Cheonggyecheon: A Revolution of Environment, Rule, and Interaction within Seoul  

By Nik Reasor

The Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul, South Korea is considered a masterpiece of urban infrastructure, revolutionizing how cities look at old infrastructure and imagine change. Though it is best known for being a picturesque greenspace cutting through one of the most dense cities on the planet, what truly sets Cheonggyecheon apart is how it directly altered Seoul’s decision-making process. Previously, Seoul believed in its technical rational ability to push forward its solutions and decisions using a method called DAD, or decide, announce, then defend. This directly followed the Rational Actor Model, where the government is the sole actor and decision maker, and decisions are seen as rational choices that maximize value toward the state’s ends (Allison 1999, 274).   

As the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project began, Lee Myung-Bak’s new government integrated multiple organizations into the decision-making process, creating a system akin to the Governmental Politics model. This allowed for public concerns to appear to be heard and conflicts attempted to be remedied, rather than ignored. However, as conflicts occurred with the Merchant’s Guild and cultural groups, it became clear that Seoul was not fully using the Governmental Politics model. Only certain solutions and decisions were fully implemented, while others were purposefully suppressed. Overall, however, the change in decision making that occurred within the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project marks a notable change in how Seoul’s conceptualized its problem solving, altering its strict Rational Actor Model to a more inclusive yet still politically biased blend of Rational Actor and Governmental Politics models. Cheonggyecheon serves as the foundation of the decision-making model that Seoul is renowned for today, one that prizes the idea of sharing power and public identity in decision-making and stands in stark contrast to the rational models of the past.  


During the late 1990s, the crumbling highway at the heart of downtown Seoul began to attract attention. The highway, built in the 1970s, had several safety concerns as the amount of traffic started to cause noticeable wear (Kang 2016). City officials planned to repair the eighteen-lane highway; however, a group of academics began to suggest removing the highway and restoring the historic stream on which the highway was built (Worldbank 2015). During the Seoul Mayoral Election of 2002, candidate Lee Myung-Bak championed this cause, making it central to his campaign. This aided his campaign tremendously, as it played into the public’s want for increased interaction in public administration, and his subsequent election created a need to include the public in decisions. 

Before the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project (CRP), Seoul believed it could act in absolute power, thinking it acted in “technical rationality and pressed ahead with projects by monopolizing information and forcing stakeholders to follow them” (Hwang et al. 2016, 207). Seoul followed this ideology with DAD, highlighting how the government would privately decide on a solution to an issue, announce it, and instead of seeking improvement, it would defend the solution (Hwang et al. 2016, 14). This aligns with the idea of agenda setting as well, as DAD was thought to “promote a project with ‘technological’ rationality as the absolute criteria while minimizing the negative aspects (project delays, social costs) associated with ‘procedural rationality’” (Hwang et al. 2016, 16). Seoul limited the amount of interaction that those outsides of the decision making process could have while presenting decisions it made as the most “rational” choice that could be made, downplaying any conflict that occurred with residents. This resulted in distrust in the decision making process between residents of Seoul and the government that the new mayor sought to remedy. 

Past and Present

Knowing the public wished for a higher level of impact on the decision-making process, the new mayor started to change how Seoul made decisions. Upon creation of the CRP, multiple organizations were formed to assist in public engagement, including the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project Headquarters (CRPH), the Seoul Development Institute (SDI), and the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Citizen’s Committee (Lah 2012, 4). This is an example of the Government Politics decision making model, which highlights the different organizational compositions in decision making processes, as the committees acted as different advisory and decision-making channels for Cheonggyecheon.  

Lee Myung-Bak purposefully chose to involve these different organizations, all with different objectives and foundations, to attempt to fully consider all possible concerns, creating a noticeable shift in how Seoul made decisions. These groups had the power to shape Cheonggyecheon, with the Citizens Committee postponing the start of the project until cultural relevancy decisions were made by the three organizations (Hwang et al 2016, 147). This is actualized power, not a form of venue shopping to shift focus away from protests which were common under the DAD model.  

