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Songdo, South Korea's City of the Future, Has a Green Vision

Songdo's skyline at night.
Songdo's skyline at night.

Golfers watching the PGA Tour's Presidents Cup tournament last month may have caught a glimpse of the city of the future beyond the fairways. The event, held at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea, was a coming out party of sorts for Songdo, Korea, a masterplanned city on the Asian nation's west coast that counts the sculpted greens as one of its main attractions. In 2000, this area was still a series of tidal marshes, famous for being near an international airport and having once serving as one of the spots where General MacArthur came ashore during the Korean War. Now, it's a $40 billion experiment in smart city design, boasting a potentially burgeoning business district with a 68-story tower, sizable central park and some of the highest concentrations of LEED-certified space in the world.

"When we first started, it was that place by the airport," says Tom Murcott, executive vice president of development for Gale International, a global real estate developer leading the Songdo project. "Now, with tens of thousands of people there, it's a more calming, open and family-oriented place to live and work than Seoul."

Two of the highlights of Songdo: the 68-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower (NEATT), and a view from the 16th hole of the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea.

Close to the finish line, Songdo is roughly 70 percent complete, according to Murcott, with 60 million square feet of construction complete (a third of that LEED certified) and more than 67,000 residents. It boasts an active oceanfront 35 miles southwest of the capital, but more importantly, a focus on forward-thinking engineering. Called a "ubiquitous city," it features an array of smart tech features, such as a central series of trash tubes connects the entire city (meaning no trash cans or unsightly piles of bags on street corners). Critics have dubbed it a "city in a box," one that shows of impressive tech from the likes of Cisco but isn't truly livable.

Murcott might say, just take a walk around. Forty percent of the city is parkland, one of the highest percentages in the world, and bike lanes and pedestrian walkways thread through the city. While it's being billed as the city of the future, it appears to offer a better, greener version of the present. While, just a few years ago, Gale hadn't made a profit after nearly a dozen years spent on the project, new projects suggest the outlook may be improving.

Murcott said the key to Songdo was designing a green, eclectic city with counterintuitive planning. In addition to the waterfront focus, the project planners from Kohn Pedersen Fox focused on inserting a massive, 101-acre park in the middle of the development, which caused some in the government planning office to ask why valuable real estate that might become a central business district was being used for less-valuable leisure activities.

"We said, 'look, this is how the greatest cities in the world are built,'" he says.

He also believes the way the city's phased-in development was key to growing slowly and fitting new arrivals into the urban fabric; new universities and colleges, such as George Mason, University of Utah and a forthcoming UNLV hospitality school, have helped round out the rapidly growing commercial districts. A side effect of the phased-in growth is that finished but unoccupied areas of the city became popular shooting locations: Psy's blockbuster "Gangnam Style" video was shot in an area that will soon become a

"It's a new place that's a little different than the high-energy Seoul marketplace," Murcott says. "We're giving them an alternative."

Currently, the commute to Seoul via the subway is roughly an hour-and-a-half. (it's no accident the stop opens up near the entrance to the golf course). But, Gale hopes that high-speed rail comes in the next few years, cutting the trip to 20 minutes, and helping the city become a more integrated part of the city's business life.

"How are residents going to use the space to live, work and play?" says Murcott. "If the platform isn't going to have a net positive affect on a resident's life, then you probably shouldn't be doing it. It was really a function of looking at the end user in terms of how you're thinking."

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