Gangnam Style To Sungmisan Style: South Korea's urban villages

So Jung Rim of Social Life looks at how South Korea's Sungmisan village model is embracing social sustainability in cities.   This article is part of the Social Life of Cities series with the Urban Times. 

The first thing a visitor notices when arriving in Seoul is the endless rows of apartment buildings that overwhelm the cityscape. Unlike the tower block estates in deprived neighbourhoods in the UK, high-rise apartment buildings are symbol of modernity and economic wealth in South Korea. The French geographer, Valerie Gelezeau, author of Apartment Republic, regards Korean apartment buildings as factories producing the middle class in Korea¹: a burgeoning class created through rapid economic growth as well as the cultural and social processes that accompanied wealth. It is not unusual for Korean families to move from apartment to apartment as a way to invest in property and accumulate wealth. The height of these tall buildings- as well as their names (ranging from "Lotte Castle" to "Trump Tower" and "High Palace")- reflect the aspiration of the middle class in Korea - to be richer, more powerful and more modern.

There is growing movement in Korea that challenges this cultural and economic system that encourages competition, materialism and disconnection. The recent South Korean viral sensation "Gangnam Style" portrayed the hyper-materialistic culture in Korea and triggered a broader conversation about growing social inequalities in Seoul². People are realising that the current system of "more is better" is unsustainable and cannot solve the pressing social needs that Korean cities are facing.

Korea has one of the highest suicide rates among the OECD countries, the population is aging rapidly and the traditional arrangement of elderly care based on family and community ties is breaking down- putting huge pressure on the current social care system. Social isolation and loneliness is an increasing problem among the older people living in the cities.

Driven by lack of faith in the current system and nostalgia for the ideal of the traditional "village" people are coming together to build flourishing, cohesive, inclusive communities in the urban context. The Korean word maul (translates to "village") is being redefined as something more than a physical space. It connotes a place where people are able to do the things that they value by developing new social relationships embedded in the localities where they live and operate.

There have been many examples of "maul-making" or "place-making" in Seoul over the past few years. Neighbourhoods such as Samgaksan village and Sungmisan village started out as childcare cooperatives where families created a space for their children to grow up together; building a sense of shared history through various community, education and cultural activities. Some neighbourhoods began with the desire to build a children's library; others were set up to fulfil the artistic aspirations of the residents (music bands, theatre performance groups, artists). Some have a more environmental focus, while others attempt to restore trust in the community through cooperative housing models.

The common feature of these "villages" is the power of local social connections to encourage community resilience, which in turn creates opportunities and avenues for residents to thrive and realize their capabilities. At the heart of these thriving "villages" is a focus on social sustainability - "infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for social engagement and space for people and places to evolve."³

Ever since Mr. Wonsoon Park, a well-known civil society leader, became the "social innovation" mayor of Seoul, there has been radical shift from the rigid development planning to the focus on social sustainability in the city-wide policies. The Seoul Community Support Centre (SCSC) was set up in August 2012 to lead the discussion and facilitate the process of creating "urban village communities" in Seoul. Furthermore, the Basic Cooperative Law has been in effect from December 2012, which makes it easier for communities to set up cooperative models of community enterprises. The legal and political framework is shifting in Korea to enable a small but growing movement of "urban villages" such as Sungmisan that are based on values of mutual support and self-help.

In this article, I explore the Sungmisan village model using the social sustainability framework. The social sustainability framework developed by Social Life and the Young Foundation focuses on the essential elements that build new communities (in new development areas) to thrive however, it is also relevant to existing communities that are striving to reclaim the cultural and social meaning of the space they are in.

Case Study: Sungmisan Village

Seoul is constantly changing and evolving city. It is full of discontinuous spaces and contradictory landscapes.

"What is dislocating about Korea today is the disappearance of continuous place.  The there that exists right now may have no linkage to the there that stood there before." ° Annie Koh

In a city where switching apartments every two or three years is normal, it is difficult to feel a sense of belonging and community in your own neighbourhood.

