Is Song Do New City an Example of Sustainable Development and “Good Globalization”?

Dr. Nial Moores, Birds Korea, November 29th 2014

Earlier this month I was kindly invited by faculty to give a presentation to University of Utah students at the Utah Asia Campus in Song Do, Incheon. The aim was to help students develop their own understanding of globalization through providing some information on the impacts of tidal-flat reclamation on migratory waterbirds at Song Do, within the context of existing conservation obligations. My presentation was then followed a week or two later by one given by a representative from the Gale Corporation: an excellent opportunity for the students to learn more about where they live.

As shared with the students through my presentation on November 12th, I believe that globalization is already a reality. There is already natural connectivity between ecological systems that goes well beyond political boundaries. By way of example, many species of bird migrate along flyways, unaware that they are crossing from one country into another; unaware too that conditions might be much better for them in one country than another. For millennia, our own species has also travelled, first from one continent to another, and then along one trade route or another. This movement of ideas, goods and people has continued to accelerate, so that our species has recently even started to try to cross “the final frontier” of space.

The move towards globalization seems to be part of our history and our foreseeable future. The choice we have at this time therefore is not whether to accept or reject globalization, but instead to decide what kind of globalization we want and need. Our planet is already resource-stressed. Species extinction rates are increasing; the land and oceans are already heavily exploited; the global climate is changing; our species population continues to grow; and so does our rate of consumption. If globalisation is not to result in worsening conflicts and the hoarding of dwindling resources by the few, it needs to focus more clearly on the global good and to be founded in long-term sustainability. It needs therefore to be based on a greater understanding and stewardship of resources. This will require a shift in thinking, requiring us to accept more responsibility for our own day-to-day actions (what we eat, what we do, where we live, how we travel) while creating more political opportunity for decision-makers to legislate appropriately, through eradicating perverse incentives and honouring conservation agreements. Change this fundamental is not easy because it requires all of us, individually and collectively, to behave more fully in accordance with those wonderful shared human values of honesty, respect, sincerity, consistency and compassion: not just occasionally, but in all that we do, all of the time. Only then would all of our actions and policies be inherently honest, respectful and compassionate, supporting both the strong and the weak of our own species.

Extending our compassion to “other” enables us to think more globally and less locally. It allows us to expand our sphere of concern more fully from people we know, to people we do not know, and on to include other species and the natural systems that support life: a true globalisation of value systems. Such thinking is not foolish idealism. Rather, it has to happen and it is already starting to happen. Although there is still terrible cruelty and injustice in the world, there are also millions of decent people already working for the good of others, from health workers to educators and peace-keepers. Already, many people donate their time and energy to good causes; already vegetarianism and veganism are increasingly practised by those who once ate meat; and in the past few decades there has also been rapid growth in the size and influence of organisations dedicated to the conservation of other species and their habitats, at both the national and global level. This is all part of this much-needed process of “Good Globalisation”.

Moreover, happily, these very same values and aspirations are already deeply enshrined within international intergovernmental conventions, like Ramsar and the Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG). As such, these values and aspirations have already been formally adopted by member states of the United Nations, itself part of the grand social evolution towards good globalization. Now, we need to honour and enact the commitments that have been made on our behalf. We need to do so in order to reduce conflict, to conserve resources, and to develop sustainably. And sustainable development, in definition as well as in targets set out within the MDG, is already clearly recognised by the United Nations as development that respects the economic, social and environmental needs of all of us, in this and in future generations.

So what has any of this to do with Song Do New City? Song Do (or Songdo) New City is often promoted as an Eco-city, as a model of sustainability, as the way cities should be in the future. It is being developed by Incheon City, POSCO and the USA-based Gale Corporation, in no small part to attract overseas investment. Song Do New City now has a Global University Campus (which includes the Utah Asia Campus) and it hosts the headquarters of several international bodies, including the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership. It is therefore seen by many as a symbol of “Good Globalization”.

And yet, this same city is being built on tidal-flats. In their natural state, these tidal-flats supported internationally important concentrations of waterbirds, as defined by the intergovernmental Ramsar Convention. The Republic of Korea (ROK) is a contracting party to this convention. By acceding to the Ramsar Convention, the ROK has agreed to maintain waterbird populations and to manage the nation’s wetlands wisely. Goal 2 of Ramsar Resolution X.1 further obligates contracting parties to manage appropriately their internationally important wetlands, whether Ramsar sites or not. This, all parties to the convention agree, is in both the national and the global good. Reclamation of internationally important tidal-flats at Song Do, as elsewhere, however, has already resulted in substantial declines in some species of waterbird at the local, national and even population level. Some of the species in decline are globally-threatened. These declines will continue further with further reclamation.

Tidal-flat is not wasteland. And it is increasingly widely-recognized (at least by scientists and local communities) that tidal-flat reclamation has multiple negative impacts. Many species depend on tidal-flats; and some of these, including some species of fish, shellfish and mud octopus are harvested and consumed by people. Tidal-flats are also excellent carbon soaks, and if in their natural state and fed by sediments, they also provide an excellent, no-cost defence against storm surges and sea-level rise. Increasingly, tidal-flats also provide vital (i.e. alive and essential) open space for city-dwellers, for recreation, education and relaxation.

