South Korea has developed one of the
greenest cities on the planet.

WRITTEN BY Alison Gregor

Title Image: Songdo IBD, South Korea, is one of the world’s most sustainable cities and boasts the highest concentration of LEED-certified projects in the world. Above: Canal Walk features four blocks of 5-story low-rise buildings that run along either side of a central canal. The canal is lined with assorted greenery and wood decking.

What if you could design a city center with New York’s Central Park and with the canals of Venice or Amsterdam or San Antonio? Or with the high-end shopping of Fifth Avenue and the giant boulevards of Paris? And buildings on the water as iconic as the Sydney Opera House?


There also would be few cars to congest the streets—and the boulevards would be open to pedestrians—because the cars would be parked underground. And there would be no garbage trucks to wake you with racket only to clog the streets the rest of the day, because the waste disposal system would be handled pneumatically in an underground system of pipes.


This city would also be one of the greenest cities on the planet, about 40 percent green, and in fact, it already exists: It’s Songdo International Business District (IBD), South Korea, located about 20 miles from Seoul and about 20 miles from the border of North Korea as the crow flies—and also a 20-minute drive from Incheon International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world.


Green properties “will be more than 50 percent of the total 100 million square feet of built space planned for Songdo IBD,” says Stanley C. Gale, the chairman and managing partner of Gale International. “This is a very high concentration—we have been told by U.S. Green Building Council [USGBC] that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] principles have never before been applied to a single development at such a scale.”
“To give you a sense, Songdo’s LEED-certified space represents 40 percent of all the LEED space in Korea,” he says.


Songdo has a lot of competition: It’s not the only city being designed and built from scratch by planners and architects. There’s Lavasa, in Maharashtra, India, projected to be complete in 2021; Destiny in Osceola, Florida; Dongtan in Congming-Iland, China; Qatar’s Energy City; and India’s Gujarat International Finance Tec-City.


The history of the Songdo IBD is one that came about prior to the 1990s, when South Korea felt very vulnerable between two economic powerhouses: Japan and China, says Richard Nemeth, a principal with Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), the architecture firm that’s been involved in the creation of Songdo IBD almost since the beginning.


“Korea felt sandwiched between Japan and China, these two huge goliaths, and as their economy transformed from agriculture to manufacturing to technology and then into service, which is where most of the economy transformed, South Korea felt that they were going to get eclipsed by these massive economies on either side of them,” Nemeth says.


“So South Korea had the brilliant idea of setting up these free trade zones along with their coastal land, which they were reclaiming at a rapid pace, from the Yellow Sea near Incheon.”

Central Park is the centerpiece of Songdo IBD’s green space plan, comprising almost 10 percent of Songdo IBD’s total acreage.

“Their ideas were to create these free trade zones along the coast where companies would come and set up shop to do business in China, Japan, or elsewhere—and get a significant tax break. Trying to set up a company is difficult to do, it’s hard to get money in and out, so they thought this was great: We’ll do an international city that Westerners will move into and feel comfortable doing business there,” Nemeth says.


The Korean government also hoped to create a city that demonstrated the country’s technological prowess as well. So the idea was underway, with support from the Korean steel giant POSCO, until the Asian economic crisis of the early 2000s hit, and Songdo’s source of financing went under. At that point, Korean companies sought to diversify their investment partners to try to prevent economic failure.


Even though Gale and KPF were not even yet on board with POSCO, there was a lot of work ahead of them. First, the city would pave all the city streets on what had been tidal wetlands. Second, the ideas for planning cities, especially sustainable ones, were quite different culturally between the countries that became involved.


“The planners mentioned that there were obstacles in the sense that the Korean idea of planning communities is much different from Western ideas: from large, roughly 20- to 30-story uniform buildings to spread-out communities to gigantic blocks. So did any of these traditions of planning present any obstacles or challenges in doing Songdo IBD? They did,” says Tom Murcott, an executive vice president of International with Gale International.


Concessions had to be made. If fact, the Korean populace had to be educated about green building.


“When we first came on the project nine years ago now, we were constantly studying the blogosphere because here we were [pushing] this green design but was Korea even behind it?” Murcott questioned. “Places like the U.S. and Singapore were using green development, but the Korean population didn’t care that much about green.”

A 12-passenger water taxi provides a leisurely cruise down the 1.8-km seawater canal that flows through the park.

The new presidential administration of Lee Myung-bak changed all that, as he laid out an agenda for a National Strategy for Green Growth and the Five-Year Plan for Green Growth in 2008. In February 2009, President Lee established the Presidential Committee on Green Growth, which would be largely under the direct authority of the president.


Even something that seems as logical to a westerner as devoting 101 acres to a city central park was by no means self-evident to the South Korean planners, Gale says. A canal was not easy to sell to Koreans, who live in a low-water-use country and had to rely on saltwater wherever they could. Consequently, the canal that goes through the park uses seawater for obvious reasons: conservation, cleanliness, and evaporation.

A focal point of Songdo IBD’s environmentally focused green space program is an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Nicklaus Design.

“To inspire vibrancy, Songdo was designed to have a high-density core,” he says. “Like New York, a mix of high-rise residential and commercial buildings is located at the center of the city, ringing the park. It’s true that this was not a commonly held idea in Korea when we started building Songdo, but we convinced city-planning partners that an amenity like a city center park would increase property values and enhance the quality of life for all Songdo residents.”


