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Sustainability in South Korea (Part I) by Prof. Dan Rohlf

Posted by: | April 9, 2014 Comments Off on Sustainability in South Korea (Part I) by Prof. Dan Rohlf |

From a social perspective, my interactions and observations suggest that the average Korean does not often think much about sustainability (of course, I met a number of very talented young Koreans who think a lot about environmental aspects of sustainability, but they were not a very representative group given that they were taking my environmental law class). On the other hand, Korean culture and circumstances in Korea itself obviate some aspects of the community/social aspects of sustainability. For example, Korea is ethnically quite homogenous, so social justice issues related to race are less common than in countries with more diverse populations. In addition, Korean culture generally emphasizes fitting in to a group, which seems to encourage a general sense of community in a variety ways. And while employment is apparently changing to some degree in the 21st century, Koreans generally can generally expect substantial job security and employment benefits. And like most sensible nations (ahem…), Korea has a comprehensive state-run health care system.

A darker side of social sustainability underlies the Korea’s incredible success in recent decades. While the country has outstanding education opportunities, it also makes the most desirable schools open only to top performing students, identified largely by key exams. So while Koreans enjoy a carefree childhood – we constantly observed young children doing basically whatever they pleased with their indulgent parents looking on – by sixth grade or so students must buckle down and attend both their “main” school as well as often private “cram” schools for additional instruction as they aim for top examination marks. A key goal is the golden ticket to success – acceptance to one of the SKY schools (Seoul National University, Korea National or Yonsei U). Young people are under enormous pressure to perform, and of course only a few select student get into these schools. It is therefore not likely a coincidence that Korea has had the highest suicide rate in the developed world for the past eight years, and it’s the number one cause of death for Koreans between age 10 and 30. Many Koreans note such a link, though they did not express much optimism for change anytime soon.

Two striking aspects of environmental sustainability are almost immediately noticeable in Korea. Urban areas in the country are incredibly densely populated. Seoul is home to more than 1 in 5 Koreans, and the city has the highest population density in the developed world. Other urban areas also have high population densities, not necessarily because they have so many people or a dearth of available space, but because high-rise apartment complexes provide the most common living space. Row after row of 10-15 story apartments are everywhere within cities large and small. A lessor number of smaller apartment buildings and a relatively small number of single family dwellings complete the mix.

We lived in a high-rise apartment for a month in the town of Chuncheon, about an hour or so from Seoul by car. The apartment belongs to a professor at Kangwon National University’s law school, who is married and has three children. With two bedrooms, an office, and one bathroom, the apartment was quite comfortable for my wife and I. But add three kids – the size of our absentee host’s family – and I’m sure things often feel a little tight. But the apartment is relatively quiet, has high ceilings and is just a short climb to the second floor up a flight of stairs. The apartment complex has a community center with a daycare, fitness room, and assorted administrative offices.

Dense living conditions go a long way toward creating the “20 minute neighborhood” often discussed as a goal for urban planning in the United States. Our neighborhood – and as far as I could tell virtually all neighborhoods in Chuncheon with the exception of a relatively small suburban fringe of single family homes – was more of a 5 minute neighborhood, with a mix of restaurants (and more restaurants), shops, offices, churches, and a variety of businesses within a few blocks.

Transportation is of course also an important element of sustainability. Korea’s transportation infrastructure is impressive. Noticeably in comparison with my own country, Korea has an amazing rail system. We took the train from Chuncheon to Seoul on several occasions, and they were extremely pleasant experiences. For traveling during busy times, one reserves a seat online; conductors never even asked to see our ticket (kept in one’s smartphone), most likely because their own e-device told them the seat had been sold (and probably also because the notion of getting on a train without paying does not even occur to most Koreans). The trip to and from Chuncheon took less time on the train than in a car, and costs around $7 per person. Train attendants sell food and drink – including cold beer! – from small carts that roll up and down the aisles. The ride is absolutely quiet and smooth, and the restrooms are spacious and spotless. Stops are announced (and posted on video screens) in Korean and English. The train network spans the country and connects all major cities.

Disembarking in Seoul, we generally opted for one of two modes of transport in the megapolis. Taxis in Korea are ubiquitous. In a city or town of any size, we almost never found ourselves without access to a stopped or passing taxi for more than a couple of minutes. They are also extremely inexpensive, so much so that I have no idea how drivers and taxi companies stay in the black. While ready access to inexpensive taxis does not necessarily further a more sustainable transportation system, but it is certainly convenient.

Seoul also has an extensive and efficient subway system. It is spotless and very inexpensive, and stations often feature underground shopping centers and passageways that connect to various surface destinations.

Buses are also a common means of getting between cities, particularly smaller towns away from train lines. Bus stations are a bit rougher around the edges than the sleek train stations, but the buses are clean, comfortable, and depart at precisely their scheduled time.

But the pull of automobiles is strong in Korea as in much of the world. Many if not most people have cars, though fewer per capita than in the U.S. Fuel is more expensive than in the U.S., as is typical for most of the world. Traffic, particularly in Seoul, can also be pretty terrible. Despite ready access to dependable, comfortable, and very efficient forms of mass transportation, many people still prefer to drive in their private cars. An attorney we met admitted that he could take the subway to his office in the same or less time than he could drive, but that he just liked to drive. One of my environmental law students fought the Seoul traffic in her Mercedes. At least that makes sitting in Seoul’s packed traffic more comfortable.



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