Speeding across one of the longest cable bridges in the world, jet-lagged but unwilling to close our eyes, we asked the taxi driver what he thought of the brand new city whose skyscrapers rose hopefully ahead of us. In his limited English, he responded without much enthusiasm: “It is nice.”
John Winthrop's famous sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists, as they approached what would become Boston in 1630, referred grandly to “a city upon a hill,” Winthrop's Christian vision of an ideal community. Nearly 400 years later, another exemplary city—this one secular, high-tech, and on the northwestern coast of South Korea—has appeared, on a landfill.
And there it was ahead of us.
Some of the developers of Songdo (which means “island of pine trees”) call it “The City of the Future.” Others have dubbed it “The World’s Smartest City” and “Korea’s High-Tech Utopia.” What, if anything, might such a city have in store for a tourist?
By the time we touched down at Incheon Airport in May, we knew Songdo’s short history. In 2000, it was still a marshy stretch of tidal flats in the Yellow Sea, home to a scattering of fishermen. Three years later, the Korean government filled it with 500 million tons of sand in an effort to build a business district near the international airport. (Seoul, the capital, is more than an hour away from the Incheon airport by bus; Songdo, an “aerotropolis” that boasts of being a short flight from one-third of the world’s population, is a mere 15-minute drive.) In addition to luring foreign business, the government hoped to create a sustainable city that demonstrated Korea’s technological prowess. Eleven years, $35 billion, and a few economic downturns later, Songdo has completed some 60 percent of its planned infrastructure and buildings, developers say, and reached a population of about 70,000—a third of the number expected by 2018, when the city will be “done.”
Like most travelers, we spent our first night there in a hotel. Viewed from the 12th floor of the brand new, environmentally conscious Sheraton Incheon Hotel (the first LEED-certified hotel in South Korea), Songdo resembled an architect's model. Unlike the crowded and colorful streets of Seoul, the scene below was polished, spacious, sparse—not quite artificial, but not quite broken in yet either. It was more like the manifestation of a designer’s master plan than an evolved metropolis, with layers of lived-in depth. In the middle of the city—which, at 13,195 acres, is almost half the size of Boston proper—sat the 101-acre Central Park, where a few joggers enjoyed the morning sun. North of the park, a number of undulating, blue-glass skyscrapers towered over us. Beyond stood rows of plain concrete buildings and, farther still, large plots of dirt. Construction cranes swung in all directions.