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


A nightscape of Songdo, South Korea. (Sungjin Kim/GETTY IMAGES/FLICKR RF)
January 3, 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.”

In 2001, the South Korean government approached the New York-based firm about developing a city that, by virtue of its proximity to the newly opened airport in Incheon, would attract multinational corporations and potentially turn the region into the world’s gateway to northeast Asia. “The idea was that it would be an international business district and that foreigners would find this a convenient place to set up business,” says Thomas Hubbard, who served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea when the project began. “The model was Singapore.”

Understanding the mission of attracting new Western business, Gale has built state-of-the-art, high-tech LEED-certified office buildings, apartments, shops and schools, imported elements from other cities, such as New York’s Central Park, and wooed Jack Nicklaus into building one of his iconic golf clubs.

There’s a lot of Songdo still to be built, but even as it’s under continuing construction, there are signs that point to its becoming an important business and residential hub. Last fall, the United Nations selected the city as the home of its new Green Climate Fund agency. Initial estimates expect 500 employees and their families to move to Songdo.

While Songdo’s status as a sustainable city certainly helped in its successful bid to house the Green Climate Fund, so did its proximity to Incheon International Airport. “You land at the airport and there’s a convention center, a hotel, a golf course,” says Lindsay. “Business travelers already live out of conference hotels; now you’re seeing conference cities. You still go to Seoul if you have leisure time, but this is the hyper-efficient movement of people. This is taking the scale of business travel to the extreme.”

Airport as destination

If accessibility and efficiency are key to the business traveler, the aerotropolis’s impact is clear. In some instances, the effect on leisure travelers is equally, garishly obvious.

Across the bridge from Songdo, Incheon airport is building a massive playland to rival Macau and Las Vegas. The actual airport is already a shopper’s paradise. It’s the No. 1 duty-free airport in the world, with $1.53 billion in sales last year, and the halls are lined with 73 high-end stores, including the first Louis Vuitton airport shop.

I wander down the broad, brightly lit halls and study the stores-within-stores. Divided into categories, each massive shop includes several smaller markets inside. The cosmetics store is packed with counters for L’Occitane, Kiehl’s and Shiseido. The accessories store includes counters for Furla, London Fog, Burberry, Christian Dior and Chanel. There are floral scents, thick lotions, soft silks, rich leathers, bold colors, classic patterns. It’s luxury overload for every sense.

Outside the terminal, on the man-made island where it sits, development is underway on a mega-resort and casino, a water park, a shopping mall and several hotels. By the end of the decade, this new pleasure carnival will open and connect back to the airport by a magnetic levitation train that will make a 33-mile loop around the entire island.

“The concept of an airport is changing,” says Min-Jae Chun, director of the Airport City Development Group. “In the past it was just about transportation. If you want to progress, you have to create a destination.”

These new Vegas imitations probably won’t hold much appeal for Americans, who are unlikely to fly 12 hours or longer when our own candyland is so much closer. But a quarter of the world’s population is within 31 / 2 hours of Incheon, and by 2018, the airport anticipates 62 million visitors a year, with 65 percent coming from Japan and China. “These cities are being built as tourism infrastructure for people who can now afford to travel,” says Lindsay. “These are the mega-resorts for the world’s emerging middle class.”

The aerotropolis, however, does cause other, less readily obvious ripples in how we travel that will affect American travelers. “Once you build these infrastructures and you make travel more efficient, you change global travel patterns,” says Lindsay. “It opens up places. It makes it easier to create hubs and connect. It leads to a rise in travel destinations we never thought of before or that were really difficult to get to.”

He points to Dubai as the ultimate example. “It was barely on the map 20 years ago,” he says. But after spending $500 million on a new concourse, and after Emirates airline acquired several new long-haul jets, the city became an important hub, linking places that had never been connected before.

“The Seychelles becomes easier to reach because you can stop over in Dubai,” says Lindsay. “In Africa there are 14 aerotropolises being built. And in places like the Middle East and Asia, people are sitting down and building cities from scratch around the airport. China alone is building the equivalent of Rome every week. It will be interesting to see what destinations open up.”

Opening up the world

Songdo aims to be the best of these new aerotropolises. It has taken features of well-loved cities, such as Venice’s canals and Savannah’s pocket parks, and replicated them. It’s a smart, wired, sustainable city. It’s as accessible to the airport as Reston Town Center is to Dulles.

If Songdo is South Korea’s Reston, as Thorpe has said, then perhaps it will have the same impact. Over the past 50 years, the area around Dulles has been transformed from farmland into two of the richest counties in the United States. Gale International and the South Korean government certainly hope to replicate that sort of transformation.

And other cities are following close on Songdo’s heels.

“Beijing is already building a second airport larger than the first, with the capacity for 200 million passengers per year and an airport city to go around it,” says Lindsay, which would make it the busiest airport based on passenger traffic.

As the number of aerotropolises worldwide mushrooms, the impact on travelers will become clearer. Already, we see the concept making business travel easier, opening up leisure travel for entirely new populations and exposing current leisure travelers to new places on the globe.

“The fact that United Airlines intends to start flying to Chongqing [China] with its new Boeing 787 Dreamliners is telling,” says Linsday. “A decade ago, how many Americans had even heard of Chongqing?

“More places are about to appear on the map.”

Details: Songdo, South Korea

DiNardo is a writer currently based in Switzerland. Follow her on Twitter at @kellydinardo.

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