This is part two in a four-part series [see part one here] offering a reflection on time lived in Seoul, and also a question, about what ‘access to nature’ means for our cities. The images were taken over a period of seven years, during which I made frequent visits to Bukhansan. While reading, I suggest the images can serve as points to stop and meditate. Take a deep breath and spend some time with each image, see what you notice, and consider how it makes you feel before continuing. That’s just a suggestion. However you do it, I hope you enjoy the little journey with me.
Standing on this ridge line between the urban and the forest world, I turn to address the mountain with some thoughts.
“This whole deal of walking through the forest and mountain to get to work in the city sometimes seems like a fantasy to me. At these times, I have to slap myself. The fantasy is far more likely to be down there is it not? Down in the grids of streets and towers behind us. That is the place is where I used to engage in the dream of endless economic growth. At the same time, I don’t remember ever really acknowledging the real human and ecological costs of that kind of growth. Surely, that kind of economic growth must be the unrealistic fantasy of these ages, and you, Bukhansan, you are the solid and stable reality.”
I wait for an answer. It is calm. No breeze. Not a sound in this moment. The mountain seems to be ignoring my question. Calmly watching over all fantasies as they come and go, Bukhansan offers no judgment.
I smile and continue along the ridge, now taking in the view of Seoul’s northern edge. This city has the highest population density in the world among cities in developed countries. It might seem miraculous that in the midst of this mega city, walking through nature is a feasible way to get around. In a way however, Seoul's density necessitates access to nature. People need it here more than most. It should be no surprise then, that Bukhansan National Park—the forested mountain area which forms much of the city’s northern edge—is the most visited national park in the world for its size.
Seoul denizens tend to love their nature access, and they use it well, for more than just recreation. People come into the mountain for the spring water, for ceremony and ritual, and we know an 87-year old woman who still walks here multiple times a year, to forage seasonally as she has done since she was a child. She reminds us too, how the act is one of both giving and taking; it must be done in a way where both sides are enriched.
In most large cities around the world, access to such places—if they even exist—are often restricted or privatized. The ability for urban dwellers to have deep interactions with nature has historically been of trivial concern at best. Yet recently, this world seems to be realizing what Seoullites have long known: meaningful access and communal care for nature should be a fundamental public right and responsibility in every city.
That statement is more than a feeling.
Over the past several decades, science has well established the need for urban nature for both psychological and physical wellness. Yet local access to nature is not just important to humans; it is critically important for the environment itself, and perhaps most importantly, for the success of movements related to climate, resilience, and the long path we must walk as a global society toward achieving ecological regeneration.
If these issues are all so interconnected, and if the roots of sustainability and resilience come from an acceptance of the duty to honor these interconnections—between ourselves and the living environments which support our lives here—then a true large scale ecological solution can only come from a large scale movement to put ourselves back into these ecologies.
Can we really accomplish something as radical as putting entire cities back into balance with nature?
A bit further on along the ridge is a resting spot. I pour a mug of coffee from a tumbler. This is my favorite “café” in the Fall. A simple south-facing seat on a granite cliff, with a few Korean red pines around. The shape of the valley gives it a gentle warm air most days. Miraculously, it seems to be warm and calm here, even when cold gusts are whipping around the apartments back down in the valley.
Our greatest urban planners and builders might not have known my hiking route, but they knew the secrets of my favorite café on the side of a cliff just as well, and they incorporated this understanding into how they built cities. Cities have been built along principles garnered from nature for centuries. Among our most celebrated architects and scientists, the best of them knew that the place to find true ecological solutions, is here in nature.
Such a pursuit into the field of nature-based solutions however, requires a dedicated personal inquiry into nature herself.
When Einstein wrote “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” when Frank Lloyd Wright told us “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you,” they were not merely being poetic. They were directly pointing us here. The answer to our greatest world issues is always in front of us, but only reveals itself when we take time and effort to remain curious, aware, and engaged with nature.
