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Suwon seeks to become Korea’s ‘eco-capital’

Environmental activist-turned-mayor sets new examples of how green policies revitalize cities

When Yeom Tae-young became the mayor of Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, some 45 kilometers south of Seoul, his goal was clear: a shift away from the car-centric paradigm to more sustainable green urban transport and a focus on pedestrians.

Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-young delivers a speech at a recent forum on ecology in Johannesburg, South Africa. Suwon City
Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-young delivers a speech at a recent forum on ecology in Johannesburg, South Africa. Suwon City

Less than eight years after Yeom was elected mayor, the city’s “eco-mobility” model has inspired the world’s transportation planners, including those in Taiwanese capital Taipei, to learn how the city is tackling such urban challenges as low air quality and traffic congestion.

“Over half the population of the world lives in cities, while energy use in the cities contributes to more than 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” Yeom told The Korea Herald.

“A shift is needed to return the streets to pedestrians from vehicles amid a worsening energy crisis and global warming,” the mayor said.

Since his election in 2010, the former environmental activist has established a three-pronged road map for Suwon to become South Korea’s “eco-capital.”

His goals included slashing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 -- about double the national target.

The road map also includes expanding investment to increase the use of greener transport schemes; encouraging communities to participate in eco-mobility strategies; and sharing knowledge and challenges with local and international partners.

In August 2013, over 4,300 residents of Haenggung-dong in the city participated in a monthlong car-free campaign, taking public transport, riding bicycles and e-bikes and, most notably, walking.

The traffic-congested streets soon became filled with more pedestrians and tourists, easing worries from restaurant owners who had originally opposed the idea.

“Suwon was the first among other cities in the world to try out the plan. We accepted challenges, and we weren’t afraid to become pioneers,” Yeom recalled.

How green campaign changes communities 

The car-free campaign was part of the EcoMobility World Festival 2013 that the city hosted in September that year, bringing together eco-friendly mobile vehicles and technologies from around the globe.

For the car ban, Suwon invested 13 billion won ($12.1 million) to repave roads and refurnish public facilities, while burying utility cables underground to widen pedestrian walkways in the city’s downtown areas. In addition, parking spaces were not reserved for cars but temporarily converted into playgrounds for children with benches and tables for pedestrians.

Despite the downsides, including delayed deliveries and longer commuting hours, car-free streets meant increased social interaction in the community, more space for children to play safely and increased foot traffic for shops and restaurants.

The efforts eventually paid off, as the city was recognized as South Korea’s most environmentally friendly city by the Korea branch of the World Wildlife Fund.

Nearly five years after the festival, the legacy of the monthlong car ban remains in place in many parts of the city despite the return of cars. For instance, drivers have to go slower on streets near sidewalks, while traffic has become less busy and more people ride bicycles during peak commuting hours.

Haenggung-dong residents also hold car-free Saturdays once a month on some of the busiest streets lined with restaurants and souvenir shops in the “green city of the future,” as promoted during the 2013 festival.

Today, city planners from other parts of the country are looking to make their own areas eco-friendly.

For instance, Seoul’s elevated Seoullo 7017 park that opened last year is part of efforts to make the capital city more pedestrian friendly. The former overpass has been transformed into a plant-covered walkway in Seoul, allowing for a 1-kilometer walking route above traffic.

In 2015, the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, hosted the second EcoMobility World Festival and followed the example of Suwon by closing some roads and restricting traffic for a month.

‘Greener alternatives’

While owning a car still symbolizes wealth for many people, Yeom says there are other better and greener transportation alternatives that allow sustainable growth for all parties.

The expansion of the public bike system is one example, according to the city. Since last year, Suwon has implemented unmanned bicycle rental services that feature GPS and Internet of Things technology partnered with bike companies.

As part of the city’s wider efforts to curb carbon emission levels, the bike rental system is expected to expand from the current 350-kilometer bike route across the city in order to make public bikes more accessible.

As a member of the Compact of Mayors, the world’s largest coalition of city leaders, Suwon also seeks to enhance global cooperation to address climate change, the city said.

Yeom has invited mayors of other cities leading global green initiatives to share their environmental policies, including in 2015, Dieter Salomon, mayor of Freiburg, Germany. Freiburg has been touted as the “greenest city in the world.”

A bilateral agreement came about between Suwon and the German city to expand cooperation on environmental issues and to benchmark and share one another’s environmental policies.

Separately, an extensive reforestation program was launched in Mongolia in 2011, aiming to plant more than 60,000 trees in desert areas in the country. Yeom was later awarded by the Mongolian government for his initiatives.

Yeom believes education plays an important role in making the city green.

The city provides green programs to raise public awareness of environmental protection, including offering environmental classes for all local residents.

It also designated Namchang Elementary School as a special educational facility designed for students who suffer from atopic disease. Currently, hundreds of students are enrolled in the class, receiving various treatments to fight the disease caused by an unhygienic environment.

“We should understand such eco-friendly policies are not a one-time project that finishes after the EcoMobility World Festival 2013,” Yeom said.

“Eco-mobility is a long-term project, also essential in revitalizing the neighborhood.”

By Park Joung-kyu and Bak Se-hwan ( (