Discover more from The Possible City
PHOTO ESSAY: What we Gain, What we Lose
A Visual Ballad of Urban Housing in Korea
Hi friends. This time around, a photo essay of sorts. Thanks for reading as always.
Some say there are plenty of resources here on Earth.
There are. Of course. We could keep mining resources. We could do it for quite a long time. The question is not how much resources are left to mine, but what the result of continuing to mine them would be, and whether or not we want to face the result of doing so.
It is helpful here, to give an example.
In Korea, there seems to be a general consensus that the country needs more and more housing, and further, that this housing should come mainly in the form of concrete apartment-based new towns. Along with this, there is a general agreement among those who hold such offices allowing them to make agreements, that demolishing currently existing old towns must go hand-in-hand with the building of new ones.
Indeed, the resources are available to build new ones.
We could keep tearing down mountains for raw resources. We could keep tearing down old towns and replacing them with new ones using these resources. We could.
In the end we would have many new apartments, many very wealthy corporations, a whole lot of debt on the shoulders of ordinary people, and far more desolate landscapes, both inside and outside of our cities.
Those are some of what we might gain.
But we would lose some things too. Demolishing a typical old town while building new apartments in place of them for instance, tends to result in a net loss of housing.
Also a loss of local shops and community organizations, of human diversity, architectural diversity, natural biodiversity, of history, culture, and, although it has yet to be properly quantified, probably also a loss of old men laughing and shooting the shit on the street.
Those are some of what we lose.
Are these things important to us?
If they are important, then we might take seriously, some effective and less costly options for housing that keeps older towns relatively intact. Such options include improving conditions of existing old housing stock. Making incremental changes, such as repairs and upgrades. Engaging young people in this process and helping them share in the rewards of it. Adding local social services, parks, or if needed, constructing new small-footprint buildings that can benefit the needs and character of the neighborhood while increasing housing stock.
Much of this is done already, here and there.
Certainly not enough though.
Many neighborhoods are simply discarded.
Working in ways that protect and cherish what is already there, would mean less environmental degradation locally.
It would mean less resource extraction globally.
It would mean the continuation and re-imagination of spaces and local cultures and economies that carry on past structures, traditions, and wisdom, while also adapting to the needs of future generations.
Shifting from a narrative where razing old towns and building brand new ones is the only official solution, to a narrative where revitalizing old towns is at least a valid and meaningful option, would mean more than just social and ecological benefit. It would also mean a relief of the crippling, historically unheard of amount of debt shouldered by a generation of young people who are desperately trying to find a home and making a living in this world.
There are other options.
From successful places where old towns are reborn:
Build on what you have, both in terms of buildings, but also landscape. If plans are made to fit the landscape, there is often little need for bulldozing and flattening the geography. If old trees exist in a space, respect that those trees have been working hard for 20 or 50 or 100 years to create a real living biosphere, and build together with them rather than in spite of them. If old derelict buildings exist, where possible re-imagine together how they might be revived and brought back to life to serve the needs of the community.
Develop old homes and empty land at a small enough scale that individuals or a community could design, build, and/or finance the work themselves. Everyone has DIY capabilities, and some of your neighbors are also the very architects, electricians, and sustainable builders that have advanced know-how. Why not come together to learn, build, and make your neighborhood better, together?
Use as many local, renewable or reusable resources as possible. We tout the strength of steel and concrete. Well, there are also many-centuries-old buildings made of wood, or with soil and straw core walls, or with stone foundations, all of which have stood for far longer than any modern building. They might require extra love, but traditional local building materials tend to be cheap or free, require minimal energy for processing, and when all is done, they can go right back to nature in a beneficial way.
Build for each other, with each other, rather than just for oneself. It not only reduces everyone’s effort and cost, but tends to spur the birth of more innovative, active, interesting, and lovable communities.
You want a real ecological smart city? Well now, that all is about as smart and ecological as you can get.
Thanks for reading this issue. If you enjoyed this one, you should also dig into this past essay, about our old Osaka neighborhood. It embodies many of the qualities just talked about.
If you are just arriving here and not yet signed up, you can do that below.
The Possible City is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This publication is based on generosity. There is no pay wall, so if your financial circumstances dictate that you need to sign up for free, you still get everything that I write. You can however, also choose to support this work by becoming a paid subscriber. Thank you to the few of you who are in that club. You make this all the more possible.