Reflections on Our Urban Design Efforts for the Post COVID-19 Era

The 2020 SEOUL DESIGN INTERNATONAL FORUM has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

SPEAKER: Park, So Hyun (Architecture and Urban Institute, AURI Director)


In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting new challenges to the world. According to the official statistics of the World Health Organization (WHO), there are currently 42,966,344 confirmed cases and 1,152,604 deaths in 219 countries and territories. In Korea, the cumulative number of confirmed cases has reached 26,043 and the death toll has reached 460. Although there are still many difficulties in our society, the response method to COVID-19 is receiving relatively positive evaluations.

Quick epidemiological investigation, centralized administrative processing, and flexible financial management are frequently cited as the success factors of the so-called “K-Quarantine”. Planning and collaboration with the private sector, rigorous contact tracing, a flexible health system and government-led communication are key factors in controlling the coronavirus.

The central government shows strong leadership and works closely with local governments and private organizations to carry out tasks quickly and efficiently. Our society and bureaucratic organizations are very accustomed to this, and perform effectively.

This leads our city, which was built in a top-down, large-scale development method in an era of rapid growth, to reflect on recent urban design efforts that seek design solutions in a bottom-up, resident-participatory, small-scale regeneration method from a different angle. The so-called 'slow & bottom-up' discourse of 'step by step led by residents' in various similar project sites of the government that has changed names over the past 20 years was a very difficult investigation to realize. A number of projects such as living soc, smart city, and green remodeling are still being carried out rapidly under the leadership of the administration. As confirmed by the success factors of K-Quarantine, among the things our society is good at and can be proud of, is a quick and efficient administrative system led by the government and a fast space solution led by experts.

What compromises must be sought to paradoxically establish a new, time-consuming, participatory urban design approach while taking advantage of the fast solution finding and implementation of the central government-led top-down system? The successful experience of K-Quarantine is something to be thankful for, but it is inevitable that attributes such as strong administrative power, promptness, control, and personal sacrifice collide with various basic values ​​such as democracy and human rights inherent in resident participatory urban design planning. How can you mediate such aspects? We try to find answers to these questions.

About the direction we have been designing cities

What should we do after Corona?

[Architecture and Urban Institute, AURI]


Architecture and Urban Institute (AURI) is a national research institute that has been researching national architecture and urban space policies in Korea since its establishment in 2007. It consists of research groups on architecture, regional regeneration, urban design, smart green, and spatial culture, and has been conducting research for the past 14 years. In addition, various opinions are presented by a total of 11 centers, including the Architecture and Urban Policy Information Center, the Pedestrian Environment Research Center, and the recently established Age-Friendly Policy Research Center. It studies place-based services for Korea's spatial policy by reflecting on 'how Korea has made cities in the past?' and reflecting Western theories.

 [Social change and flow of architectural urban space design]

After the industrial revolution, modernization, and the information revolution, the ‘sustainable city’ has become a global topic. After the Korean War, cities across the country, including Seoul, were in ruins, and experienced rapid urbanization, industrialization, and modernization at the same time and went through an era of compressed growth. The advent of an era of pursuit of values different from development is symbolically represented through the changed appearance of the Cheonggyecheon area.


In the 60s and 70s, cities had to be built in a quick and efficient way to solve the immediate task of escaping poverty and ruined cities and housing problems. Since then, the Samil Building and its high price have no longer been sympathized with as symbols of a constructive city since the national income reached about $20,000, but rather, it has been recognized as negative factors that hinder the urban landscape, and spilling water back into Cheonggyecheon Stream has symbolic value. Now it is 2020, and solutions for urban design, which were inevitably applied in the past, have continued to this day. Throughout this era of change, we have recently approached another type of so-called "renewal" after the era of building, redevelopment, and reconstruction of many houses.


 [Change of Urban Space Design Paradigm]

Before the era of COVID-19, the flow of changes in the urban space paradigm was taken for granted as it went through a series of changes in the times mentioned above, and it was conceptually appropriate to respond to it, so we have been working tirelessly. For example, in the past, there was an era of mainly growth-oriented construction such as mass production of small types, but now it has changed to small-scale production of many types and considers the value of distribution to be more important than growth. In pursuit of community values ​​to create a city of balance, the concept of a city where pedestrians and people are respected rather than the rapid movement of automobiles and logistics has been transformed into a city where pedestrians and people are respected. We are now seeking to make a city that values ​​pedestrian- and people-centered culture more slowly and resident-led rather than with a growth-friendly attitude. A word that embraces all of these concepts is the proposition of a ‘sustainable city’, which we all recognize and agree with.


