American tech companies help shape new Korean city

INCHEON, South Korea

The Korean War began with an invasion of South Korea, by troops from the north. The United States countered with one of the most daring maneuvers in military history -- General Douglas MacArthur landed 75,000 U.S. troops on the shores of Incheon.

Recently, I visited Incheon, which is just outside of the South Korean capital, Seoul. It is closer to the Bay Area than any major city in Asia and it is undergoing some dramatic changes. Right where MacArthur landed those troops, a new city is rising from the sea, in what may be the largest private real estate venture in the world. And it's a green city, LEED certified, standing for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Ten years ago the land was underwater, but by 2005 in a joint venture. Gale International of New York and Korea's POSCO Engineering began construction on land, reclaimed from the sea and now Songdo's first 22,000 residents have moved in.

"We have families right here," said Scott Summers, the Gale International vice president.

Summers grew up in Marin County where his grandmother, Mary Summers, was the planning director and a sustainable growth advocate. He now oversees construction on the $35 billion project.

"Sometimes we call it a city of synergy and we want a live, work, play, environment," said Summers.

A seven-mile bridge links Songdo to Incheon International Airport and a park in the city's center.

"It's 100 acres, it was modeled after New York City's Central Park," said Summers.

The canal uses seawater instead of fresh. Recycled gray water is used for landscaping and heated waste water from Songdo's power plant is used to heat its towers.

"I like to call them the basket weave the dancing ladies," said Summers.

But Summers knows Songdo's success will depend on global trade.

"We want this to be the doorstep for people wanting to do business in Korea, this is the landing point, almost as though it were General MacArthur's landing point, a landing point for foreign companies to do business in Korea," said Summers.

Silicon Valley's Cisco Systems is already connecting everything and everyone in Songdo with its U.Life and TelePresence technology. Cisco calls their touch screens "wall pads" and you can control the lights, save energy, watch a movie, set up a HD video conference with a neighbor or someone half a world away.

Cisco global PR operations manager Samer Constantini says Songdo provides a great chance to rollout new technology and provide new alternatives. He said, "You can actually dial in to call your doctor for a quick consultation, instead of getting in the car and driving all the way, looking for a parking spot and waiting at the waiting room and looking at old magazines."

But Songdo's backers believe they have to build more than sustainable tech-filled tower.

Stan Gale, the head of Gale International at the Good Market, appeared at a charity event designed to create a feeling of community.

"We dreamed for many years for a day like today," said Gale.

I caught up with Gale at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club following a PGA Champions' Tournament.

"We were fortunate enough to be able to plan from scratch the first sustainable compact city and we used all the technology available to us," said Gale.

While the global economic crisis has created a challenge for Songdo, Gale hopes the new U.S.-Korean free trade agreement will drive business between California and the world's newest city.

"Over 60 percent of the trade will be done with Korea from California and vice versa, and a lot of people don't know that," said Gale.

Gale says when the construction of the brand new city is complete there will be 100-million square feet of commercial, residential and retail space. And he hopes a quarter million residents will work, live, and play in Songdo.

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