The Participatory Urban River Regeneration Project: Taehwa River Regeneration in Ulsan, Korea
Ulsan Metropolitan Government

The Problem

Ulsan is the seventh-largest metropolis of the Republic of Korea, located in the south-east region of the country. Ulsan is the country’s industrial powerhouse with more than 1,000 companies (including the world's largest automobile assembly plant, shipyard and refinery). The heavy industrialization provoked a massive population increase, from 85,000 in 1962 to more than 1.2 million currently.

Since the 1970s, the negative effects of massive industrialization, such as polluting untreated waste from the industrial complexes as well as the tremendous wastewater generation from households, caused severe damage to the natural environment and ecosystem in the area around the city, leaving the Taehwa River heavily polluted. Inadequate river management, which included poor ecological conservation strategies and reckless rapid urbanization, worsened the condition of the Taehwa River in early 1990s. The river was often referred to as the “river of death” due to the rapid negative environmental changes of over decades. Therefore, the city government was not only forced to prevent further water pollution, but also needed to improve water quality of the river.

The majority of local residents were negatively affected due to poor water quality, depletion of ecological resources, and loss of biodiversity. Over 70 percent of the total population lived near the river basin, many local residents suffered due to the poor sanitation and bad odours generated by the polluted river.

Solution and Key Benefits

 What is the initiative about? (the solution)
Nowadays, the Taehwa River can be seen as a role model of urban river restoration in the Republic of Korea, even though the work is still ongoing. Biological diversity has already returned, an ecological park and recreational facilities were built and property values nearby have risen. Reversing the river degradation took major political policy changes, bundled into the Taehwa River Master Plan, which was initiated under the umbrella of the Ulsan Ecopolis Plan. The plan was built on a joint declaration by the city government, business owners, residents and NGOs to “build a joyful city where the environment and economy work together and humans coexist with nature.”

The reason for city government’s initiative on the public involvement is that such a public-private partnership is a critical factor to realize successful urban river regeneration project.

The followings are what the Taehwa River regeneration project has done;

Policy initiative: Water quality deterioration in the Taehwa River was mainly regarded as a consequence of the lack of environmental infrastructure, such as sewage treatment facilities, which was largely caused by the sudden increase in demand due to rapid urbanization. To tackle the negative effects of the deterioration of the Taehwa River, such as unattractive river banks for housing and recreation purposes as well as decreased ecological habitat, the Ulsan metropolitan government initiated a variety of long-term comprehensive policy measures.

Technical management: The most prominent characteristic of the Taehwa River Restoration Project is that the city government took a precautionary approach to river management. The majority of policy measures were concerned with the treatment of wastewater downstream of local rivers, using local sewage treatment plants in order to prevent the inflow of wastewater into the Taehwa River from households and industries. Given the comprehensive sewage scheme, municipalities at both the metropolitan and district levels have employed multi-year action plans for a sludge-dredging project for building pollutant-treatment and sewage-treatment facilities. In addition, a remote-sensing system is used to control wastewater from both households and industries that discharge over 200 square metres of wastewater per day.

Institutional arrangement for implementation: Recognizing that the river management has been fragmented in the past, the Ulsan metropolitan government took a comprehensive and integrated approach to the Taehwa River management, making sure that an overview existed of available resources and capacities and that implementing practices were specified. In that way, the Ulsan metropolitan government was able to deal with various policy agendas, including water quality, ecological recovery, urban regeneration and cultural and historical restoration. This means that in addition to plans for cleaning up the river, there were also plans to develop an ecological park and recreational facilities to enhance its use among the city population.

Actors and Stakeholders

 Who proposed the solution, who implemented it and who were the stakeholders?
The project was proposed by the incumbent mayor, Mr. Maeng-Woo Park, as the foremost mayor election campaign promise. The city government has been in charge of planning and implementing the project, while other parties such as local NGOs and businesses were involved in monitoring and carrying public campaigns for the project.