Sungmisan villagers are rare but growing breed of people who are trying to restore something that Seoul city has lost during the rapid urbanization and redevelopment process. The origin of Sungmisan community traces back to a joint childcare cooperative set up by a group of young dual-income families in 1994. The young couples were discontent with the education philosophy and the quality of childcare programmes provided by the market and the state and they built an alternative future for their children.

Amenities and social infrastructure

Sungmisan community started with a childcare cooperative movement where young couples came together to raise their children together. The social infrastructure they created was the result of series of choices the young couples and families made to create a nurturing and safe environment for their children. The community created local services intrinsic to the daily life - ranging from cooperative childcare to elderly care, schools to community cafes and libraries, local currencies to consumer cooperative. People also started various cultural activities that gave a sense of shared history - community theatre, radio channels, festivals and art projects.

Social and cultural life

The framework also emphasise the communities need shared spaces, shared rituals and support to build social networks. Sungmisan uses the power of local social connections to encourage community resilience, which in turn creates opportunities for people to lead the lives they wish. People with shared values and interests come together for self- and group-organised events and projects enabling a culture of self-help and mutual support.

What next?

There are still many challenges ahead for urban neighbourhoods like Sungmisan. The governmental systems and different professional sectors lie in their own silos. There seems to be dichotomy of two very different worlds: profit-driven private sector developers obsessed with building physical infrastructures versus "village" movement focusing on the sustainability of social life. The two forces are in constant conflict and negotiation.

Discussion and debate on social sustainability need to be widened and capable facilitators and translators are much needed in the process of negotiation and conflict between different sectors. Successful models of the "village" movement should not remain as discrete examples of social sustainability in an unwelcoming physical environment but should serve as channels that open up new avenues and possibilities of creating communities that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

One of the key events that brought significant number of residents together and created a shared meaning was "Save Sungmisan Campaign". When the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced that Sungmisan (a hill located at the heart of the community) was to be destroyed to build a new water distribution system, many residents joined the campaign to keep the hill alive. The struggle went on for more than two years and the residents were able to create intense shared history through this experience.

Voice and influence

Another element of social sustainability is the need for residents to have a say in the shaping of their surroundings. Dialogue and democratic decision-making process is key element of building solidarity and trust in Sungmisan community. Sungmisan community reaches a shared consensus rather than simply applying majority vote rule during decision-making processes. This process takes time and the process in which people reach consensus forces people to listen and empathise with others. Democratic culture of Sungmisan not only reflects its internal decision-making process but also the way the residents engage in continuous dialogue and negotiations (or conflicts) with the local authorities to shape the place they live in.

Space to grow

The fourth element of social sustainability concerns the flexibility and the adaptability of a place. The physical spaces in Sungmisan village are constantly changing to adapt to new needs and possibilities. Public spaces in Sungmisan area are places where people build shared histories of collaborative activities. People constantly redefine and change the usages of the built environment (streets, theatre, café buildings) for the purpose they wish to achieve. The street converts into a festival space, cafes become public meeting places and the hill is a community garden. The theatre was built with its multi-purpose cultural functions in mind - it is an empty space with blocks of cushions that can be moved around.  Physical boundaries are flexible in Sungmisan as well. The village cannot be defined by the 2 km radius or by administrative divisions; rather, it is the labyrinth of social relationships that outline the ambiguous boundaries Sungmisan.


¹Why dream of high-rise apartment?, Valerie Gelezeau, 2010

² Is "Gangnam Style" a Satire About Korea's 1%?, Tanya Jo Miller, 2012, and Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea's Music Video Sensation, Max Fischer, 2012

³ Woodcraft, S. Bacon, N., Caistor-Arendar L., & Hackett, T., Design for social sustainability: A framework for creating thriving new communities, 2012

° Disappearance of continuous place, Annie Koh, 2010


So Jung is an Associate at Social Life. So Jung has also worked at the Hope Institute, a social innovation centre in South Korea, where she was the project lead for the Social Designer School, an education programme empowering ordinary citizens to turn their learning and ideas into practice. Contact her at