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Seoul – Citizen engagement strategies
24 OCT 2020
Faced with increasing public opposition to urban development, Seoul could have taken the easy way out. Fortunately, the city chose to face its challenges and developed its most extensive public engagement processes yet, culminating in the remarkable Seoul Plan 2030.
An increasing vocal populace largely left of development decisions in the past opposed regularly to Seoul’s urban development since the 90s. Instead of taking the easy way out and tapering off controversial projects, the city took on the challenge of engaging its citizens.
Extensive participatory planning efforts culminated in the Seoul Plan 2030, with a vision – “Happy City of Citizens with Communication & Consideration” decided by citizens.
On top of that, the government launched the ‘Participatory Budget System’ and ‘Community Building Project’ to give citizens a bigger say in local matters.
Since the democratisation of Seoul in 1995, citizens increasingly desired to participate in local matters. With more expression of opinions on local matters, conflicts began to arise between different interest groups, NGOs and the public sector.
Implementing large scale urban development projects became more challenging than before as the city would now need to engage multiple stakeholders and accommodate their demands from the start.
A fast-paced government-led development in the past brought benefits to the city, but gradually disintegrated community ties, local identities and communal traditions.
Past master plans were ineffective in coping with the rapid changes in social conditions, such as the rise of single-person households, social polarisation and worsening gender inequality. Citizens were also largely left out of their formulation.
The lack of an effective master plan translates to an inconsistent urban development, risking a disorderly development pattern across the city.
The improved citizen engagement processes of Seoul
Negotiation process began with a Conflict Mediation Division established in 2012 with the goal to avert and manage public conflicts.
The governance structure under Seoul Plan 2030 became the model for which all planning processes must follow. Citizens’ participation became the norm in urban planning, and its impact has been shown in other planning efforts.
For instance, community plans are established for the sub-regions of Seoul, to actualise the visions and strategies under the Seoul Plan 2030 in these smaller areas.
Citizen participatory groups are also formed at various levels as small as neighbourhoods.
The regional planning process is designed as a bottom-up process where citizens’ inputs are fully accounted for. The city organises educational programmes to cultivate citizens, while ensuring full transparency of the planning processes.
Seoul Plan 2030 is the city’s first master plan that allows citizens to propose its vision and action plans for the city.
A Citizen Participatory Group comprising 100 members was convened to chart the future of Seoul, identify challenges and propose solutions, together with city officials, planning experts and local politicians. This helped to gain public support.
The Community Governance Project incorporates ground-up processes in day-to-day operations, where residents are given a say over local issues that affect their communities directly.
The Participatory Budget System allows citizens to decide the use of up to 5% of the city’s annual budget. Since 2012, about KRW 50 – 60 billion (approximately USD $43 – 53 million) each year is set aside for projects proposed by citizens. Anyone who live, work and attend school in Seoul are eligible to vote for the projects.
The Community Building Project overseen by the city’s Community Building Division provides help such as training and consulting to residents with ideas to improve their neighbourhoods. City-wide Town Community Support Centres are also established for residents to seek help in implementing their ideas.
After Seoul Metropolitan Council confirms each year’s budget, the Conflict Mediation Division analyses all slated projects and identifies those that could cause public unhappiness. With the help of professional mediators, the city then formulates resolution strategies to tackle them in a sensitive manner.
If disagreements do occur, a conflict mediation agency conducts in-depth interviews with the parties and designs a settlement process, together with third-party professional mediators if necessary.
Seoul’s extensive citizen engagement processes allowed the city to push forward with unconventional urban solutions such as the removal of a highway to restore the Cheonggyecheon stream, conversion of the Seoul Station Overpass into Seoullo 7017, and rehabilitation of commercial superblocks into Sewoon Makercity.
Through the regular monitoring and publishing of results in the press, Seoul has ensured transparency and managed to build trust with citizens.
For the Community Building Project in neighbourhood of Seokgwan-dong, residents of the Seokgwan Doosan Apartments complex, comprising 25 buildings with 1,998 households, received assistance to carry out their energy-saving ideas. For example, the residents installed LED lights in the basement car park that reduced electricity charges by KRW 18 million (approximately USD $16,000) each month. They also conduct an energy-saving class attended by residents from other estates.
Under the Participatory Budget System, nearly 117,000 people voted for projects in 2017. Before that, the vote was limited to a committee of 250 people selected through a random electronic draw.
Between 2012 – 2018, many community projects have received funding through the Participatory Budget System. These include gas safety valves installation in the homes of low-income elderly, setting up community restaurant that makes bean sprout dishes with bean sprout grown in senior citizen centres, initiatives to stop bullying and school violence, and improvement of facilities for people with disabilities.
The governance structure created for Seoul Plan 2030 can serve as a platform to reach social consensus on follow-up plans, with citizens at the centre of processes.
A city’s master plan can contain strategies for the better future ‘of the citizen’, ‘by the citizens’ and ‘for the citizens’. It is an important step for a city to progress not just in material prosperity but also in a way that the citizens desired. O