Markus Winkler / Pexels

How South Korea’s Tech Hub Embraced the 15-Minute City

Busan’s mayor is taking a collaborative approach to championing “happy proximity,” turning his city into a living laboratory for urban regeneration.

Story by Carlos Moreno

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The following is an adapted excerpt from “The 15-Minute City: A Solution to Saving Our Time and Our Planet,” by pioneering urbanist Carlos Moreno, who developed the urban design concept and coined the term “15-minute city” in 2016.

Located in the southeast of the Korean peninsula, Busan is South Korea’s second-largest city and a economic, cultural and educational center. Its port, the largest in the country and the ninth largest in the world, has made Busan an international trading hub. Home to nearly 3.7 million people, Busan ranks just after Seoul in terms of population; its urban area, with around 8.65 million residents in 2021, ranks second nationally.

With Busan’s status as a key technology city, the “San Francisco of South Korea” has become a leader in innovation, information and communication technologies, smart cities and public-sector innovation. In 2010, at the birth of the Smart City concept, high-tech companies made Busan the preferred place for innovation to shine in Asia. But over a decade on, the city reached a turning point with the 2021 election of a new mayor, taking up the approach of “happy proximity” to transform into a 15-minute city.

New leadership

Mayor Park Hyung-joon made the 15-minute city one of the pillars of his election campaign, convinced that the proliferation of public facilities would significantly improve the proximity of services for residents.

He proposed a bold plan to enrich the urban space with amenities that are essential to daily life, within easy reach of every citizen. His approach wasn’t simply based on the application of smart city technologies; it chose to invest in rethinking and remodeling the urban environment to make it more accessible, close to services and user-friendly for residents. This vision of the local city, far from being a simple spatial reconfiguration, also aimed to make Busan a leader in the transition to carbon neutrality.

The 15-Minute City Busan Vision was announced about a month after his election with the slogan “Busan first, we will create a 15-Minute City, Busan!” This vision encompasses a number of objectives: to promote the day-to-day well-being of citizens, to develop an intelligent and practical city, and to promote the transition to a carbon-neutral city.

To include citizens’ voices in this ambitious project, the city of Busan organized an open recruitment process to select 15 representatives for a dedicated citizens’ group. Park Hyung-joon also announced the “15-Minute City Vision Tour,” with the aim of personally visiting the areas earmarked for transformation by this proximity policy. The proposed aim was also to reach a public consensus on the vision for the areas where people live and to work with citizens to draw up specific development strategies for each area.

“A 15-minute city provides the amenities needed for daily life within a short distance, improves quality of life by integrating smart technology into citizens’ daily lives, and changes the urban environment to support a transition to a carbon-neutral city,” Mayor Park Hyung-joon said then. “I am committed to listening personally to citizens, sharing policy proposals large and small, and gathering diverse opinions.”

To this end, the mayor has initiated the creation of an urban planning department entirely dedicated to the 15-minute city’s vision. With a team of 50 people and a dedicated budget, this department is responsible for drawing up proposals and supervising projects.

This program adopted the fundamental principles of our “happy proximity” approach for the 15-minute city: ecology, proximity, solidarity, and citizen participation. These four pillars form the foundation on which the Busan project was built. They demonstrate the city’s desire to create a local environment where the well-being of its citizens is a priority, while integrating respect for the environment and social cohesion.

Busan’s “Happy Challenge”

The ambitious “Happy Challenge” initiative launched by the government of the metropolitan city of Busan in August 2021 stated it will implement the 15-minute city. To make this project a reality, the city of Busan plans to invest 30 billion KRW (about $22 billion) per region, totaling 150 billion KRW (about $110 billion) by 2027. These funds will be allocated to strategic tasks to transform the city into a living, dynamic laboratory.

The “Happy Challenge” is rolling out a host of initiatives, including the introduction of comfortable living facilities focused on walking. The aim is to create an urban environment where citizens can communicate and interact without hesitation, creating a diverse and engaged community. By promoting sustainable urban development and enhancing the quality of life of its residents, the city of Busan hopes to become a model for 15-minute cities around the world as part of the “Living Lab” concept, turning the city into a veritable laboratory for life and interaction.

Become, the annual competition organized by the Busan Architecture Festival since 2020, took on the theme of the 15-minute city in 2021 to encourage everyone interested in urban regeneration to take part. The objective was to create pedestrian-friendly urban environments within a 15-minute radius — the average time it takes a human being to walk 1 km (.6 miles) — and to facilitate spaces where residents can keep in touch with each other.

