PHOTO ESSAY: Seoul and the Call of the Urban Wild (Part 4)
A look at the Korean "dulle-gil" and ecological urban cultures
We have made it to the final installment in a four-part photo essay series [see part one here]! 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. However you do it, thanks for reading, and I hope you continue enjoying the journey.
One of Korea’s urban nature innovations is the dulle-gil, a walking route that connects city and nature in a way that aims to benefit people, environment, and commerce.
The dulle-gil came about in part because of an existing culture of walking around local mountains and rivers. On weekends, nature walks are something of a national event, with friends, or even three or four generations of a family going together, into the mountain on foot, with a full-out picnic in tow. Residents of Seoul love their local mountain Bukhansan so much, that on a good-weather weekend the mountain seems more like Disneyland—on the popular peaks, the lines certainly look similar.
Over the years, as the city’s population and tourism increased, the mountain became overly busy. The city went on a decades-long campaign to build more trails in other places around the city, many of them following traditional footpaths and foraging areas that have existed for centuries. The result is that today, an interconnected system of trails link the mountains, streams, hills, and forested land throughout the entire Seoul metropolitan area.
Yet even with all of these trails, on a popular weekend, Bukhansan was still overfull.
Part of the response was a new campaign to build a series of easier walking trails called dulle-gil. These dulle-gil avoid the more perilous mountain climbs, and instead aim to connect neighborhoods by a mix of easier trails and local pedestrian-friendly streets. Typical dulle-gil routes are not deep in a mountain, but instead flirt between the edge of mountain and city. These trails are popular with young and old who want to explore urban nature, yet who might not enjoy the steep vertical climbs and scrambling over cliffs.
These walking trails form a network that includes the 157km-long Seoul Trail, 63km-long Bukhansan Dulle-gil, 19km-long Seoul City Wall Trail, and several others. Such urban trails have spawned an impressive internal-tourism industry, where residents can effectively become tourists in their own city.
It is not unheard of for instance, to spend a weekend walking directly from one’s own neighborhood, through forest, field, river, and mountain, to the other side of the city along trails like the Seoul Dulle-gil.
During such an all-day walk, one might take a lunch picnic on a cliff, stop at a nature café with a view of the forest in the afternoon, learn about the species in a local creek, and enjoy an outdoor barbeque in the evening. At the end of the day, there are even plenty of options to stay the night in a hillside guesthouse at the foot of the forest. The next day, home is a short and easy subway ride away.
Cars are not needed for these experiences, thanks to the 23 subway stations with easy access to Seoul Trail, and 17 subway stations that will drop you off near the more central Seoul City Wall trail.
This kind of public transit access is one of Korea’s greatest social and environmental strengths. Even more surprising, much of this infrastructure was built only in the past few decades. In many major Korean cities, governments have gone to great effort to make sure residents and visitors alike can not only get around the city, but can also experience the biodiversity that threads its way in and around dense urban areas.
Paths like the dulle-gil are routes from here to there, and yet they are also opportunities. Places for anyone who walks them, to re-connect with the sacredness of the land. Some researchers even claim that walking these paths is a way to recover the authenticity of the human being. Taken in this light, these urban paths begin to feel reminiscent of other modern-day pilgrimage routes being revived around the world.
The idea for these dulle-gil trails began not in cities however, but in the more rural region surrounding Jirisan. The success of these more countryside trails has spread widely, igniting a new interest in domestic travel. The experience of walking these trails has also inspired many young people to consider the charm of rural and village life. With so many of the smaller Korean towns and villages struggling to survive—and so many educated young people likewise struggling to find how they fit into the city—it seems a welcome phenomenon.
In a way, these trails are helping to mediate some of the more reckless versions of urbanization that typically pay little attention to human and environmental wellness. A few days walking through picturesque old towns in the countryside, if anything, suggests the possibility of another way.
Can we find our way to a balanced flow between urban, rural, and natural systems—both social and ecological?
Continuing my own descent from Bukhansan into the city, I pass through a grove of pines along dusty granite rocks, a signature of urban development here. It is a sure sign that we’re close to the city. Passing through the forest, I arrive to Bulgwang an hour or so early. Fresh mind.
After passing the threshold of the forest, and entering the valley of apartment towers, I feel fortunate to have this breathtaking mountain park in my backyard. It is only so however, because public demand for nature access here has been persistent.
With continued demand for nature access, the rivers that bring water from mountain into the Han River are also recently coming alive with natural wetland plants, and waterfowl sharing space with humans. Nature’s own regenerative infrastructure designs are starting to replace degenerative concrete lining and highways that once aimed to quickly move vehicles and water through the city.
A new rhythm of urban slowness is developing, slowly.
None of this was easy. Those who visited Seoul in the 1990s saw a city that seemed to pride itself on the destruction of any living thing for a highway, 14-lane road, or Soviet-style apartment. Back then, the slightly more environmentally sane Seoul that is emerging today seemed like an impossible dream. Yet, here it is. A seedling, perhaps, but one that is sprouting well.
In all of these positive examples, the point of critical importance seems to come back again, to the act of knowing ourselves and our cities in relation to local natural landscapes. Could American cities also undertake urban planning projects with such a seemingly radical foundation as nature-connectedness? If we want to become global leaders—and somehow I think we do—then the answer can only be yes.
When citizens and leaders decide that they love nature more than they love speed and convenience, they will succeed in building ecological cities.
Although to be fair, some conveniences do just happen to align with local nature. Conveniences like the spring-fed public foot bath in Daejeon—a city 50 minutes by bullet train from Seoul.
What are the local nature-based innovations in other cities around the world? There is no replicable plan for successful projects, and no city implements urban nature or access to it in the same way because our local urban ecosystems—cultural and natural—are all unique. This is not a ‘road block’ to scaling up, but instead an opportunity for local creative solutions together with our environments. It is a chance for cities again to reclaim their uniqueness, and an exciting, authentic sense of place.
Instead of removing, restricting, or covering up our ecological features, cities benefit immensely when they learn how to highlight them, putting in place programs that enable free public access, and that encourage civic responsibility and care. When done equitably, such urban nature access benefits small businesses, local economies, and human quality of life across age, race, and income levels, while simultaneously benefitting the environment.
I imagine cities where this narrative continues, and where:
More people choose to walk, wheel, hike, and bicycle through what slowly becomes an urban-nature heaven, and motorized transit, while still available, finds a niche that does not infringe so heavily on social and ecological life
Preserving, restoring, and providing reasonable access to an interconnected network of nature corridors becomes the standard, and highways and roads become the minor exception
Cities learn to celebrate what makes them culturally and ecologically unique, and the practice of bulldozing that uniqueness virtually disappears
In providing meaningful access to nature in cities, we are not solving all of these problems outright, but we are planting the seeds, increasing opportunity for people to discover new ways of growing more resilient, beautiful, ecological urban lives. Lives where people and the environment both win.
It all starts—as Einstein and Wright hinted—by experiencing ourselves in nature, and the nature in ourselves.
I hope everyone is healthy these days (we have been a bit under the weather out here, but are recovering fine). Also, hope you enjoyed all four parts of this kind of experimental photo essay. Thanks for reading it.
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