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Barun Roy: Songdo - Too impersonal for comfort?

Even in a smart city, people want glimpses of history and a human touch. Songdo is turning out to be a history-less city. There's just not what some experts describe as a big bad urban centre

Barun Roy 

Barun Roy

Called the world's smartest city, being built entirely from scratch on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land along Incheon's waterfront, Songdo International Business District, 40 miles Southwest of Seoul, was just a marshy tidal flat in 2000. It was supposed to be ready by 2015, but is only 60 per cent complete as of now and perhaps won't be ready before 2018.

It's the largest private real estate development in history and some $40 billion has already been spent on it. Developers describe it as a global business hub. Purpose-built for low-carbon sustainable growth, it's supposed to have 40 per cent of its area dedicated to outdoor spaces with 16 miles of bicycle lanes, a central park, and waterways. There will be 100 main buildings in the district, including a trade centre claimed as Korea's tallest building.

But it's the proposed use of technology that's drawing the world's attention. There's a futuristic rubbish collection system spanning the whole complex. No rubbish truck will be seen on the streets. All household and office waste will be sucked through a network of underground ducts to vast sorting facilities for processing. All the sorted and treated waste will be turned into energy for the community. Sensors will monitor everything from temperature to energy consumption and traffic. Even water pipes are designed to stop clean water, suitable for human consumption, from being used in showers and toilets. All the embankment's water will go through a sophisticated recycling system.

But despite its proximity to Seoul and Incheon International Airport, less than 20 per cent of Songdo's commercial space is said to be occupied. In order to attract more people to Songdo, the developers are now investing heavily in setting up at least four universities, including a couple of them from overseas. Gale International, the American developer behind Songdo, hopes businesses will soon follow. Other private parties are Korea's Posco and America's Morgan Stanley Real Estate.

Tax breaks, estate support and subsidies are on the cards. No property tax will be levied for 10 years with 50 per cent reduction for the next three years. For now, Songdo remains an architect's model. Its wide sidewalks and roads are still waiting for pedestrians and cars. A "telepresence" system is still being tested, which will allow residents to sit in front of customised TV screens and take language or fitness lessons from instructors elsewhere in Korea. Mobile phones will control home appliances and microchips are to be inserted in bracelets to track children, evoking an Orwellian future.

This is perhaps scaring away people and businesses from Songdo. Even in a smart city, people want glimpses of history and a human touch. Songdo is turning out to be a history-less city, too impersonal for comfort. There's just not what some experts describe as a big bad urban centre. Living and doing business in a totally wired community may be attractive to some, but people may not enjoy a situation where one would always be open to snooping by others. Technology must have its limits and shouldn't rule our lives 24 hours a day and turn us into robots. And where's the guarantee that technology won't be misused by vested interests, fraudsters, and business rivals?

After completion, Songdo is planned to have 80,000 apartments, 50,000,000 sq ft of office space, and 10,000, 000 sq ft of retail space. But even in Songdo, residents won't stay young for all time and will keep ageing. Their reflexes will diminish. More than 50 years ago, Brasilia was launched as the world's first ever smartest city. But Brasilia was an instant disaster, grandiose, monstrously over-scale, and immediately encircled by slums.

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First Published: Wed, December 10 2014. 21:46 IST