Neither Einsetein nor Wright could have claimed 'access to nature' as an end-solution. Instead, they claimed something far more profound; that cultivating a relationship with nature is a foundation, a first step in healing our relationship with the rest of this earth, and in coming up with right solutions to our human problems.
This is true whether these problems are related to science, architecture, business, or the general art of building cities. If we don't have opportunities to be in nature every single day, our ideas quickly stray from the ecological foundations that inform concepts like regenerative design and nature-based solutions. Without nature in our lives, the propensity for anthropocentric concepts to become unhinged from reality is immense. Without an anchor in the real world of nature, even the most well-meaning of projects can float off into fairytale castles, built on clouds of capitalism, materialism, or egotism.
When asked where to start in re-connecting an entire city into the ecosystem then, the answer seems obvious: start by re-connecting individual people to nature in meaningful ways.
Though missteps have been made here, many major Korean cities are lucky to have a large number of active everyday people who demand access to nature. Cities like Seoul offer good examples of urban areas that are trying to move in the direction of nature-connectedness, being helped by a vocal populace.
In many cases, this means un-doing a great amount of damage inflicted by a modern urban planning regime. For decades here, urban development has either ignored nature, destroyed nature, or followed the Corbusian scheme of body slamming nature, so that it might submit to the image of man. Yet there are clues of something else here in Seoul, too. In the older parts of the city—places where streams, forest gardens, and urban structures pay attention to and honor the landscape—there are signs of another possibility.
In much of East Asia, the historical roots of urban planning follow what is sometimes called the feng shui of a city. This concept can still be found in places, embedded in the materiality, shape, and orientation of people and city, growing in relation to the landscape and seasons.
Outside of East Asia, similar concepts have long existed too, from Camillo Sitte's argument for a 'natural art sense' in our building, to the insistence of Lewis Mumford and his mentor Patrick Geddes that cities are natural phenomena, to Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language. There are countless architects and planners in-between who have said as much about 'natural design'.
As we look again at our cities today, and remind ourselves what we love most about them, so too do we find similar themes. Our most treasured urban spaces are the ones that seem to sing in beautiful harmony, a song between a landscape and its inhabitants.
Is it too lofty a goal for our cities to sing in harmony with citizens? Can we not again build cities that function in beautiful harmony with the landscape?
For some of us, this all might be unthinkable. Certainly in contemporary cities, concepts like feng shui or a city built to artistic fundamentals have been dismissed as nonsense. As a result, buildings in modern cities have no relation with their environment, let alone with each other. Towering structures shout egotistically about themselves. Humans are drowned in a sea of glass and steel. Creeks are paved over without remorse. Meadows are sprayed with weed killer. Mountains and forests are made private or bulldozed from existence. The land in cities is often polluted so badly that humans are routinely poisoned by their own food and water.
How could we possibly start a conversation about urban-nature connection, when our cities and the industries that build them seem to be in such a state of disconnection?
During my own youth, growing up in Silicon Valley, the impossibility to walk into an urban field, forest, or mountain seemed like an unhappy reality that just had to be accepted. If anyone really waned to get into nature from the city, they would need to jump in a car and burn a tank of gas to do it. A dedicated coalition of land stewards has helped to change this situation somewhat since my childhood, and a few tech companies are even helping embrace urban nature. But at times it seems like developing virtual reality still takes precedence over building a connection to actual reality.
Having lived in Korea, Japan and Scotland during the past decade, the view I held of this reality—and of what it means to have access to nature—has been gently pushed in some amazingly hopeful directions.
Next week in Part III of this series, we will explore some of these hopeful directions. Thanks to those of you who have been sharing these writings with your friends and colleagues. Let’s keep that going, so more people can join us on this little journey. See you next week!
Thanks for reading The Possible City. I’m Patrick, and every week or so I write and illustrate a short story to help us imagine more equitable, resilient, regenerative cities through art and nature. If you enjoyed this one give it a like, and if you have your own reflections, feel free to share below.
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