The main tasks of local NGOs include a variety of activities. Ulsan Environment Alliance, the leading environmental NGO in the city, is charged for conducting field survey on Taehwa River project and organizing eco-education for the youth and citizen group. Taehwa River Conservation Council, the prominent NGO with special focus on Taehwa River regeneration project, establishes eco-class for Taehwa River and organizes a series of thematic workshops on the urban river project. In addition, the NGO takes a number of public campaigns on the conservation of Taehwa River basin through national trust. Other local NGOs are heavily involved in Taehwa River regeneration project such as assisting ecological restoration and clean-up of local streams channeling into the downstream of Taehwa River.

The inclusion of local NGOs in the Taehwa River Restoration Project greatly contributed to the successful sensitizing of the public on the importance of river restoration and aided officials in more comprehensively examining the relevance of policy measures for the project. Due to the former central government-driven policies on river management, little local knowledge existed on how to counter deteriorating rivers. The NGOs assisted in improving the policies and promoting local knowledge for revamping the river. The following table shows the main activities of local NGOs involved in the Taehwa River restoration Project.

The private sector also contributed significantly to the project. Contrary to other Korean cities, where the government is often the only player in environmental projects, 73 businesses and industrial companies by 2008 had participated in the river clean-up project as part of the campaign “One Company, One Kilometre;” each took responsibility for one kilometre of the river. The diversity of parties in the project helped to raise business owners’ social responsibility as well as to mobilize resources for environmental improvement projects. The involvement of NGOs in the river management has reduced conflicts and confrontations due to inclusive planning and development and helped to generate creative alternative policies that promote sustainable river management.

(a) Strategies

 Describe how and when the initiative was implemented by answering these questions
 a.      What were the strategies used to implement the initiative? In no more than 500 words, provide a summary of the main objectives and strategies of the initiative, how they were established and by whom.
The Taehwa River Restoration Project has been implemented under a two-tier planning system: the Ulsan Ecopolis Plan and the Taehwa River Master Plan. The Ulsan Eco-polis Plan provides overall ambition and objectives for the Taehwa River Restoration Project as a non-legally binding strategic plan, while the Taehwa River Master Plan proposes specific and sector-based projects. To ensure effective cooperation between different city divisions as well as efficient implementation of the restoration project, a special task force unit for river management was initiated. To ensure environmental issues were not overlooked, concerns of local NGOs were integrated into the Taehwa River Restoration Plan.

(b) Implementation

 b.      What were the key development and implementation steps and the chronology? No more than 500 words
Ulsan has experienced negative environmental externalities due to industrialization and urbanization since the early 1970s. In particular, rapid population influx had imposed a great environmental impact on the Taehwa River, the mainstream urban river running through Ulsan, in which there was little pollution with the exception of floods and natural disasters prior to the 1970s. Yet, the environmental consequence of urbanization and industrialization in Ulsan had brought about a wide variety of environmental problems for the Taehwa River such as the poor quality of water and the depletion of natural habitats since the 1970s. A variety of causes led to this including the lack of urban infrastructure and policy measures. It is often mentioned that the deficiency of urban environmental infrastructures, the lack of institutional arrangement of environmental governance and reckless urban development have been responsible for environmental degradation during the early industrialization period.

Specifically, the main driving force behind the deteriorated environment of Taehwa River is directly attributed to rapid urbanization and its negative externality such as deficiency of urban infrastructure properly in response to the rising demand on sewage treatment. In fact, the total population of Ulsan explosively increased from 85, 000 in 1962 to 1,099,995 in 2007. Yet, the supply of necessary urban infrastructure had been inappropriate due to limited financial and institutional resources from public sectors. The severe water pollution of Taehwa River during the 1970s and 1980s is a typical example of the bottleneck effect of such insufficient urban environment infrastructure in Ulsan.

Compared to air pollution discharged from local industrial complexes (petrochemical, non-ferrous metals) emissions as a stationary pollutant source, water quality deterioration at Taehwa River is regarded as the consequence of the lack of environmental infrastructure such as sewage treatment facilities, which is largely caused by the sudden increase in demand due to rapid urbanization. In contrast with air pollution which was improved due to the more practical practices and tougher emission regulations over a relatively short period water quality of the Taehwa River had to be improved through a variety of approaches and long-term policy responses,

In order to tackle down negative external effects, Ulsan metropolitan government has initiated a variety of long-term comprehensive policy measures in which the improvement of water quality, ecological restoration, development of riverbanks, and cultural and historical renovation have been established as the main components of Taehwa River restoration project. In particular, ‘Eco-Polis Ulsan Plan’ and ‘Taehwa Master Plan’ play the biggest roles in effective implementation of the river’s restoration project.

