Whitman Strategy Group

Songdo, South Korea: The city that could change the way we travel

by Kelly DiNardo, The Washington Post on 01-03-2013

The scene outside the cab window is ominous: six lanes of black sedans, apple-green buses and scooters sit crammed fender-to-fender, their shrill horns and screeching brakes piercing Seoul’s hazy, exhaust-choked air. Talk about traffic! I haven’t even arrived in Songdo yet, but watching this, I can already understand its appeal.

Over the past decade, the South Korean city of Songdo has sprung up on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land on the Yellow Sea, 40 miles south of Seoul. Linked by a 7.4-mile bridge to Incheon International Airport, the city is regularly hailed as an experimental prototype of the aerotropolis, an urban development concept with the potential to significantly affect the way we travel. I’m heading to Songdo from Seoul to have an up-close look at this cutting-edge new milestone in the future of travel.

Details, Songdo, South Korea

My cab crawls out of the South Korean capital at a sloth-like pace, modern skyscrapers gradually giving way to concrete and barracks-style high-rises, then finally to open highway. Forty-five minutes later, we’re approaching Songdo, where cranes and partially constructed glass skyscrapers clutter the skyline. Once in town, we drive past a Starbucks and a North Face store before the cab drops me at the Sheraton.

The next day, I meet with Scott Summers, vice president of investment and marketing at Gale International, the development firm behind Songdo, for an official tour. We drive along wide, empty boulevards, past towering glass buildings and deep holes where more will be built. Unlike Seoul’s identical rows of concrete structures, Songdo’s skyscrapers curve and bend, evoking beautiful glass and steel waves.

We stop in at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club, an elegant wood-and-glass building overlooking an 18-hole course, pop into the model of a soon-to-be-built apartment complex and take a leisurely boat tour down one of the city’s canals. As we float in the glass-enclosed barge past a trio of fountains shaped like naked, full-bellied Korean boys, Summers points out where an art center and a concert hall will eventually be built.

It’s quite impressive, this aerotropolis.

A whole new notion

What is an aerotropolis? At its simplest, it’s a city built around an airport. Instead of sticking an airport on the outskirts of an existing city, building a city around the airport allows for faster movement of goods and people. And as Greg Lindsay, co-author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next,” argues, in the era of globalization, efficiency is paramount. Lindsay believes that the old real-estate rule of “location, location, location” is being swapped for the new rule of “accessibility, accessibility, accessibility.”

“Cities have always formed around transportation — ports and harbors and then train stations,” says Lindsay, pointing to Boston, New York and Chicago as examples. “Air travel is the only way to connect globally, and now, more frequently, cities will grow around airports.”

Long before the term was coined, aerotropolises such as Tysons or Reston in Virginia were growing around existing airports. But even 10 years ago, when Songdo’s development first began, the aerotropolis wasn’t a well-known notion. “We weren’t cognizant of the aerotropolis concept at the time,” says Jonathan Thorpe, senior executive vice president and chief investment officer of Gale. “It just made sense.”


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