By GSS Correspondents
SONGDO, South Korea — It’s only 387 meters from school, but it’s a world away.
A field trip by a team of student reporters to a field — literally — located one-eighth of a kilometer from Chadwick International school revealed a world of nature — and trash — in what was planned to be one of the world’s most modern and environmentally sustainable cities.
The approximately 63,694 square meter (15.74 acre) field — known locally simply as the “Park” — includes everything from carefully tended plots with spring onions, red peppers, white radish, lettuce and tomatoes still intact to used cigarettes and plastic bags full of paper cups and coffee wrappers.
What makes this field remarkable is that it is in the shadow of Songdo’s famous skyscrapers, in the northeastern part of the city where sophisticated cafes, demanding hagwon (academic tutoring) schools and numerous restaurants make up a thriving hub of business activity.
This so-called “city of the future” used to be a desolate mudflat until 2003 when Gale International, a global real estate development company based in New York, and Korea’s Posco Engineering & Construction, filled the deserted land with sand in hopes of building the most popular business district in Asia.
Fourteen years after the project broke ground, Songdo has become one of the most expensive, purpose-built cities in the world. Developers say Songdo should cost about $40 billion in total by 2020, when the city will be “finished.”
However, one element that was not part of the master plan was a community-based garden where both residents and non-residents enjoy urban farming in the heart of Songdo.
Despite the near-freezing temperatures during a visit to the garden on Nov. 20, several Songdo residents were in the field tending to their vegetables and hanging radish greens on curtain poles to dry.
A woman who was peeling green onions in the cold without gloves told her story.
Like other gardeners interviewed for this story, she declined to be identified by name, referring to legal concerns over ownership of the land where the garden plots are located.
But she recalled that when she moved to Songdo, there was an empty and unoccupied field that nobody cared about, where she decided to plant “Welsh onions, radish and spring onions.”
Asked if she had received permission before planting her vegetables, the woman smiled. “No,” she said, adding that she gardens “for fun.”
Interviews with several Songdo residents along with posted signs indicated that owners of the land, including both individuals who received land after being displaced by Songdo’s construction as well as companies, have plans to build apartment buildings where the garden plots are located.
Two signs visible in the weeds near where the woman was working warned gardeners against setting down permanent roots.
One sign warned gardeners to “move their crops and return the land to its original state” by December 2016 or face legal consequences. Another sign said “please move your plants” by August 2017. Neither appeared to have had any effect.
A man tending a plot next to a ring-shaped fountain said that many of those who work in the field are retirees. The man, who also asked not to be identified by name, said that the field has been under cultivation for 10 years.
Surprisingly, the man seemed unconcerned that the field may one day give way to high-rises.
“I am not affected and nobody is affected even if this place is gone,” he said.
One bystander said that the field represents illegal activity and a poor lesson for young people.
“The (old people) of this community are supposed to set good examples for the young ones, but they are instead doing illegal gardening. What are the kids supposed to learn from that?” said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
Amid the garden plots were heaps of garbage, ranging from abandoned construction equipment and gardening supplies to personal trash such as water bottles and coffee cups.
The image was a stark contrast to the image of a trash-free Songdo as envisioned by its creators.
The garbage piles didn’t stop at the gardens, however. Commercial buildings near the garden plots were similarly surrounded by large heaps of garbage, their contents recognizable as waste from various shops and academies located nearby.
An interview with Carolina Fuentes, secretary to the board at the Green Climate Fund, the Songdo-based UN agency that funds environmental sustainability projects around the world, offered a different perspective.
Shown photos of the field, Fuentes responded, “I’ve seen it. In some places there are flowers, and other places it’s just garbage.”
Asked to choose between gardening and more apartment housing, Fuentes refused to provide a definitive answer, saying that the matter is one for city officials in Incheon, where the Songdo international business district is located.
However, she noted that “(i)n some sections of Songdo, it is visible that there is some garbage. Something that Songdo has always mentioned is how the garbage is processed, so that (garbage) in a way contradicts the good management of garbage in an eco-friendly city.”
“I hope that Songdo can keep its green areas because that is one of the aspects that I appreciate the most of the city, not only as a (Green Climate Fund) worker, but as a person living in Songdo,” Fuentes added.
“Even if more apartments are built, a bigger green space should compensate for the building of apartments.”
Chadwick students who live and study near the field said their visit was a mini-dive into the type of green space that urban planners like to say are the heart of the cities they create. In addition to the field, Songdo is home to Central Park, a 41 hectares (101-acre) public space modeled on New York’s Central Park, with canals and formal landscaping flanked by more high-rise buildings.
“I actually did know the field existed, because whenever I pass by to go to school I see it. But I didn’t really care about it because everybody passing by seemed to be indifferent,” said Chadwick student Gloria Noh, who spent her day sketching what she saw on the field trip.
“I was surprised to become aware about the two contrasting aspects of the field, which were one side that is just trash, filled with garbage, and the other is taken care of as a garden,” said Noh.
“Usually people say artists are better at catching details, but I don’t think this is an issue of being an artist or not. This is about caring about the environment.”
—This story was written by Elaine Lim, Emma Choi, Jiwon Na and Shannon Park and reported by Aileen Min, Elaine Lim, Gloria Noh, Jasmine Lee, Logan Choi, Toby Kim and Yoo Bin Cho of Chadwick International school in Songdo, South Korea. Video by Aileen Min. See more of the team’s work on Instagram at songdogardens.