Simply, a genuine eco-city would not be built on tidal-flats. A genuine eco-city would cherish remaining tidal-flats, and aim to restore and enhance intertidal wetland – and not permit or promote its destruction. Unlike the ROK and China, most nations already gave up large-scale tidal-flat reclamation several decades ago. Now, the United States of America, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy among a host of other nations, are instead actively investing in restoring coastal wetlands and tidal-flats. Restoration, while expensive and less efficient than conservation of natural intertidal wetland, still helps these nations to move closer to meeting their formal obligations to the conservation conventions, and to help conserve migratory bird and fish species that depend on tidal-flats. It also allows them (and future generations of their citizens), to reap the multiple environmental, social and economic benefits of conservation through restoring ecosystem health and services.

Tidal-flat reclamation at Song Do (or anywhere) is clearly not compatible with sustainable development, as understood by these conservation conventions, by the MDG and by other developed nations. Reclamation at Song Do is destroying internationally important wetland. It has caused declines in several globally-threatened bird species (including Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris, Relict Gull Ichthyaetus relictus and Saunders’s Gull Chroicocephalus saundersi). It has caused loss of livelihood of shellfishers, for this generation and future generations. And by degrading this shellfishery and fishery, it has further reduced national food security, at a time when the nation already needs to import much of its food.

It is therefore extremely difficult for those in Birds Korea and other conservation specialists to understand why reclamation still continues at Song Do, and why some people continue to promote Song Do New City as a model of sustainability.

This especially, as in the run-up to hosting the Ramsar Convention conference in 2008, the ROK actually stated that it would permit no more large-scale reclamation (see Ramsar Resolution X.22, paragraph 22). However, in January 2009, large-scale reclamation started in a new area of remaining tidal-flat at Song Do; and in March 2009 formal permission was then given to reclaim this new area, as part of the development of the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ). In what way was this decision to reclaim more tidal-flat consistent with the commitment not to permit more reclamation?

In what way too is reclamation at Song Do in 2014 consistent with meeting the Aichi Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which commit nations by 2020 to reduce the rate of natural habitat loss (Target 5); and to improve the conservation status of threatened species (Target 12)?

What too of the economic promise and sustainability of the Song Do New City, the most often-cited defence of reclamation there? This is an area far outside of my own expertise. However, in 2012, The Korea Herald reported that “Incheon, which hosts the nation’s No. 1 FEZ…is in severe financial trouble. Fiscal difficulties stemming from lavish projects have stopped Incheon from pushing ahead with large construction and international events. […] Presently, Incheon Metropolitan Government is mired in debt, with its amount marking 2.7 trillion won” (accessed at: In December 2013 too, The Wall Street Journal described Song Do as a “financial disappointment” for its developer (article accessed through: Reading such articles, I do not understand how spending ever larger sums of money on further reclamation at Song Do is somehow economically sustainable.

And is more land needed (another frequent defence)? In November 2014, as seen from the campus and along the 20-minute walk from there to the nearest subway station, this part of Song Do New City still looks to me like a messy patchwork of impounded mud squares (some still tidal, others recently walled-off); grassy vacant lots, dammed off from the sea a few years before; construction sites; and clumps of finished glass and steel towers. To my untrained eye, many of the buildings still appear half-empty (perhaps half-full to the optimist?), even while more land is being “created” by the dredgers and bulldozers. This impression of waste and dead space is further reinforced by the sight of near empty roads, many with multiple lanes. This kind of waste and dead space is not unique to Song Do of course. Rather, there are huge areas like this in other reclamation areas, some impounded decades ago (like Shihwa), others impounded in the middle of last decade (like Saemangeum and Namyang Bay).

Is this really the most economical, efficient and environmentally-sound use of land that until a few years ago was some of the most naturally productive and wildlife-rich wetland in the world?

I applaud the Utah Asia Campus for initiating these discussions to help students make up their own minds, and to learn more about their world in the process. Clearly, open and honest discussion of this kind is needed if sustainable development is to be achieved, at Song Do or anywhere.

Indeed, as a specialist in the conservation of avian biodiversity with a background in environmental design and ecological planning (from my time at Kyushu University in Japan), a major regret over the years has been the lack of open discussion on reclamation issues. We are so often left, as now, to express our opinions through online articles and occasional media interviews: more often a monologue than a dialogue. This means we end up repeating the same message, as we have been at Song Do for almost 15 years: now is the time to look again at the plans and to stop any further reclamation at Song Do. Now is the time to discuss together how to restore those wetland areas that can be restored, in accordance with existing conservation obligations. There are many experts available to support modifications to the city plans if invited to participate. And decisions to stop reclamation and to start to restore tidal-flat, if taken now, not later, would help to reduce rates of decline of some waterbird species. More than that, these kinds of decisions and actions would help save Incheon City money and help to establish Song Do as more of a city of the future – built on a genuinely solid foundation of honesty and respect for the natural environment and the global good. Isn’t that what all of us want?

All images taken November 12th 2014

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