Thus, LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) began to be tested in Songdo IBD as part of a pilot program, “but this was begun before you realized that there were some conditions that precluded [us] achieving LEED-ND for the entire footprint,” Murcott says.


Nevertheless, about $35 billion of the master plan has been built out with 65,000 projected permanent residents—mostly Koreans as foreign residents have been slow to move in, with about 1,500 foreign residents in June 2014, according to the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) Authority. A total of about 35 million square feet of residential development (about 22,500 new housing units) is projected.


With about 40 million square feet of office space planned, it’s estimated that about 300,000 commuter and business travelers will come to Songdo by 2020. The approximately 65,000 residents who will eventually live inside the Songdo IBD do not include the roughly 300,000 residents who may live outside the business district, which means greater Songdo may ultimately have a population of well over 300,000—the size of Tampa, Florida, on a fraction of the land mass.


Besides office buildings, about 10 million square feet of retail space, including a retail complex with 150 retail specialty shops, a hypermarket, and multiplex cinema will be included. And 40 percent of Songdo IBD development will be set aside as open space.


Five million square feet of hotel space—including Five Star Sheraton Incheon Hotel, and the stunningly gorgeous and traditional Gyeongwonjae Ambassador Hotel—has been built. An additional 10 million square feet of space is public space including the architecturally distinctive Convensia Convention Center, designed by KPF.

Chadwick International School Songdo is Korea’s first LEED-certified school and serves as the international branch of the Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, California.

Currently, about 65 percent of the planned 100 million square feet of Songdo has been built on the 1,500 acres of reclaimed land—basically tidal flats filled with sand—and none of those claimed lands received LEED-ND, planners said.


Among intense international competition, the Secretariat of the Green Climate Fund was one of the first organizations to demonstrate support of Songdo by locating there in 2013, with 60 people currently on two floors, soon to expand to five. A dozen nongovernmental international organizations followed, according to Songdo executives, filling the 33-story G Tower.



The Convensia Convention Center is the first convention center in Asia to achieve LEED certification.

Though the situation is different from conventional office leasing deals with long-term leases and high rents, its importance is both symbolic and economic, according to Songdo proponents. Not only are there jobs but also employees who need homes, and the NGOs typically host hundreds of conferences at local hotels annually.


Stanley C. Gale was selected to receive the Sustainable Cities Award, a global award designed to recognize the commitment Gale has made to green development. He was also given an honorary citizenship of Incheon.


Gale says, “The Sustainable Cities Award is a critical step in emphasizing the importance of the impact of new grand-scale development on climate change. In addition to the building materials, the underlying tech infrastructure that links all buildings can facilitate positive outcomes like a dramatic reduction in energy use because the system gives individual residents the power to monitor and moderate how they consume energy,” he explains.


And in fact, one partner of Songdo, Cisco Systems, Inc., is an American multinational technology company headquartered in San Jose, California, that’s wiring the entire city of Songdo, as well as using the benefits of everything from teleconferencing for educational purposes to technological monitoring for health benefits and studying volunteers’ lives to perfect mobile phone–controlled home appliances.


Though building cities—even ones certified as LEED-ND—might seem highly counterintuitive to the idea of sustainability, Gale says that from the outset, a commitment to sustainability was built into Songdo’s foundation.


“Many measures and technologies have been taken to ensure that,” he says. “In addition to the building materials, I would like to emphasize that the underlying tech infrastructure that links all buildings can facilitate positive outcomes like a dramatic reduction in energy use because the system gives individual residents the power to monitor and moderate how they consume energy.


“It is both the built environment and the citizen empowerment that sets Songdo apart. For example, the trigenerator is very good at removing the waste that would normally be a liability and turning it into an asset,” he says. “And that treated waste becomes graywater that then can irrigate plants.”


Songdo’s latest victory on the international stage was hosting the Presidents Cup 2015 golf tournament at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea, which opened in 2010 with a LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) certified clubhouse. It was the first time the tournament had been held in Asia (and a Korean golfer came a stroke or two from winning the event).


And the list of eco-friendly buildings continues, with 22 million square feet LEED-certified, including the silver 68-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower, the tallest tower currently in Korea, designed by KPF. The other buildings include 14 projects comprising 119 buildings—83 residential, 26 retail, 9 commercial, and 1 educational.


Songdo already has the first LEED-certified exhibit hall in Asia, the Convensia Convention Center; the first LEED-certified residential tower in Korea (called Central Park 1); the first LEED-certified hotel in Korea (Sheraton Incheon); and the Chadwick International School, the first LEED-certified school in Korea, whose administrators take great pride in their facility.


And Gale has alluded to the fact that there may be other cities to be built on his horizon—perhaps rolling out as many as 20 new cities across China and India in the next few decades, using Songdo as a model, each one faster, cheaper, better.


“When completed, projected in 2020, 65,000 people will live in Songdo IBD and 300,000 will work there daily,” Gale says. “In terms of size of IBD, we often say that is compatible to Downtown Boston and its wider business.


“But we are always evaluating new-city development opportunities elsewhere and continue to be in demand for our master planning experience,” he continued, pointing to the massive Meixi Lake District new city in China, which is currently under development.