Sejong, Korea: the pleasures and perils of a planned city

Cranes and high rises in development make up the skyline of Sejong

And so I find myself in Sejong Metropolitan Autonomous City. ‘Where?’, you may ask. For those who never heard of Sejong: it’s the de facto administrative capital city of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The USA has Washington DC, Australia has Canberra, Brazil has Brasília, and the Republic of Korea has Sejong. Or better, it tries to have Sejong.


The political struggle for Sejong

Starting in the 1970s voices were raised to relocate the national capital, Seoul. In part this was a desire to relieve the population stress on Seoul, in part it was a desire to make government administration more effective by having various ministries and other government functions located in close proximity of each other, in part it was a desire to spread economic development more evenly throughout the country, and in part was personal ambition of political bosses—with other political bosses making it their mission to stall plans for relocation.


After much dispute for and against the relocation of the national capital in the National Assembly a formal proposal for the development of a new capital city was made in 2002. A mostly agricultural area in the Chungcheong region was chosen for the new city—this is at some 120 kilometres south of Seoul. An international competition was held for the design of the new city, and a national competition was held to name the city. The former resulted in the design of a donut shaped city (I’ll get back to this later), the latter resulted in the name Sejong City in honour of Sejong the Great—the fourth King in the Joseon Dynasty (1418-1450) and among the most important figures in Korean history.


Whilst plans were made for the city, the political dispute for and against it continued. In 2004, the Constitutional Court ruled the plan to relocate the national capital illegal. In 2007, however, a special administrative district was created to house national ministries and national agencies, Sejong Autonomous Metropolitan City. It was envisaged that by the end of 2014 all national government ministries, research institutes and other important functions would be moved to Sejong. But the political struggle is ongoing, with the current President of the Republic of Korea, Park Guen-hye, openly opposing plans to relocate government functions to Sejong.


High ambitions

Sejong is envisaged to ultimately house 500,000 people and be largely self-sufficient. The location of the city is at a fork in the Guem River (one of Korea’s major rivers) where it meets the Miho River; a relatively flat area of land with a backdrop of forest covered hills and mountains. The design competition set strict criteria to built-up and open space. 50 per cent of the city was to be kept open for parks, urban forestry and urban agriculture; 20 per cent was allocated for residential development; and the remaining 30 percent was allocated for the development of offices, commerce, and infrastructure.


The city was not envisaged as an eco-city per se (with a strong focus on energy efficiency and low carbon intensity), but it has related ambitions. These include the high greenery ratio of 50 per cent, the ambition of a public transport and bicycle use ratio of 70 per cent, the ambition to have a large part of food products locally produced, and the promotion of solar power. Ambitions were also set to increase the living standards of the original citizens in the Chungcheong region. This by providing those that had to be relocated for the development of Sejong with government supported housing and jobs in the new city, and by establishing an agricultural self-managed cooperative that allows local farmers to sell their products in the city.


Five designs entered the competition. The one selected is described by its city planners as a ‘donut city’. Broadly speaking, it is a circle shaped city comprising of an outer ring of built up space and a large park area at its core. The outer ring of the city is located at both sides of the Guem River—connected by two bridges. Residential areas are located in the outer ring at both sides of the river, as are offices and commerce. The core of the city (the city park) is located at the north side of the Guem River. Government functions such as ministries and agencies are located at the north side also, whereas government research institutes are located at the south side of the river.


The city holds a number of architectural quirks that seem to be typical for planned cities such as Washington DC, Canberra and Brasília. The city is sprinkled with ‘national’ buildings, which include the national library (shaped as a folded book) and the national presidential archives (shaped as the Container of the Great Seal). Most striking is the Sejong Government Complex: this 3.5 kilometres long mega structure holds 10 ministries as well as a number of other government agencies. The complex snakes through the northern part of Sejong, and seen from above it resembles a flying dragon. The complex has a continuing rooftop garden, making this the largest rooftop garden in the world.


Where ambition meets reality

By the end of 2015, only two-thirds of anticipated government functions had moved to Sejong—recall that the full transfer was planned to be completed by 2014. By that time, the city counted just over 100,000 inhabitants—about a fifth of the projected population. This gives the city an air of emptiness and incompleteness; only strengthened by the forest of cranes and high rises under construction that make up the city’s skyline. This is, however, not the only ambition the city has thus far failed to meet.


The city is branded by the Sejong Metropolitan Autonomous City government as a ‘lively city’ that provides ‘convenient living, brimming with vitality’. Yet, Sejong’s citizens are highly critical about the convenience and vitality of their city. Recurring critique relates the lack of facilities for family life, and the (public) transport system. The city appears to have been developed to work well for the government functions it houses. The liveability of the city appears to have been given a (much) lower priority in the development process.


Sejong and family life

A large part of Sejong’s citizens are government employees (some 17,000) who have de facto been forced to move from Seoul to Sejong. Many of them have families. Sejong does, however, provide limited educational facilities for the children of these families; and, equally problematic, the city does not provide jobs for spouses who are not government employees themselves. Many of Sejong’s citizens therefore choose to commute between their work in Sejong and their families in Seoul. This does not help in relieving the population stress on Seoul. This issue is all the more pressing as large part of Sejong’s residents (some 50 to 60 per cent) have not moved from Seoul, but from surrounding areas.


Commuting from and to Sejong

The commuting of government staff between Seoul and Sejong comes with its own problems. Whilst the Republic of Korea has an excellent bullet-train network, the bullet-train station closest to Sejong requires a 20-minute drive. From there it takes about 90 minutes to Seoul, but this train only goes five times a day. An alternative is to take one of the many direct busses between Sejong and Seoul, but this trip takes at least two hours. Much faster is to commute by car, which takes less than 90 minutes. It goes without saying that many choose to commute by car—but this negatively affects the environmental sustainability ambitions of the city.


