The Effects of Greenbelt Policy in Seoul, Korea

A greenbelt usually refers to a band drawn fairly tightly around a city or urban region that planners intend to be permanent, or at least very difficult to change (Jabareen, 2006). These areas are designed as buffers to protect open space, nature, wildlife and ecosystems and to encourage more compact development. The United Kingdom (UK) pioneered the greenbelt system in the 1920s. Population density and land prices are not very different whether one is within or outside of a greenbelt. Rather, these spaces appear to attract individuals who want to live in low-density areas and avoid locations degraded by development. Korea developed its greenbelt policy during the 1970s (Restricted Development Zone; RDZ) on the basis of the UK model with three main objectives: prevention of urban sprawl, preservation of nature near urban centers and national security. Although Seoul’s greenbelt had similar objectives to those of other nations when it was created, it has evolved uniquely. This essay outlines the evolution of Korea’s greenbelt policy and briefly sketches its principal effects to date

Since the 1960s, when Korea became an industrial society, the nation’s population and commerce have concentrated strongly in that country’s urban areas. The rate of annual population growth in the 1970s and 1980s in Seoul, the nation’s capital and largest city, for example, exceeded 100%. Meanwhile, the city’s population density increased two fold. The speed of Seoul’s growth and the resulting increase in its density were not comparable to that experienced by other cities with designated undeveloped land areas (Lee, 1999). As Figure 1 shows, the city expanded beyond its greenbelt, so that region’s density gradients are shaped irregularly. For example, Seoul’s greenbelt accounts for 13.1% of the total Seoul Metropolitan Region (SMR) land area, but the population within it represents only 1.5% of the area’s population. The high concentration of residents coupled with the nation’s urban containment policy resulted in “an extreme shortage of affordable land for housing and rapid land price appreciation” (Lee, 1999, p.43) in the SMR and relatively low prices (by comparison) for those assets in the greenbelt.


the-effects-of-greenbelt-policy-in-seoul-korea_fig-1Source: Choe, S. C. (2004)
Figure 1 Concept graph of Change of Density in SMR


Unlike other nations, Korea has sought strictly to control a wide range of development activities by individuals within its greenbelt. That orientation has provoked a persistent stream of complaints from the region’s residents for three decades, but it has thus far been difficult to reform the policy notwithstanding. This is so because Seoul’s greenbelt has generated both significant costs and benefits. Some researchers have argued that the area should be abolished, because the, “greenbelt policy has not been very successful in containing urban sprawl around Seoul, and has resulted in distortions of urban growth patterns” (Kim and Choe, 2011, p.47). Although the policy has enjoyed high levels of support from the general public (Kim and Kim, 2008), most property owners within its boundaries have opposed it and viewed it as a seizure of their private property (Bengston and Youn, 2006). Meanwhile, others have contended that the greenbelt should continue to exist, because its benefits are substantial. While many researchers have examined the preserved land area’s overall costs and benefits, the greenbelt’s impacts on specific stakeholders have largely been neglected in spite of their importance. Thus, I here examine closely the effects of the area for key stakeholder groups over time. Arguably, the first beneficiaries of Seoul’s greenbelt could be future generations and other species, such as wildlife located within it. However, since no one from the future or from such species can speak for their “fair share” of resources (Campbell, 1996), I have limited the scope of this essay to such interested parties as the central government, local governments and SMR and greenbelt residents.

A. Designation

Greenbelts are typically created by public or nonprofit purchase of open space lands or of farmland development rights (Jabareen, 2006). However, a dictatorial government originally created Seoul’s designated green space without purchasing the lands that comprised it by simply zoning them in a new way. That regime maintained the space thereafter. One of the government’s original reasons for creating Seoul’s greenbelt was to control development near the demilitarized zone. Officials cited this national security objective in their efforts to gain residents’ support for it. Ultimately, political and military security concerns prevailed and private property rights were pushed aside to allow the greenbelt to become a reality (Kim and Kim, 2008).

Although the greenbelt has both negative and positive influences on the environment, the central government has benefited from it as an instrument to control urban sprawl and as a source of land for the future. On the other hand, local governments have borne the direct costs of the area’s management as well as the brunt of complaints from its residents. The inhabitants of the SMR have experienced both environmental benefits and costs as a result of the existence of the greenbelt, but generally, they have incurred relative higher costs than benefits due to the higher property prices that it stimulated outside of its bounds and the increased commuting distance it demanded of many commuting from suburbs beyond it to employment in Seoul.. Greenbelt resident activities are also strictly limited by regulation and that fact has lowered the value of their properties. Table 1 summarizes the benefits and costs for each stakeholder at the time the government created the region in the 1970s.

