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Death and Life in Seoul

A new article in the Journal of Planning Education and Research tests whether Jacob’s ideas ring true for predicting pedestrian vitality in Seoul.
JPER | March 18, 2015, 10am PDT
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Vincent St. Thomas

Jane Jacobs may have written The Life and Death of Great American Cities, thinking of places in the United States like Greenwich Village in Manhattan, the Old North End in Boston, and the "shoe district" in Louisville, but her theories are now influential worldwide. What resonates is the universality of how the built environment contributes to pedestrian vitality. In particular, Jacobs highlighted the importance of diversity in terms of streets, buildings, and people, while offering guidance for good planning in the form of "mixed land uses, small blocks, buildings from many different eras, and sufficient building densities," which allow for vibrant activity throughout the day (Sung et al 2015).

Seoul, South Korea, is characterized by high levels of mixed land uses; its densities are higher than New York City and its transportation network is well developed, but the city is also under constant pressure from centralized redevelopment projects and traffic. A new article in the Journal of Planning Education and Research tests whether Jacob's ideas ring true for predicting pedestrian vitality in Seoul.

Image by Vincent St. Thomas (Shuuterstock). 

Hyungun Sung, Sugie Lee, and SangHyun Cheon test Jacob’s ideas by comparing the volume and composition of pedestrian and automobile trips in Seoul at different times of the day. The authors used Korean neighborhood units ("dongs"), which are approximately the same size as Jacob's ideal urban district. They developed several measures of land use mix and included other characteristics of the neighborhoods, such as the age of buildings, density, block size, and border vacuums (e.g., large obstacles, like highways or superblocks, which interrupt the street grid) in their analysis.

They found that short blocks, arranged in networks with four way intersections, promote pedestrian uses, and border vacuums harm the pedestrian environment. To test Jacob's hypothesis that vibrant districts also have activity through the day, the authors evaluated how  various neighborhood characteristics contributed to having sustained pedestrian activity at different times. The evidence for this was mixed, as many areas within Seoul are 24-hour districts.

Image by Tung Cheung (Shutterstock).

This paper largely confirms Jacob's theory of urban vitality as related to environments that promote pedestrian oriented communities. These results are consistent with the 5-Ds described by Robert Cervero (Density, Diversity, Design, Destination, and Distance to Transit), and confirmed in other empirical research of developments based on these principles, such as LEED-ND (Ewing et al 2013). That is to say that people in Korea respond to the built environment much in the same way as people in the United States.

Seoul or New York are certainly not examples for every community, but these results may also remind planners that fixtures of American development practices and regulation, such as, single-use zoning, superblocks linked by arterials, street design, and subdivision ordinances that discourage connectivity and suppress density may be insurmountable barriers to vibrant street life.

Sung, Hyungun, Sugie Lee, and SangHyun Cheon. "Operationalizing Jane Jacobs’s Urban Design Theory Empirical Verification from the Great City of Seoul, Korea." Journal of Planning Education and Research (2015): 0739456X14568021.

The authors of the paper are, respectively, from Chungbuk University, Cheongju, Korea, Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea, and HongIk University, Seoul, Korea. 

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