Urban Planning + Design + Research


Writing on a variety of topics related to cities, urban theory, sustainable development, China, urbanism.

Gangnam Style or Gangbuk Style?

Oppa is Gangnam Style..the very word Gangnam is enough to conjure up the jarringly repetitive techo beat and the addicting yet now gag-inducing horse-riding mime that has become the world's most-watched youtube video. But in addition to that, for me, the song (if we can call it a song) is a perfect starting point for a discussion of Seoul's city planning.

What is Gangnam Style?

Most listeners are unaware of what the song has to say about Seoul's urban divisions: between the flashy modern district of Gangnam, whose name literally means "south of the river" and Gangbuk, meaning literally "north of the river", referring to the older area of Seoul that connotes tradition, narrow streets, and for some perhaps, the memories of a time when Korea was a much poorer and less glitzy place.

The song is ostensibly about the singer's fantasy of a girl, a Gangnam girl, who is reserved and modest during the day but likes to party and get naughty in the evening, "a girl who puts her hair down when the right time comes." It is the stereotypical male chauvinist fantasy of feminine modesty. But it is also a fantasy of the modern city and all that it represents.

Until the 1980's, the area known as Gangnam was mostly rice paddies and mulberry fields, as evidenced by this U.S. Army map from 1946 (left). The detail (right) shows Sinsa-dong in Gangnam, south of the Han River.  Beginning in the 1970's and 80's, rapid development turned this side of the river into a business district filled with skyscrapers, expensive malls, and other trappings of the modern global city.

Seoul 1946 Map

sinsadong 1946 map



Gangbuk: The Soul of Seoul

The area known as Gangbuk, however, is the old Seoul, featuring most of the capital's historic neighborhoods and Joseon-era palaces, the original financial and business district, Jongno, as well as some neighborhoods that remain stubbornly shabby and "underdeveloped". But overall, Gangbuk and its narrow winding roads are one of the most redeeming features of Seoul: that even amidst the modernity one can still find respite in quiet alleys and quaint neighborhoods (see previous post on: Cute Urbanism).

However, after exploring much of Seoul's various  dong, or neighborhoods, it is clear that many of the most desirable residential addresses in Seoul are actually not in Gangnam but in Gangbuk. Yeonhui-dong (pictured below), where i live, is home to some quiet hilly streets where two of Korea's ex-presidents live. It's a more "old-money" kind of area than Gangnam, but increasingly peppered with expats, students from nearby Yonsei University, and some artsy shops and cafes, and even an organic grocery store--albeit with apartmnt rents much cheaper than New York's Williamsburg or The Mission in SF . Other areas where the leaders of Korea's conglomerates reside include Seongbuk-dong in the foothills of the mountains just north of downtown, and Itaewon and Hannam-dong, all north of the Han River.

yeonhui gate


There may be something to be said for being in the center of it all, in Seoul's traditional urban core in Gangbuk. This recent article on financial firms leaving Yeouido (the city's modern purposefully-built financial center south of the Han river) suggests that a number of companies have already relocated to Jongno, the city's original financial and business hub in the old city.  Just as tech companies are relocating to San Francisco's dense SoMA area from the suburban Silicon Valley, so too may Korean financial firms prefer the central areas of Seoul that have more access to transit, urban amenities like food and culture, and perhaps, the corporations with whom they do business.

This is one of the reasons why it is so hard for cities to simply conjure up "tech hubs" and "innovation clusters" out of thin air. Occasionally, they may succeed. But cities evolve over time, and the value of central urban real estate is precisely that—it's centrality.

The Development of Gangnam

That being said, modern metropolises today often have several employment centers. Even New York has the financial district in the original southern core of Manhattan, but Midtown now far exceeds downtown both in the number of companies and the amount of real-estate.  This was the one of the reasons for the city laying out the Gangnam area: to serve as a new employment center and spur economic development. Some areas of Gangnam, including the Teheran-ro boulevard known as "Teheran alley" for the numerous tech firms headquartered there, seem to have been designed strictly according to the modernist vision of city planning, with wide boulevards and glass office towers. Yeouido, the financial district just west of Teheran-ro (but still south of the Han River) has an even more "planned" feeling and was specifically designated as a financial center. Both areas were the result of centrally-planned government projects.

The development of Gangnam was a hybrid public-private endeavor, as described by scholar Jung-In Kim. According to Kim, "landowners were obligated to develop their property in accordance with suggested re-partition layouts, but aware that private owners rarely had the financial resources to execute the plan's suggested provisions, the city took on the onus of development itself. In turn, landowners transferred a portion of their property rights to the city because the state promised higher real estate values." In this way, the government was able to develop Gangnam without having to acquire every piece of land in private ownership, quite unlike the process of development in China where city governments wholly expropriate entire massive tracts of land for redevelopment, like Pudong in Shanghai.

After exploring other parts of Gangnam, I realized that even this side of Seoul has pockets of small-scale neighborhoods behind the main boulevards, mixed-use areas that have grown organically, despite their relative youth compared to Gangbuk (see above aerial photo). It is still possible to create vibrant urban neighborhoods from scratch, but not using the methods most cities prefer today. By allowing individual landowners to retain property rights in certain places, the planners of Gangnam were able to realize the vision of a modern financial center along major roads while retaining some of the organic urban neighborhoods that characterize the older part of the city.

Gangnam's Teheran-ro is, admittedly, much less walkable and human-scale than most areas of Gangbuk. But I would say that it is still a much better urban environment than similar planned business districts like Shanghai's Pudong, Beijing's CBD, and even the new 'eco-city' of Songdo in Incheon, just outside of Seoul.


Even so, I still prefer Seoul, Gangbuk style.





1. Kim, Jung-in, "Constructing a Miracle, Architecture, National Identity and Development of the Han River a Critical Exploration of Architecture and Urbanism: Seoul" 2008, U.C. Berkeley Dissertation

2. Images: Koreabang.com, Seoul Development Institute, wikimedia, http://moe-hankook.blogspot.kr/2013/06/coex-place-where-gangnam-style-was-born.html