(c) Overcoming Obstacles

 c.      What were the main obstacles encountered? How were they overcome? No more than 500 words
The most prominent obstacles at the implementation stage were attributed to policy framework and institutional arrangement.

Recognizing that local river management has been frequently fragmented in the past, Ulsan metropolitan government stresses a comprehensive framework for formulating plans on river management as well as implementing specific management practices. Given this background, the metropolitan government took a leading role on formulating territorial planning on the Taehwa River project, organizing a special taskforce unit for river management (Taehwa River Taskforce Team), and integrating the environmental concern of local NGOs into the Taehwa River Restoration Project.

Concerning the formulation of a plan on local river management, the government took an integrated and comprehensive approach on sustainable urban river management that dealt with various policy agendas including water quality, ecological recovery, urban regeneration, and cultural and historical restoration of the Taehwa River. The Taehwa River restoration project was implemented under a two-tier planning system, Eco-polis Plan and Taehwa River Master Plan. Eco-polis Plan provides a vision and an objective of the Taehwa River restoration project as a non legal-binding strategic plan, while Taehwa River Master Plan proposes specific and sectoral projects as an implementation plan. The followings are the details of Taehwa River Master Plan

Regarding inefficient river management at local level, Ulsan has a multiplicity of metropolitan agencies and commissions with overlapping responsibilities for managing local rivers. Because the divisions in the metropolitan government typically focus on only one type of river management, each division makes its own decision resulting in a fragmented outcome. In addition, different metropolitan government divisions and agencies often have conflicting plans to manage local rivers.

To address such problems in local river management, the city government established an effective institutional arrangement (setting up “Taehwa River Taskforce Team”) with the purpose of encouraging river-related divisions and agencies to coordinate for the management of river basins at the Taehwa River. As a result, this institutional arrangement is regarded an effective means not only in exercising efficient implementation of river management but also in avoiding inefficient operations of the concerned related project. In mid to long term it contributed to the implementation of all related policy agendas on Taehwa River restoration project in a consistent manner.

(d) Use of Resources

 d.      What resources were used for the initiative and what were its key benefits? In no more than 500 words, specify what were the financial, technical and human resources’ costs associated with this initiative. Describe how resources were mobilized
The financial sources for the major projects of the Taehwa River Restoration Project are predominantly channelled through the central and metropolitan governments, and are associated with the division of roles on the river’s projects: the central and metropolitan governments took exclusive responsibly for the downstream Taehwa River, while the districts were responsible for local river streams connected to the river. As a consequence, the share of total budget for the Taehwa River Restoration Project from the central and metropolitan governments together reached 95 per cent, while the districts accounted for less than 5 per cent of the total budget.

The financial modality of the Taehwa River Restoration Project was heavily dependent on subsidies as the major financing source at the early stages. Yet, as the demands of social welfare and other urban sectors expanded, the Ulsan metropolitan government attempted recently to seek a financing alternative, based on public-private partnerships. For example, a newly built sewage facility was constructed through a “build-transfer-operate” contract with a private company. Additionally, a cost-recovery scheme was initiated, applying pollution charges based on the principle that “polluters pay”. The metropolitan government impose a business-user levy to cover the costs incurred from wastewater treatment.

The key benefits of the initiative can be identified through an assessment of eco-efficiency on the Taehwa River restoration Project.

The benefits of the urban river project in Ulsan include environmental, ecological, socioeconomic, and technical aspects.

Environmental and social benefits: The most remarkable achievement of the Taehwa River Restoration Project is the rapid improvement of the water quality, increasing its rating to “very good” by national standards on water quality and aquatic ecosystems. The current level of BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) at downstream of Taehwa river is improved to 1st grade .

This improvement has resulted in increased ecological habitat. A variety of species such as birds, fishes, and mammals returned to the urban river basin and the biodiversity of waterfronts is being restored.

The necessary improvements in turn have resulted in increased attractiveness and frequent visitations from citizens to ecological parks and recreational areas near the river.