After the era of moving around quantitative goals such as the construction of 2 million homes, Korea begins to undergo changes as we set the philosophical topic of ‘good living’, that is, creating a livable area as the goal of our business. For example, the creation of a livable area pursued by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security from around 2007 is led by residents to revitalize the region in the form the local community wants. The goal of ‘partnership between local governments and local communities’ is a goal that is understandable and sympathetic even if you read it now. Since then, there have been various local projects in which local governments and local communities form partnerships.



As the contents that have been developed as social movements such as town development became more common as they were institutionalized into national systems and laws, special laws were passed to emphasize regeneration rather than urban development. A system has been established so that regeneration proceeds as a more specific government project. The system takes into account not only the physical environment but also the social environment in terms of regional capacity building, local community revitalization, and local community revitalization, which we had previously missed. Therefore, participation of residents in a different way than before, community creation led by residents, urban development, and creation of our living environment were effectively carried out within the system.

Meanwhile, although the system was established, many voices of disappointment were also heard in the field. This is because citizen-led participatory planning was not only time-consuming, but elements of the previous paradigm, which were considered efficient, could not work. In the participatory process, stakeholders should be patient and accept each other and proceed slowly, but there were cases where the process was not smooth, causing constant worries or frustration.

 [Korea's strengths through K quarantine in response to COVID-19]


We were faced with the variable COVID 19 in a situation where we were struggling and worried about the participatory process. Even in the distant future, after many years have passed, 2020 will be remembered as a special year. As shown in the graph above, the epidemic started gradually in early 2020 and spread significantly at a certain point in time. Although the spread of the virus is currently within our range, there are still concerns and risks, and above all, new realizations have been made during a series of pandemics.

In Europe and North America, developed countries that we have used as references in various fields, unfortunate situations have occurred one after another, such as a large number of confirmed cases and deaths due to insufficient initial response to COVID-19. The question 'Why are these cities, which were considered as developed countries as a reference, in such panic?' At the same time, surprise and regret coexisted.

On the other hand, South Korea is known to be relatively successful in responding to the corona crisis. When we looked at what Korean methods are called K-Quarantine, we found that successful cases were being prepared in the midst of difficulties by applying new methods such as the installation of screening clinics and drive-throughs, which opened a new topic for us designing cities. This raises a new topic for us in designing cities. Several papers have seen the success of K-Quarantine as a situation in which several financial systems such as centralized administrative power, the way the medical system was prepared at the national plan level, and the medical insurance system are in motion. Also, fast 3T: The prevailing view of success is the speedy and smooth running of the test, trace, and treatment processes as a factor of success, and this is our forgotten advantage.


We emphasized the participatory plan and shouted, 'It should be done slowly' and 'It should be led by the residents', but it was a pity that they did not proceed smoothly at the site. It is true that the rapid system and the characteristics of culture unique to our society were viewed only as characteristics that had to be overcome.

However, these characteristics are considered to be one of our strengths and the unique habits of society that we have developed while going through the age of compressed growth. Now imagine the possibility of creatively connecting these characteristics by applying them to participatory design. At the same time, there is a need to reflect once again on the contradictory attributes inherent in the way residents have been engaged in city-making projects, and to seek the possibility of deriving a third new solution through reflection on the fundamentally conflicting parts. We need to reconsider the reality of what we are putting forward as a condition for voluntary resident participation and think about how these roles will be seen after 2020, and consider that residents and public experts need to find new roles in participatory public projects. 

At the same time, what we do not want to miss, and must not miss, is the fact that there was still no public intervention in many successful cases when we carried out new participatory projects in the city and that we have to calmly accept it. This will also be a big part of our homework, and I think that it should be done with a harsh self-examination about our reality, where we spend a long time to come up with a solution for resident-led space design.

Finally, we need to reconsider the factors to be evaluated positively among the properties of our spatial culture that we have been cherishing knowingly and unknowingly, that have been successful in the era of compressed growth. Many experts today emphasize the importance of participatory processes in all areas of society and address concerns about centralized top-down approaches. Therefore, we need to think about how to find our own way while creating a synergistic effect when the attributes of our top-down, centralized strengths are combined with a participatory and bottom-up approach. I think this is the task and message that K-Quarantine gives us.


 The new topic to be raised at this point is to examine how the various ideals, norms, processes and principles that we thought were vaguely good in the past, actually work in reality, and to reflect on the way we create the current space. We can go in a slightly better third direction through constant questioning and thinking about the fundamentals. The topic of this era, which is still inevitable, is sustainable development. I know conceptually, but I have only taken it for granted that the homework we have to solve in reality and the various practical problems we have to endure.

Now, we have to question the nature of it and ask a new question from a different point of view.

I am convinced that the proposition that inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and dwellings should be created and enjoyed through participatory community planning will never go away. We hope that this discussion will serve as an opportunity to consider a new urban design plan that meets reality within the scope of respecting democracy and human rights, which should be fundamentally pursued when designing a participatory community.

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