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FEATURE STORY February 7, 2018

Achieving the Twin Goals Using Cultural Heritage, Urban Regeneration and Sustainable Tourism: Lessons Learned from Seoul


Site visit to Bukchon Hanok Village. Bukchon Hanok Village, located in the heart of Seoul, is known for hundreds of traditional houses, called hanok. With the cultural heritage restoration and urban regeneration efforts, the village has now become a popular tourist attraction. Photo: Byung Gwan Kim / World Bank


Over the centuries, war, neglect and unplanned urban expansion have laid waste to great cultural heritage sites around the world. Cultural heritage sites and historic cores in cities are not only valuable for our understanding of human history, but also for their ability to be used as assets in the tourism industry, generating economic development.

Many countries and cities are now looking for innovative ways to create sophisticated urban environments tying history and modernity while managing increasing pressures from rapid urbanization.

At a recent workshop held in Seoul, senior officials from 11 countries where the World Bank has relevant active or pipeline programs, World Bank teams, UNESCO officials and Korean experts discussed how the restoration and preservation of cultural heritage, urban regeneration, and sustainable tourism can become powerful tools for local economic development, social integration, and poverty reduction.

“With the UN declaration of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, tourism is growing and can grow faster in a sustainable manner. After passing 1 billion international visitors in 2012, the global industry is expecting 1.8 billion by 2030. Korea, including its capital city, Seoul, offers excellent examples and lessons to share with other countries” said Sameh Wahba, director of the Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice of the World Bank.

The five-day long program featured expert presentations about Seoul’s transformative experience and also global cases from Kyoto, UNESCO and World Bank operations. Participants also shared their key challenges and sought advice from peers and resource experts during discussion sessions.

The program and learning materials were based on the report Seoul’s Experience in Cultural Heritage, Sustainable Tourism, and Urban Regeneration, written by Korean experts from the University of Seoul (UoS) research team. The research tracks Seoul’s evolution over the last 50 years with in-depth analysis of five case studies: two World Heritage Sites (Changdeokgung Palace, Jongmyo Shrine); two historic quarters (Bukchon Village and Jangsu Village) and a former water filtration plant which was regenerated into a park (Seonyudo Park). Based on the lessons learned, the report answers three specific questions which are important for other countries on a similar path.


Workshop Participants in front of Changdeokgung Palace. Changdeokgung Palace was recognized as a World Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO in 1997, after the government’s steady effort to transform the palace and its surroundings damaged from colonial period into well restored and managed attractions rich in unique cultural history. Photo: Byung Gwan Kim/World Bank

What are the significant factors that lead to successful and sustainable urban regeneration?

First, effective urban regeneration must respect residents’ needs and aspirations. Communities’ residential rights need to be protected from unintended consequences such as over-crowded tourism sites and urban gentrification. Second, urban regeneration is a two-way street. Partnership between concerned, active residents and local governments craft regeneration plans that are tailored, sustainable, and economically efficient. Third, successful urban regeneration does not follow a cookie-cutter approach. Each urban regeneration project brings its own context and particularities, successes and failures.

What are the challenges to restoring rich cultural heritage sites in an ever-changing urban environment?

The cardinal rule in cultural heritage restoration is do no harm. Overcrowding and poorly-planned renovations only cause further damage and make proper restoration more difficult and costly. Second, urban regeneration of surrounding areas must not disrespect the site’s cultural appeal. The construction of modern and multi-story buildings in surrounding urban areas must not ruin the aesthetic or functionality of a restored heritage site. Finally, proper management systems and procedures, i.e., conservation plans, capacity analysis, visitor management plans, and clarity of institutional arrangements, must be in place for a heritage site to remain functional and sustainable.

How can urban regeneration and cultural heritage restoration be combined to promote tourism?  

The integration of urban regeneration and cultural heritage restoration have provided two valuable lessons in tourism development. First, neglected historic venues can be repurposed to improve the urban environment and unused industrial and commercial sites can be reclaimed and restored to a pristine natural condition. Second, traditional heritage sites can be used as multi-purpose venues not only for sightseeing, but for education purposes as well.

Participants and experts together highlighted the importance of promoting institutional coordination across agencies in different levels. Whereas laws and regulations set by the central government usually provides a framework from which the city government establishes municipal ordinances, Seoul’s experience showed that the city filled the regulatory gap by establishing its own ordinances and providing a legal foundation for projects.

The workshop, “Lessons Learned from Seoul on Cultural Heritage, Sustainable Tourism, and Urban Regeneration: A Pathway to Green Economic Growth Investments,” was held on November 27 – December 1, 2017 in Seoul. It was supported by Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), Seoul Urban Solutions Agency (SUSA), World Bank Group Korea Office, the Korea Green Growth Trust Fund (KGGTF) and UNESCO. Fifteen senior officials, presenters, panelists from SMG, SUSA, UoS, Seoul Institute (SI), Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA), and Korea Land and Geospatial Informatix Corporation (LX) came to share Korea’s unique experiences.