In 2002, Korea and Japan welcomed the world as joint hosts of the World Cup football tournament. Soccer stadiums were erected all across Korea. Seoul’s World Cup venue was placed at the city’s far western end in a place that many people probably wouldn’t have selected just a few years earlier.
That’s because World Cup Stadium is located next to the Nanjido Landfill, a massive disposal site that operated until 1993. Like any metropolis, Seoul produces millions of tons of garbage, and Nanjido was the nation’s largest uncontrolled landfill. But what may sound like an inauspicious place was transformed into a pretty spectacular one when nature was encouraged to reclaim the land.
Don’t let the bugs scare you, the park wasn’t terribly buggy.
Seoul is surrounded by green hills and mountains, so what would be two conspicuous buttes in other cities can pass for typical topography here. So, guided by a 1994 master plan, city planners covered the mounds in a meter of soil, and, combined with the adjacent Stadium plot, created six major parks.
A bridge connects World Cup Stadium Park with Haneul Park. Note the 291 stairs that lead to the top.
The highest of the six is Haneul Park (하늘공원). Haneul means “sky” in Korean, and this park alone covers some 192,000 square meters. A blue arched bridge connects the stadium area to a zigzagging staircase. Affixed to each stair is a little plaque with a number. Exactly 291 stairs takes you to the top, where you can see fantastic views of Bukhan, Gwanak and Nam mountains and the Han River. Some 85 different varieties of plants and wildflowers grow in Haneul Park, although the vast plateau is famous for its hectares of cogon grass and eulalia. Each October when Seoul’s skies are especially blue and the reeds turn a golden hue, the park hosts a popular festival.
Tables appear sporadically among the acres of grass.
But during the times that I’ve visited, I’ve had the massive park virtually to myself, and its height and placement in the far west of the city can make the busy urban landscape disappear. Walking along the dirt paths that cut through the wild grasses, you’ll come upon tables and parasols for picnickers. But if you prefer to gaze out over the city, modern benches resembling large, smooth stones feature prominently on the park’s 22 peripheral lookout points. They’re a great place to watch an orange and pink sunset over the Han River and Gayang Bridge.
Smooth, modern benches located on one lookout point with wind turbines generating green power for the park.
When Haneul Park was created, it was designed with conservation and the preservation of biodiversity in mind. To that end, five wind-powered generators produce electricity to operate the park’s lamps, while the methane gas produced underground by the landfill is recycled as fuel for the stadium and nearby apartments. This is important since methane production at landfill sites can pose significant health and environmental risks.
This bunny was so tame I don’t think it qualifies as “wildlife.”
So far, Haneul Park’s environmentally-friendly design has enticed ducks, pheasants, cranes, kestrals and several other types of birds back into Seoul. Even the endangered narrow-mouth frog, named as the park’s flagship species, lives here. I didn’t see any frogs, but I did spy a curiously tame rabbit. So whether you’re looking for a nice walk, a great view or some peace and quiet in a fast-paced metropolis like Seoul, I’d suggest visiting Haneul Park.
Haneul Park features many lookout spots perfect for watching the sun set over the Han River.
World Cup Park Official Site (in English)
→ Haneul Park is part of the World Cup Stadium complex and can be accessed via Seoul Metro Line 6’s World Cup Stadium Station (exit 1).
(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on September 2, 2009.)