Table 1 Stakeholders’ Costs and Benefits at Designation

Environmental Economic Social
Central Government (-: urban congestion, sprawl)(+: amenity, ecosystem services) +: national security
Local Government (-: urban congestion, sprawl)(+: amenity, ecosystem services) -: supervision, illegality control -: conflicts with residents
Outside Residents (-: urban congestion, sprawl)(+: amenity, ecosystem services) -: higher land, housing, commuting prices
Greenbelt Residents +: amenity, ecosystem services -: lower land, housing prices -: limitations on individual rights


B. Utilization

Even though the boundaries and governing policies related to Seoul’s greenbelt did not change much for nearly 30 years, the central government did allow occasional exceptions. For example, the original law allowed for construction of public facilities in the area when a suitable damage fee was paid. As a result, governments have used the greenbelt for public rental housing projects, despite the fact these have at least some negative environmental effects and therefore violate one central purpose for creating the space in the first instance

More precisely, these exceptions have negatively affected the environment in terms of loss of ecosystem and amenity services. Only residents in neighborhoods close to the project sites are able to enjoy the improved infrastructure and higher, but still relatively low, property prices created by the new construction. In any case, the central and local governments have benefitted economically and socially from greenbelt development. First of all, the exceptions have allowed governments to implement public projects easily within the area due to the relatively low price of land. While greenbelt residents must be compensated when their property is affected by these public uses, they receive support in accord with relatively low greenbelt land values. Although local governments have generally not opposed use of the area’s land for central government projects, some have protested the development of rental housing within the greenbelt (Kim, 2006). Local governments often oppose these efforts because they risk imposing more burdens than benefits on local city administrators (Kim, 2006). The exceptions policy also aggrieves area residents in a subtler way by allowing public developments, even as their use of their own properties remains closely regulated (Kim and Kim, 2008). Table 2 summarizes the benefits and costs of public utilization of the greenbelt for each stakeholder group under consideration.


Table 2 Stakeholders’ Costs and Benefits at the Public Utilization

Environmental Economic Social
Central Government -: loss of amenity and ecosystem services +: lower price of compensation, fiscal savings +: administrative convenience
Local Government -: loss of amenity and ecosystem services +: lower price of compensation, fiscal savings -: conflicts with landowners+: administrative convenience
Outside Residents -: loss of amenity and ecosystem services
Greenbelt Residents -: loss of amenity and ecosystem services+: Improved infrastructure +: balloon effect of public projects -: relative sense of deprivation


Another form of greenbelt use occurs when residents illegally utilize area land. In practice, some inhabitants have illegally installed temporary structures in which to operate businesses, such as junk shops and warehouses. Even when the government imposes penalties and fines for such usurpations, the profits from these ventures are often greater than those costs, leading squatters to continue or repeat their behavior. Almost 40% of greenbelt land is vacant or lightly settled in scattered residential areas, making its misuse relatively easy to pursue.

Private use of greenbelt lands generates environmental, economic and social costs, Historically, local governments have assumed responsibility for surveillance and supervision of the region as well as for the costs of removing illegal structures from it and restoring original conditions to the extent possible. Local governments also address resident complaints and conflicts with wrongdoers. Although the central government subsidizes localities, the social costs of greenbelt misuse are not considered when such allocations are decided. The largest costs of the land area’s illegal use fall on nearby residents. These individuals struggle with a degraded environment and lower property values when land located near them is developed in defiance of the law. Table 3 summarizes the costs to each stakeholder of illegal utilization.

Table 3 Stakeholders’ Costs of Illegal Utilization

Environmental Economic Social
Central Government -: loss of amenity and ecosystem services
Local Governments -: loss of amenity and ecosystem services -: supervision,legal costs -: conflicts with residents and wrongdoers
Outside Residents -: loss of amenity and ecosystem services
Greenbelt Residents General Residents -: loss of amenity and ecosystem services -: lower land and housing prices -: conflicts b/w residents and wrongdoers
Wrongdoers -: loss of amenity and ecosystem services +: profits from illegality


C. Release

Since the early 2000s, the central government has released 1,450 square meters of the total greenbelt area for residential use. This step occurred as a result of a policy change and greenbelt residents have benefited from it. Under the new policy, residents can now exert property rights and their land values have increased as a result. However, technical methods of boundary adjustment based on environmental assessments have yielded a fresh challenge  (Kim and Kim, 2008), since areas damaged illegally by wrongdoers are evaluated with low scores and receive highest priority for release. This situation has exacerbated existing conflicts between residents and wrongdoers in the greenbelt.

Similarly, a redrawing of the greenbelt’s boundaries has created tensions between the central government and local governments (Bengston and Youn, 2006). Local governments have shouldered the costs of managing the many complaints concerning border adjustments, which released some properties and retained others. Table 4 summarizes the costs and benefits of the release policy for each stakeholder group under consideration.


