Songdo: City of the Future

Written by | Travel

It’s no sci-fi movie set: Half a world away, visionary designers have built the metropolis we once could only imagine.

By Mark A. Thompson

All photos courtesy of Songdo IBD.

All photos courtesy of Songdo IBD.

In his Prescient novel Invisible Cities, the Italian writer Italo Calvino imagined a conversation between explorer Marco Polo and emperor Kublai Khan. Polo details the fantastic cities he encountered on his travels, among them “a city of water [where] a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other.” To a visitor, the city of Songdo IBD might appear equally miraculous — a city where the wonders of technology meet with the furthest reaches of the human imagination to create a place of unlimited possibility.

Humanity has long been transfixed by visions of the future:
from the perky flying cars of The Jetsons to the rain-soaked dystopia of Blade Runner. However, in Songdo — rather than daydreaming about what might be possible far in the future — we can witness how the latest technology has allowed its imagineers to build a city of the future today.


The Best of Everything

Located along the Yellow Sea near Seoul, South Korea, Songdo seems to have been envisioned by borrowing from the best assets of many great world cities. Citizens enjoy beautiful boulevards of Paris and canals reminiscent of those in Venice. There are also cultural centers boasting the grandeur of Sydney’s Opera House and a hundred-acre Central Park rivaling that of New York City.

Designed by the firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox and built on reclaimed tidal flats at a cost of $40 billion, Songdo opened in 2009 with a commitment to sustainable design. It contains 22 million feet of LEED-certified space, which uses less water and energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and costs. As architect Richard Nemeth puts it, “Songdo is basically a city built from scratch in the middle of nowhere that will eventually have a million people. It’s an ‘aerotropolis;’ an economically vibrant and sustainable city built between the airport and Seoul.” Considering that such a sustainable space should provide its citizens a high quality of life, it’s small wonder Songdo has been hailed as a paradigm for the urban centers of tomorrow.

“One of the first projects that the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier gave his students was to design a cruise ship,” explains Nemeth, because a cruise ship has to be self-sufficient and contain a litttle bit of everything. “That was a guiding principle behind all of the programming and largely the organization of the way the city works.”

Part of the way the city works is that the city walks:“The idea of a pedestrian city is something that we tried very hard to [create],” says Nemeth. They accomplished this by clustering many of its most valued assets in the city center. “We carved out the center for a park, and in the park we put the cultural buildings: the museum and such. The aspiration of the culture should be the center of your city.”

Incheon Bridge

Due to its efficient layout, even the most remote residential districts in Songdo are within a 30-minute walk from Incheon Tower Street, the development’s central avenue. Nonetheless, it also boasts an intricate public transportation network. “There’s a subway that goes all the way to Seoul,” explains Nameth (of the capital city that lies about 35 miles northeast of Songdo). “Transportations are layered on top of each other: pedestrian, bicycle, bus route, subway. We tried to provide enough alternate means to just having cars so that it’s not a traffic-choked city.” Less car space means more nature. Some 40 percent of Songdo’s area is dedicated green space, while nearly all parking is located underground.

Water is also central to the design of Songdo. More than half the city faces the sea, so sea water canals course into its center. Water taxis ferry people throughout the city, transforming each landing point into hubs of activity. Like Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Songdo’s interior waterways are lined by a continuous, open-court shopping boulevard. Similar to the canals of Bruges and Amsterdam, Songdo’s north-south canal pulses with an urban vibe that radiates from the shops, restaurants and galleries running parallel to the waterway.

“We used salt water for the canals because it doesn’t freeze in the winter,” explains Nemeth. “You can use boats to navigate all year round. And you don’t have to filter salt water. We bring it in from the Yellow Sea, [and] slowly let the water pour back into the sea.”

One of the Songdo’s most envied innovations is its citywide pneumatic waste system — one of the largest in the world — which whisks waste away from residences, businesses and even public receptacles via pneumatic tubes to a central waste processing center — eliminating the need for garbage trucks.


They also developed an innovative conservation technology to make their Central Park greener. “We built a water catchment system in the park,” Nemeth explains. “A collection system like giant egg crates buried under the landscape of the park. … It’s a zero-watering park.”

Better Living through Technology

Much of what makes the 1,500-acre city exceptional begins with its infrastructure and planning. It may not have yet have flying cars, but it does have an unparalleled capacity to accommodate and encourage new technology. Digital networks support nearly every area of urban life: from personal video services to centralized systems for citywide security. Computers are built into every development; sensors monitor energy consumption, traffic and pollution levels. It’s no wonder that Songdo has been called the world’s smartest city.

This manifests itself in part through a joint venture between technology company Cisco and real estate developer Gale International called “Songdo U.Life Solutions,” which utilizes technology to build and improve services based on feedback. The u.Life Solutions network connects homes, offices and schools through Immersive TelePresence video units, which provide video-based services including education, counseling and healthcare. Thus residents can interact remotely with professionals ranging from career counselors to beauty consultants.

Meetings between Songdo residents and u.Life designers regularly result in new services, such as specialized classes taught by skilled locals. Residences also boast smart home wall panels that allow for complete home automation. Citizens of Songdo can program almost all of their household functions as easily as you might program your coffee maker.

In essence, Songdo has become a living lab for smart-city innovation.As one of Cisco’s Global Centers of Excellence, it’s attracting companies developing more new smart-city services and technologies. In addition, SparkLabs has signed a partnership agreement with Songdo to launch their new “Internet of Things Accelerator” in Songdo, ensuring that Songdo will continue to serve as a future hub of smart-city initiatives.

Visiting the City of the Future

The city’s broad range of shopping, dining, and entertainment keeps it bustling with guests. “Songdo is a real destination for people from around Korea,” says Nemeth. “They go there to hang out — because it’s actually a really nice place. They love the park and its recreational activities; they go shopping. It’s become a place for people to go on the weekends.” In keeping with Korea’s rise as an emerging travel destination, Songdo was the first Asian city to host the PGA Presidents Cup, a prestigious biennial team golf tournament.


Its more than 1 million annual visitors can choose to stay at several five-star luxury hotels, such as The Oakwood Premier Incheon. Or, for a taste of the past in the city of the future, the Gyeong Won Jae Ambassador Hotel (pictured above) was designed in the ornate style of the Korean Goryeo Dynasty, and offers a traditional Korean guesthouse experience and Madang gardens.

It’s also worth noting something that Songdo’s planners consciously decided not to do. Throughout human history, planned cities have attempted to impose order through rigid geometry. By contrast, Songdo intentionally avoids conforming to such patterns to keep the city feeling more organic. Its layout was even designed with intentional changes of direction and scale from one section to another — in order to mimic the development of great world cities as they evolved over centuries (as opposed to the 10 years it took to build Songdo.)

“I think what is fascinating is that the city is essentially a framework that evolves,” says Nemeth. “Look at photos of New York from 200 years ago; you wouldn’t recognize it from what it is today. It is the framework that allows it to evolve and be a great successful place. I would like to think that our Songdo has a strong enough framework that when they start tearing down buildings in 50 or 100 years, new ones will
be built, but the principles will be followed and the city will get
better and better.”

Last modified: January 30, 2018