Conflict Resolution Revolution

The CRP was built upon the idea of the revitalization of Seoul and its culture. Lee Myung-Bak wished to push Seoul’s cultural identity, and accordingly prioritized the restoration of the cultural heritage surrounding Cheonggyecheon. Following the Governmental Politics Model, cultural groups raised concerns over Gwangtonggyo Bridge, the largest historical bridge of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. Cultural groups wished to have the bridge be placed according to historical accuracy, which the city did not believe possible. To prevent conflict, Seoul utilized agenda setting by stating the bridge would be built according to CRP but would be reevaluated later. This placated the cultural groups, who were presented with the choice of having no control at all, reminiscent of the Rational Actor Model, or could discuss and re-evaluate, similar to the Governmental Politics Model. Presented with this, the cultural groups closed their arguments (Kang 2017).  

The largest opposition faced by the CRP were merchants of the local area, who feared the demolishing of the highway would not revitalize the economy and instead would lead to loss (Yoon 2018, 14). These individuals feared the project, and though the CRP claimed to be reflective of local needs, all committees and meetings were lacking any local opposition leaders and were purposefully “excluded from the decision-making process even though they were direct stakeholders” (Hwang et al 2016, 71). This made the public doubt this democratic decision and believe the government was reverting to its “rational methods” (Hwang et al 2016, 73). In response, Seoul created a “governance scheme” to mitigate conflict while appearing to integrate public concern (Hwang et al 2016, 72). This reduced conflict by making external forces feel involved, while the city pursued its own desires. Merchants talked to the city and felt as if they were contributing, while government officials rarely integrated their concerns into the project. This is the venue setting, changing the arena of conflict from the streets to privately held meetings, and shows that the CRP was using a Rational Actor Model, despite presenting itself as a more publicly cognizant Governmental Politics model. The core of the Governmental Politics model is that “what happens is understood instead as a result of bargaining games among players in the national governments” (Allison 1999, 275); however, there was little bargaining with this process. Seoul believed that it was making “rational” choices but wished to make others feel that they were helping to create decisions to stop public outcry (Lah 2012, 10).   

Seoul utilized factors such as agenda setting to make their “rational” choices seem like the best decisions while making the public believe they are vital. Or the city used venue shopping to change how opposing forces could express their issues to not attract negative attention and promote their ideals over the concerns of others (Hwang et al. 2016). This false image of cooperation correlates with the fact that the two yearlong construction of the CRP began nearly a year before the “Cheonggyecheon Restoration Master Plan” was published, meaning that concerns could not be integrated until a year into the construction process (Worldbank 2015). That is not to say that there was no integration of external views and concerns, as the city did listen to the SDI and Citizens Committee when concerns were raised about flooding, safety, and transportation, but instead shows that the image of unity between the City’s government and residents was often more important to the CRP than implementing these concerns.   This conflict between rationality and outreach is why the CRP showcases how models cannot function in practical application. There is no true expression of any decision-making model, instead, there is a mix of models. 


Allison, Graham. 1999. “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.” In Foreign Policy: Theories, Actors, Cases. Edited by Steve Smith. 256-83. London: Longman Publishing.

Hwang, Keeyon, Miree Byun, Tae Joon Lah, and Sang-min Lee. 2016. “Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project: Conflict Management Strategies.” The Korea Transport Institute 22: 1-273.

Kang, Myounggu. 2016. “Cheonggyecheon (Stream) Restoration 서울정책아카이브 Seoul Solution.” January 30, 2016.

Lah, TJ. 2012. “The Dilemma of Cheonggyecheon Restoration in Seoul”.

Moynihan, David. 2017. “What Can Seoul Teach the UK about Community Engagement?” City Monitor (blog). November 29, 2017.

The World Bank. 2015. “Seoul Urban Regeneration.” Accessed September 22, 2022., Yasmin. 2018. “Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project: The Politics and Implications of Globalization and Gentrification”  Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Politics, Economics and World Affairs, (1) no. 1: 92-110

Nik Reasor is a first-year Master’s student in City and Regional Planning at Chapel Hill where he specializes in Land Use and Environmental Policy. In particular, Nik is interested in climate change adaptation and how to best help disadvantaged communities survive the challenges the future presents. Previously, Nik earned his BA in Sociocultural Anthropology, Medieval studies, and Urban Planning at UNC. You can usually catch him around Chapel Hill biking to local cafes to catch up on work or at the gym coaching UNC’s boxing team.

Edited by Ryan Ford

Featured Image: Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul. Photo Credit: Nik Reasor

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