Commuting within Sejong

Another dominant transport problem relates to the public transport system in the city. Not many of the planned public transport lines are yet operational. Those that are operational are often slow busses with many stops. They tend to be overcrowded during peak-hours. Combined this makes that taking the bus is not an attractive alternative over taking one’s own car when commuting to work. And where in many other cities commuting by car is disincentivised by two issues (traffic jams and a lack of parking facilities), in Sejong it is not. First, driving in Sejong is a breeze compared to driving in Seoul. The streets are wide, the traffic is relatively sparse, traffic jams are almost unheard of. Second, office workers have taken the habit to park their cars at no cost on the many undeveloped building sites throughout the city. This practice is accepted by the Sejong Metropolitan Autonomous City government, and even formalised by placing temporary parking signs at these building sites.


Some key lessons for Sejong and other planned (eco) cities

It would be too harsh to conclude that the high ambitions set for Sejong have not been realized. It goes without saying that a city in development comes with many of the problems I touched on here—not fully operational public transport, a lack of facilities for families, and so on.


But not all problems can be easily brushed aside as being the hiccups of a city in development. Some problems appear related to a too strict an inflexible planning and development process, and the ambition to compete with an existing major city nearby. And exactly these problems may point to lessons relevant for the future development of Sejong, but also for other planned cities. Such lessons are of relevance in the light of the vast amount of eco-cities that are planned to be developed in, particularly, the Asian region over the next two decades.


Inbuilt flexibility

A first lesson is that of a need of inbuilt flexibility in the planning process and design of planned cities. The planning process and development of Sejong appears to be very rigid. While all of the problems I have discussed in this blogpost are well-known and documented, the Sejong Metropolitan Autonomous City government (itself steered by the central government) is only slowly responding to these.


To give an example, the average household size of Sejong was projected to be 2.5 people. The reality turns out to be 3.5 people. This requires a rapid increase of housing suitable for families with two or more children, and the scaling down of housing suitable for couples without children. Yet, the current planning legislation stipulates the dominant development of housing suitable for households of 2.5 people, and requires a formal amendment before a change of direction can be taken. Until then the construction of too small and too large apartments will continue.


Particularly in political systems that tend to work with long-term year plans (such as Korea, but also China and India) it might be helpful to move from highly detailed city planning, to framework planning. A framework city plan can set the leading paradigms and contours for future development, but may allow details to be filled in later. This to allow for some flexibility to respond to unanticipated event.


Tailored competitive edge

A second lesson learnt is that a planned city like Sejong needs to find a competitive edge that will attract future residents. Whilst the Sejong Metropolitan Autonomous City government has put a lot of effort in marketing the virtues of Sejong as being a vital city, a cultural city, a vibrant city, a city for business, and so on, it might have picked too many virtues and spread itself too thin. More problematically, it might have picked a battle with Seoul that it cannot win.


The current marketing of Sejong presents the city as a city of much variety. Yet, however much variety Sejong will provide, Seoul will always be able to provide more variety. One of the unique characteristics of mega cities like Seoul is their variety. By trying to emulate that variety Sejong will always be in the shadow of Seoul, and the variety it offers will always look bleak in contrast with what Seoul has to offer.


What Sejong needs, I think, is a tailored competitive edge. It has much to offer that Seoul has not. Housing many government ministries, agencies and research institutes it is, figuratively speaking, the heart and mind of the nation. It has a very young, highly educated and overall progressive population—but this is a relatively homogenous population. Instead of aiming to provide variety, which in reality will always be a watered-down version of what is available in Seoul, the city may be better off in providing something that citizens can exclusively get in Sejong. Space and peacefulness, likeminded people and peers, and a high quality work environment.


From rebellious to participating citizens

A third and final lesson learnt is that at this scale of city development unhappy citizens may quickly become rebellious citizens. Unhappy with current state of affairs of public transport Sejong’s citizens have chosen to commute to work by car and not by bus. This commuting behaviour will likely be difficult to change, even after the planned public transport system is fully operational sometime in the future. This is, for example, foreshadowed by citizens’ responses to a decrease in ad-hoc parking space due to ongoing development. Instead of moving to different means of transport, or parking further away from their offices they demand the type of parking space they are now used to. And the Sejong Metropolitan Autonomous City government has given in to such demands by committing to develop parking garages.


Having been in Sejong for only a short time now, it appears to me there is a strong us (citizens) against them (city government) feeling. Citizens I have had a chance to talk to argue that the city is developed for government, and not for citizens. While participation forums are in place, these seem to have a symbolic function rather than resulting in meaningful dialogue between government and citizens. This will unlikely result in a feeling of a shared responsibility between government and citizens for where Sejong is heading in the future.


More dialogue between government and citizens might help to get necessary information to the former about where city plans might need adjustment. At the same time this might help to take away some of the annoyance at citizen level by providing clear information about why certain changes have been made and what can and what cannot be changed.



Acknowledgement – this blog-post is based on my personal experiences in Sejong, documented material on the city available online, and a number of formal and informal interviews and discussions with policymakers, academics, and residents in Sejong. Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of all these sources, and all errors in this blog-post are my own.

One thought on “Sejong, Korea: the pleasures and perils of a planned city

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  1. I toured Sejong at the beginning of 2013, and the people I spoke with were excited about the city’s prospective future. I just googled to see if the plans had come into fruition and came across your blog. It is disappointing (but not surprising) to learn that expectations have not been met. I agree with your perspective on the marketing retool – the city should not be sold as a place of variety for families, but rather as a mecca for young, professional ideologues. Here’s to hoping they get it figured out.

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