Over the next year, the city of Busan launched a public call for the selection of four preliminary sites. The selection was based on 13 criteria divided into three main categories.

  • The first category focused on community involvement, assessing the level of volunteering among residents, the degree of community involvement, and the existence of a strong network of organizations and co-operations in support of the project. This underlined the importance of active participation and fruitful collaboration for the success of the Happy Challenge.

  • The second category examined the state of the existing infrastructure, including the state of public facilities and the availability of land that can be redeveloped or used for the project. This ensured that the selected areas had the potential to host and support the Happy Challenge initiatives.

  • The third and final category concerned the city’s commitment to the project and the specific needs of each residential area. This guaranteed that the neighborhoods selected would truly benefit from the project and that the city is prepared to invest the necessary resources to achieve the Happy Challenge objectives.

Busan, South Korea

(Photo by BERK OZDEMIR / Pexels)

In preparation for the second year of its Happy Challenge initiative, the city of Busan chose Danggam-dong and Gaekgeum-dong, Busanjin-gu as the flagship residential areas for the Happy Challenge project. A substantial budget of 15 billion KRW (around $12.5 million) was allocated for the second year. These funds were primarily allocated to improve infrastructure, including roads, parks and public spaces. At the same time, various policy initiatives were gradually being rolled out to enrich community life.

In addition, two pilot residential areas — the Sinseon-South Port area, Yeongdo-gu, and the Mangmi-dong area, Suyeong-gu — were selected to innovate in local management. By establishing public-private partnerships, Busan has sought to develop a new model of autonomous local governance, actively involving the community in the process. This collaborative approach fostered more effective management tailored to the specific needs of each neighborhood, while it strengthened residents’ sense of belonging and commitment to their community.

To promote harmonious development within the region, the sites selected for the Happy Challenge project were diverse, including residential, mixed residential, commercial and industrial districts. Collaboration is ongoing with local self-governing bodies, municipal councils, and service companies to develop a strategic plan. The two selected representative residential areas will each receive 30 billion KRW (around $25 million), while the two pilot projects will be allocated 50 billion KRW (around $41.5 million).

The 15-Minute City Advisory Committee will supervise, inspect and evaluate these projects to ensure they meet the objectives set and effectively contribute to improving the quality of life of local residents.

Proximity and participation

Busan has been a pioneer in realizing this vision by experimenting with new initiatives. These include the remarkable “In and Out” multipurpose children’s cultural complex, which offers a space for children and their families to meet and interact. The city has also embarked on a shared mobility pilot project, promoted through collaboration between the public and private sectors.

From 2023 to 2024, four additional zones will be selected, culminating in the completion of five representative living zones by 2027. For each residential area, an investment of 30 billion KRW (about $22 billion) will be used to promote various projects:

  • A project to improve accessibility, taking into account the specific characteristics of each representative residential area

  • A project to strengthen solidarity within the community

  • An ecological restoration project

In addition, to improve the convenience of residents’ daily lives, the city of Busan plans to create and distribute a 15-minute life card. This card will enable citizens to easily check available community programs and actively participate in these programs, such as those related to culture, care, youth as well as shared use of public-private facilities

When I met with Park Hyung-joon and his team, the mayor’s conviction was clear. “We are striving to identify and fill existing gaps, encouraging the active participation of all citizens to think and create together,” he said. “At the same time, we are relying on administrative innovation to establish a model of trust and cooperation, nurturing new ideas to accelerate the realization of Busan’s 15-minute city vision.”

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from The 15-Minute City: A Solution to Saving Our Time & Our Planet by Carlos Moreno. Copyright © 2024 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books are sold.

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Carlos Moreno is an internationally renowned researcher. Born in Colombia in 1959 and based in France since 1979, he is today Associate Professor at the Paris Sorbonne Business School, Panthéon Sorbonne University where he is the scientific director of the “Entrepreneurship - Territory - Innovation” chair.

Moreno's contributions are internationally recognised for their originality and have been incorporated into numerous projects on local governance and urban transformation in France and worldwide. He is an advisor to national and international personalities. His concept of the “15-Minute City / 30-Minute Territory,” born in Paris, has gone around the world as a new urban and territorial approach with chrono-urbanism, chronotopia and topophilia. His work aims to promote the transformation of our lifestyle and urban spaces, and to offer solutions to the major challenges facing cities, metropolises and territories in the 21st century.

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