Economic benefits: The restoration project is not only contributing to a reduced environmental load but is also generating economic value through urban renovation. Property values in the newly developed areas (within a 1,500 metre radius) along the Taehwa River have increased by 30–40 per cent compared to other areas in the city. The economic benefits have attracted more participation in the Taehwa river regeneration project from the majority of local residents living in proximity to the river.

Sustainability and Transferability

  Is the initiative sustainable and transferable?
The initiative, “Taehwa River Restoration Project” can be a bench-marking case for other cities that are eager to build an eco-efficient water management system. In realty, the economic and environmental consequences of inadequate river management during rapid urbanization has, however, affected adversely the quality of water and contributed to the degradation of aquatic ecosystem. In part, this has resulted because of misleading prioritizing policies and short-eyed approaches to local river management that overlook the cumulative environmental degradation incurring huge socioeconomic costs. Specifically, such episodes in many Asian cities have resulted in better management of water quality and ecology of rivers. For the eco-efficiency of local rivers, it is essential for local governments to implement various cost-effective policy measures such as appropriate policy framework of water quality improvement; a comprehensive environmental restoration and protection plan; relevant public investment priorities; and effective financial modalities on river management.

In this regard, as river restoration projects require consistent and sizeable interventions and investments over long periods, local governments must prepare long-term comprehensive plans along with strategic considerations on financing modalities. It is also encouraged to involve NGOs as major players in order to raise public awareness on the importance of river restoration and in examining the relevance of various policy measures.

Lessons Learned

 What are the impact of your initiative and the lessons learned?
There are sevreal policy implications of urban environmental infrastructure drawn from the experience of Ulsan’s case study. First of all, all policy responses on urban environmental infrastructure should be considered from a mid to long term perspective. As matter of fact, the majority of urban environmental infrastructure project including, river pollution remediation projects, upgrading and expansion project of sewage treatment facilities require consistent and huge investments over a long term. In addition, a closer examination of cumulative effects on environmental condition of local river projects is essential.

A review of Ulsan’s river improvement project demonstrates the value of comprehensive master plan in strategic consideration on resources and capacities at local level. Hence, local municipalities in Asian cities are required to establish a well-designed master plan in advance, and then to formulate implementation plans under comprehensive planning framework.

Local government should be cautious when it comes to the environmental consequence of riverfront development. Local policymakers must be aware of consequence and priority of the concerned development project. In Ulsan’s case local people put more priority on ecological aspects, it should be noted that excessive riverfront development hampers ecological recovery of local rivers which should be a virtual goal of a river management project.

Public involvement on local environmental projects is increasingly significant in many Asian cities. It is widely recognized that local environmental issues such as air pollution, water contamination and waste generation can not be addressed by a conventional approach, in which local government takes an exclusive player driven by supply-led policy measures based on limited capacity of local resource. Therefore, the participation of local business and the industrial sector as a major stakeholder is strongly recommended.

The diversification of financing resources on urban environmental infrastructure should be taken seriously. As examined in Ulsan’s case, a local government will often face financial deficiency to exclusively meet the increasing demanding of urban infrastructures because of other provisions of municipal services such as social welfare and public health that are also growing. Therefore, new financing alternatives such as PPP and other innovative modality should be strongly recommended for a few Asian cities that are struggling with a severe deficiency in urban infrastructure.

Finally, political commitments from local political leaders can be mentioned as one of the key factors contributing to the effective implementation of the Taehwa River Restoration Project. Indeed, the elected-mayor of Ulsan Metropolitan City has always put a higher policy priority on the improvement of urban environment from among several urban policy agendas. Such political commitment is greatly more effective not only in implementing the concerned policy measures, but also in mobilizing local resources on local river projects. In this sense, strong commitment from local leaders should be emphasized for effective river management projects.

Contact Information

Institution Name:   Ulsan Metropolitan Government
Institution Type:   Government Department  
Contact Person:   Youngsung Kim
Title:   Assistant Director  
Telephone/ Fax:   82-52-229-2140
Institution's / Project's Website:
Address:   201, Jungang-ro
Postal Code:   680-701
City:   Nam-gu
State/Province:   Ulsan Metropolitan City

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