Seoul’s Stream a ‘Vision’ for L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Angelenos who would like to revitalize the Los Angeles River might want to visit the Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul.

The clean waterway flows placidly through the busy commercial heart of this city of 10 million, tucked between towering skyscrapers and bordered by lush grasses, walkways and artwork.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa visited the Cheonggyecheon (pronounced Chong-ee-chon) on Monday, his first morning in South Korea and the midpoint of a 16-day trade mission through East Asia.


“This is fantastic,” Villaraigosa said as he stooped down from a stone step and dipped his fingers in the water, one of Seoul’s three vice mayors at his side. “It shows you what you can do. It takes vision.”

After the tour, Villaraigosa met Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon at City Hall and signed a river revitalization pact.

“This agreement will provide us the tools to share environmental knowledge and technology, as we work to restore the Los Angeles River,” Villaraigosa said. “The Cheonggyecheon River has shown that ‘Yes, we can un-pave paradise.’ ”

The Cheonggyecheon was not always so pleasant. People once washed their laundry at the water’s dirty edge and cars zoomed overhead on a double-decker roadway that blocked light and kept the stream from breathing.

The city spent $360 million to transform the Cheonggyecheon, removing the road, adding burbling waterfalls, gentle rapids and square stones that allow visitors to cross along its roughly 3 1/2 -mile route through the South Korean capital.

Leaders in Seoul say the Cheonggyecheon’s rebirth has helped lower the surrounding temperature and more than triple the number of animal species living in and around it.

Those who knew the Cheonggyecheon before and after its revival -- including Los Angeles architect Christopher Pak, a member of Villaraigosa’s delegation who spent his childhood in Seoul -- say the stream offers a valuable lesson for Los Angeles.

For one, it has a meditative quality that attracts visitors -- more than 3 million since it opened last fall after its two-year restoration.

There is no graffiti along its walls and there are no cigarette butts on the ground.

“To have an open space that stretches like that enriches and refreshes the people who are around the project,” said Pak, who will join Villaraigosa today to announce an unrelated $240-million investment by a South Korean company in a condominium and retail development on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A.’s Koreatown.

Villaraigosa has pledged to remake the L.A. River as part of his effort to link the city through an “emerald necklace” of parks and other green space. Los Angeles officials are now studying the Cheonggyecheon and other urban waterways as they plot a future for the trash-strewn L.A. River, which has long endured failed aspirations of becoming a lush, inviting landmark.

Seoul city leaders were eager to show Villaraigosa their urban jewel during a presentation with colorful maps on the plaza overlooking the stream. Then they took him on a walking tour, his entourage following at a comfortable distance. The officials pointed out that the Han River, which winds like a snake through Seoul, feeds the Cheonggyecheon, once the water is purified.

“I hope your plan to restore the L.A. River will contribute to the quality of life in Los Angeles,” Oh told Villaraigosa back at City Hall. Their delegations applauded politely and a string quartet prepared to play the American folk song, “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River.”