Table 5 Stakeholders Costs and Benefits at the Release

Environmental Economic Social
Central Government +: decreased urban congestion(-: loss of amenity,  ecosystem) -: loss of available land for the future
Local Government -: loss of amenity,  ecosystem -: loss of available land for future use -: conflicts with residents
Outside Residents +: decreased urban congestion)-: loss of amenity,  ecosystem) +: supply of available land, lower land and housing prices
Greenbelt Residents -: loss of amenity,  ecosystem +: higher land and housing prices +: development rights-: conflicts between wrongdoers and other residents


Taken as a whole, Seoul’s greenbelt policy is fundamentally inequitable. The policy was an authoritarian government’s top-down planning (Kim, 2006) and an inoperable system from its birth (Kim and Kim, 2008). The greenbelt system was adopted as a precautionary action against the side effects of the National Economic Development Plan that accelerated urbanization and population growth in Seoul. Ensuring social equity was not a priority in the dictatorship’s adoption of the greenbelt system. In practice, the regime’s planners failed to perform the role of negotiators by requiring residents to accept the policy without educating them concerning its likely effects on their daily lives. Planners also failed to perform their professional role by devising a policy “without sufficient attention given to basic principles of law” (Kim and Kim, 2008, p.41) and by drawing the boundary “without public input and without serious consideration of the widely accepted criteria for the designation of greenbelts” (Bengston and Youn, 2006, p.3).

Although the government has now reconsidered the issue of equity in the greenbelt and has reformed relevant policy, the planner’s role in those changes is debatable. Reform arose from a presidential campaign pledge and the ruling party, local governments, greenbelt residents, NGOs and urban and regional planners heavily influenced the change process (Kim, 2006). Within that process, the planners’ role as negotiators was insignificant, and frequent changes of political power did nothing to assist with greenbelt reform (Kim and Kim, 2008).

The process of the greenbelt reform illustrates the difficulties of reconciling benefits and costs among diverse values. Even though it is encouraging that planners are now trying to approach the inequity problem by suggesting alternatives, more action is required. For example, active methods to improve greenbelt management, such as the imposition of increased damage fees and penalty for illegal uses, should be considered. The central government should also allocate additional funds to purchase land within the zone and to implement various resident support projects. Moreover, planners involved in the reform process should clearly perceive that the key to that efforts’ success is “a more macroscopic approach to reorganizing the extent of property ownership” (Kim and Kim, 2008, p.56) and “to fairly redistribute property rights in greenbelt areas among those who are affected” (Kim, 2004; Bengston and Youn, 2006, p.10).

Throughout the history of the greenbelt, the central government has been its main beneficiary while those residing within it have paid significant costs for that privilege. The inequity problems in Seoul’s designated undeveloped land area have now improved significantly, but much remains to be done. Planners can help to redress the remaining concerns by recognizing the wide-ranging effects of the greenbelt policy for stakeholders and working to develop and promote equity among them.



Bengston, D. N. and Y. C. Youn (2006) “Urban Containment Policies and the Protection of Natural Areas: The Case of Seoul’s Greenbelt”, Ecology and Society, 11(1): 3.

Campbell, S. (1996) “Green cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities?: Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development”, Journal of the American Planning Association, 62: 296-312.

Choe, S. C. (2004) “Reform of planning controls for an urban-rural continuum in Korea”, in Towards sustainable cities: East Asian, North American, and European perspectives on managing urban regions, Sorensen, A., Marcotullio, P. J. and Grant, J. ed., Ashgate, 253-266.

Jabareen, Y. R. (2006) “Sustainable Urban Forms: Their Typologies, Models, and Concepts”, Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26: 38-52.

Kim, J. K. and T. K. Kim (2008) “Issues with Green Belt Reform in the Seoul Metropolitan Area”, in Urban Green Belts in the Twenty-first Century, Amati, M. ed., Ashgate.

Kim, K. J. and S. C. Choe (2011) “In Search of Sustainable Urban Form for Seoul”, Library for Sustainable Urban Regeneration, 10(I): 43-65.

Kim, S. B. (2004). “The role of government in the redistribution of property rights: the case of the Korean greenbelt”, International Review of Public Administration, 9(1):97-111.

Kim, W. B. (2006) “Emerging governance structure of the Capital Region in Korea”, in Theory and Practice of Growth Management, Choe, S. C. ed., Seoul: Dong-seo Publishing, 525-534.

Lee, C. M. (1999) “An Intertemporal Efficiency Test of a Greenbelt: Assessing the Economic Impacts of Seoul’s Greenbelt”, Journal of Planning Education and Research 19: 41-52.


Hannah Yehyun An

Yehyun An completed her PhD in Planning, Governance, and Globalization at Virginia Tech in May, 2015. Her doctoral research examined the impacts of capacity factors on urban infrastructure projects in twelve cities in India. Her research contributed to capacity development theory by investigating the complexity of the concept. Yehyun has eight years of professional experience and has participated in several international research and urban and rural development projects in Korea, South Asia, Latin America and West Africa. Yehyun received her Master’s degree in Urban Planning from Seoul National University and Bachelor’s degree in Architectural Engineering from Ewha Womans University, Korea. She is interested in research and development efforts aimed at identifying and implementing sustainable strategies for global change.

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