding the travel behavior of citizens over the longer term.


On numerous occasions, Seoul has been ranked first in terms of e-governance performance when assessed. The following table shows the results of an international research initiative on municipal e-governance (Table 1). The survey by Rutgers University identified Seoul as the best performer in various categories, such as usability, service and citizen participation.

Table 1. Global e-Governance Survey Ranking

Ranking City Score
1 Seoul 84.74
2 Prague 72.84
3 Hong Kong 62.83
4 New York 61.1
5 Singapore 58.81
6 Madrid 57.41
7 Vienna 55.59

Source: Rutgers University 2009, cited in Choi 2014.

The construction of the e-governance platform has required a great deal of streamlining of the administration processes and data infrastructure building and maintenance work, but from the city’s perspective the expense is well worth it given the reward it receives in the form of citizen satisfaction and external recognition, which is a bonus contributing to civic pride. Seoul continues to advance its e-governance system with the aim of achieving not just efficiency but also inclusivity by further enhancing the transparency and accountability of municipal affairs.


Seoul has achieved remarkable progress in waterworks in terms of service provision, resource management, and the quality of potable water through continued investment, policy development and implementation. This is the result of a long-run endeavor involving heavy and intensive investment in water production facilities upfront when the initiative took off about four decades ago, attempts to reduce water leakages through the installation of leakage restoration equipment and the adoption of monitoring approaches, and, more recently, policies aiming to improve the revenue water rates (RWR) and the quality of water again through a mix of investment and policies while renovating the now aging parts of the supply network.

In the decade or so after the project to develop a reliable water supply network was launched, the water service rate exceeded 90% before it began to cover the entire city population. This all happened while the city continued to grow. In so doing, the city developed new financing mechanisms such as OECF loans, local bonds and foreign loans to address the funding challenges. Another factor contributing to consistent policy development and implementation has been the establishment of an independent agency in charge of governing the water in the city, the Seoul Waterworks Authority, in 1989. Both the RWR and water quality have been consistently showing an impressive upward trend, thus reflecting the benefits of specialized management and institutional rearrangement.

Figure 20, Water supply rates in Seoul, 1960-2012

Source: Seoul Statistics


Figure 21. The number of water quality monitoring items and the turbidity of the treated water


Waste Management

Waste management is another area in which Seoul has shown a transformative degree of progress, as illustrated in an earlier section. The changes were made possible through the implementation of numerous policies including the adoption of a volume-based waste fee system, the imposition of restrictions on disposable products and excessive packaging, the promotion of municipal recycling, the creation of a market for second-handed goods, and the establishment of recycling centers and an energy recovery system, among other initiatives. Figure 22 shows how the share of recycling has increased, while that of landfill has decreased over time. Korea is the second-ranked country amongst OECD countries in terms of the rate of recycling, and Seoul is leading the country in that regard.

Figure 22. Changes in waste generation and waste treatment methods, 1994-2011


Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government 2016, https://seoulsolution.kr/ko/seoul-map

Transferability of the policy platforms

These policy initiatives, which together have enabled Seoul to manage some of the most acute urban problems, have been translated into individual policy platforms which are now transferable—subject to due consideration of different local contexts. This trend has been seen in a few preceding and ongoing cases of policy transfer where Seoul has been called upon by, for instance, an emerging or rapidly developing city faced with formidable transport challenges or a pressing need to expand a road network, etc.

The year 2008 marked a watershed in that, for the first time, over half of the world’s population lived in cities. Furthermore, the proportion of urban population will increase to two-thirds of the global population by 2050—only 34 years later. In other words, 6 billion out of 9.1 billion people will live in cities. What is more striking is that 95% of that urban expansion will take place in developing countries.

Figure 20. Global urbanization projection

Source: UNHABITAT (2009)

These estimates suggest that many cities in the developing world will probably experience similar rates of growth in population and economy to what Seoul was once faced with, over the next generation. This is why an increasing number of rapidly developing cities are looking to Seoul for possible lessons to be drawn or policy emulation as they prepare to address a set of urban problems of similar intensity.

Concluding thoughts

This paper has sought to argue that Seoul in many ways represents a megacity which has not only managed to resolve an assortment of typical megacity problems that accompany extremely rapid growth, but has also succeeded in transforming itself into an exemplary city with a dependable portfolio of sustainability and smart city indicators. It also highlights the fact that the key to successful management of the overgrowing city was the implementation of a set of urban policies that worked not only to arrest the imminent problems Seoul was faced with, but also ensured continued progress towards its transformation into a smart and sustainable city. The city is commonly referred to as a smart city in today’s comparative city discussions, in its narrower sense at least, but there are indications that Seoul continues to seek wider realization of the contemporary city ideals beyond equipping itself with technological tools and applications.

It is not entirely clear whether this is primarily due to the ubiquity of technological applications in Seoul that the city has been referred to as a smart city. What Seoul has achieved is not limited to the active application of advanced information technology in the area of city management as seen in this discussion. Indeed, Seoul also utilizes technology, and information and communication technology in particular, to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions where needed, but does not utterly rely on technology. Nevertheless, the successful implementation of Seoul’s urban policies is often associated with the effective use of data infrastructures which support and enable a systemic approach to urban solutions in such areas as land registry, waterworks, transport, safety, disaster, and so on.

In reflecting upon what has made it possible for Seoul to build such a centralized system of urban data, one may question or even challenge the top-down approach that has been taken to build such systems of operation and monitoring.

Bottom-up, voluntary rules and political participation are all very well, but in reality it truly is a question worth contemplating if super-rapid developers like South Korea can afford the time needed to form a voluntary consensus and then construct systems that work as efficiently as those Seoul has in place now. It is probable that the extent and the growth rates of negative externalities the megacity has had to deal with were far too high for it simply to sit back and wait for agreements on every aspect of policy action that was required.

An overview of Seoul’s urban policies would reveal that a full array of policy approaches, ranging from the command-and-control type of regulatory measures and market incentives/disincentives, to direct government investment and moral persuasion (Baumol and Oates 1988). It has taken the “accommodationist” approach (Banister 2003) of supplying the basic infrastructures in response to expanding demand, while implementing demand management strategies to keep demand in check, if necessary.

On the top of these classic policy typologies, it has also proactively made wise use of a highly innovative land delivery method in order to provide public infrastructures such as roads and parks—a land readjustment method used only in a few countries in the world—as well as embracing other less conventional models of infrastructure investment and provision, such as Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and public corporations, as an effective provider of public services. It is worth noting that the significant role played by arm’s length, quasi-public corporations such as the Seoul Land and Housing Corporation (SH) is quite unique to Seoul, and to Korea for that matter.

Figure 23 is an attempt to depict how the city has striven to achieve the values subscribed by citizens and contemporary global urban communities alike, including local economic well-being, sustainability, resilience and the quality of life. Illustrative policy responses and some of the key performance indicators seem to suggest that a large share of the urban investment was made in the area of infrastructure building.

Whereas the infrastructures associated with the current discussion tended to be focused on physical and virtual infrastructures, due largely to limited space and scope, the city underwent another set of compressed processes in developing and advancing its social and institutional infrastructures. A wider and closer view might better illustrate how important it has been in Seoul’s rapid progress through development in recent years to build smart infrastructures in all four areas, i.e. physical, social, institutional, and informational.

Figure 23. Seoul’s approach to Smart and Sustainable Megacity



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