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Seoul peels back concrete to let a river run freely once again

Chonggyechon River, paved over amid rebuilding after the Korean War, offers a respite from the busy streets of Seoul.

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On a beautifully sunny day, crowds thronged the walkways lining a newly exposed stream that runs through central Seoul as if it were a lifeline to this hustling capital's health and prosperity.

In a sense, many have come to believe that the river, known as Chonggyechon or "pristine stream," is just that.

"I am so excited," said an elderly man, Kim Byung Soo, almost in tears as he watched the stream cascaded over rocks hauled in as part of the project. "It's a great achievement."

Just 25 feet wide and two or three feet deep, Chonggyechon's fast-flowing waters seem to be the tonic that Seoul's 10 million citizens need as they stroll along its 5.8-kilometer-long course.

"I don't think there are many places to go associated with nature," said Chang Sang Eun, an office manager. "Where are the parks and playgrounds? We don't have so many of them."

Mothers with babies, retirees with time to spare, and young couples holding hands jostled among hordes from nearby offices for space on the walkways that are just inches over the swirling current. Above walls on either side, still more crowds leaned over fences bordering sidewalks at street level, drinking in a scene that clearly provides visual as well as spiritual respite from the high-pressure pace of the world's 12th largest economy.

Seoul's Mayor Lee Myung Bak, a one-time construction magnate, campaigned three years ago in part on his promise to restore the stream. He acknowledges that, as a rising executive at Hyundai Engineering and Construction, the country's biggest builder, he had much to do with the project that covered the stream in 1961 with concrete and an elevated expressway.


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