Is Cittaslow city really slow? A reflection from a visit to a Cittaslow village in South Korea

Is Cittaslow city really slow? A reflection from a visit to a Cittaslow village in South Korea

By Jane Yeonjae Lee

 

Cittaslow city is part of a wider slow movement that encourages slow food and life style by respecting the city’s environment and traditions to improve the quality of life in towns. Cittaslow association originated in Italy in 1999, and now there are over 100 Cittaslow towns in 11 different countries. To become a slow city, cities must accept the guidelines from the Cittaslow association and become certified through them. The cities first have to pay 600 euros to the Cittaslow and have to organize meetings, assign a leader, develop certain programs, and re-generate their cities to follow Cittaslow’s advice. Some programs that have been implemented in Cittaslow cities include “recycling projects, Presidia, after-school programs, and information for tourists that helps them have a real “local’s” experience” (Quoted from http://www.cittaslow.org ). The term ‘slow’ can be taken from various angles, and most importantly, it is about going back to traditions and slowing down the overall pace of the city in order to be environmentally and socially friendly.

Slow movement can be considered as making a mobility transition – but is it (or is it interested in) facilitating transitions toward low carbon movements and cities? Presumably, there should be fewer cars in slow cities and encouragement of more walking and cycling. But why do cities have to join Cittaslow to make these changes? Does Cittaslow give the city an identity for its slowness and traditions? Do slow cities change the lifestyle of the locals or the tourists? Is Cittaslow just a branding strategy to encourage the tourism market? Why do cities choose to become Cittaslow and how? Whatever the social, cultural, and economic politics there may be, it is important to think through how Cittaslow is (directly/indirectly) making a sustainable transition.

As I am about to present some thoughts from my ethnographic account of a slow city in South Korea, my answer to all of the complex linkages between Cittaslow and mobility transition will not be clear, but I will end up with more questions than any concrete answers. As part of our research project, I will be conducting further document/policy analysis and interviews with the people involved to get a clearer picture of what linkages there are between Cittaslow and mobility transition.

“Jeonju Hanok Village” is one of the 11 “Slow cities” in South Korea. South Korea was the first Asian country to achieve the slow city status. Before I even heard of the term Cittaslow, I have heard a lot of great things about “Jeonju Hanok Village” and was very excited to visit the place. “Jeonju Hanok Village” has a population of around 2200 and has 708 houses. Out of 708, over 500 are “Hanok” houses. “Hanok” means Korean traditional house – and the entire village has preserved the old houses and built new ones in the same traditional architecture. As soon as I arrived at the village, I was astonished by all the beautiful Hanok houses. The outer part of the village had residential houses and as you walked further into the center of the village, you could see that many of the houses turned into cafes, shops and restaurants (See pictures below).

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hanok2 Hanok residential Housing

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An American candy store in a Korean traditional house

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A local artist’s gallery

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A typical example of a modern style Hanok housing

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A vegetarian curry restaurant

I had mixed feelings as I was walking along the village. Indeed, the entire village looked ‘old’ because of all the traditional Korean architecture, but the shops weren’t entirely local produce. For instance, Weeny Beeny is an American candy chain, and they had other cafes that were part of bigger chains owned by large companies such as Samsung. In some parts, they tried too hard to make their places look shabby and traditional. For instance, the sign of the vegetarian curry restaurant was deliberately made to look old by using colored metal materials while the door and windows were brand new. In some ways, they had to build more (new) infrastructure and use more resources to appear more traditional and bring in international and national businesses into their local village. In this sense, I was not entirely sure whether the city was making a sustainable transition to become a slow city.

Leaving aside what had initially came to my mind, the village definitely had an authentic character and it was indeed dominated by local food chains. Jeonju has always been famous for their traditional Korean food and by becoming a slow city, and through their branding and making their city more well-known, their local food became more accessible to people who were visiting the place. There were a number of food stores that became famous through media and travel blogs and you could spot them from far away because of the crowd. Below are the pictures of some of those places.

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Famous Local Food Chains

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Famous Local Food Chains

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Famous Local Food Chains

The village was doing really well in terms of supporting the local food stores. There were lines of people to try the famous fried donuts, chocolate pie, ice creams, local beer, dumplings, and so on. These were all kinds of food that you could only buy in Jeonju Hanok Village – and nowhere else. The hype over the local food of Jeonju is so big that there are sayings such as ‘Jeonju’s food tour’ and also, there are numerous food blogs which explain and share recipes of these street foods from Jeonju. I was surprised to see that over 80% of the people that I saw on this day were in their 20s (entirely from my observation). The village was indeed a popular place to visit for the younger generation. This might become an interesting point to discuss later in our research; we could ask whether certain groups of age/class/gender/ethnicity/disability become marginalized in slow cities (and for what reasons).

As a last note, Jeonju Hanok Village was following the ‘eco-mobility’ movement. Every weekend between 10am and 6pm, they made the entire village car-free. There was not a single car in the entire village while I was there for the weekend. There were a number of speakers around the village where they were playing a recorded voice message (with peaceful background music), educating people about the Cittaslow city movement and why it was car-free zone that day.

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