Art revitalizes former refugee village in hills of South Korea

In All, Asia/Mid-East, Ideas, Theories, & Stories, Planning & Design, Social, Cultural, Political, UDIN (All), Urban Inspiration by Shawntel Hines

Project Lead: The Korea Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism

In a city known for its hugely crowded beaches, bustling markets and skyscrapers like its capital counterpart, Seoul, Busan is the home of an urban revitalization project that has gained international attention. In the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953), Gamcheon, a small village in the hills of Busan, became the settling place of many refugees. Prior to the war, only a few homes could be found on the hillside; during the fight for control of the Korean peninsula, many Koreans sought refuge in Busan, one of the few areas relatively untouched by fighting. The population of the village swelled by almost 4,000 people, as Busan itself grew and almost doubled in size following the war.

Known as one of the poorest areas in the city, Gamcheon Village was a collection of shanty homes to house the displaced. The first wave of revitalization took place in the 1950s when most homes were transformed into more stable brick and concrete structures that line the hillside today. However, in 2009, the Korea Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism initiated the Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan project, leading to repairs to structures and infrastructure, including pathways and rails. The Ministry hired artists to paint murals and art installations were sprinkled throughout the village. The 2010 Miro project resulted in additional art and upgrades.

Gamcheon Cultural Village, as it is known today, has become a somewhat off-the-beaten-path attraction in Busan, attracting visitors who want to escape the overcrowded Haeundae Beach and experience Busan’s cultural side. Along with the influx of tourists has come increased commerce, including a collection of themed cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops. In true South Korean tourist fashion, the village has several photo islands to capture shots of the collection of multi-colored pastel homes. Despite the increased attention, including as a winner of the 2012 UN-HABITAT Asian Townscape Award, Gamcheon is still home to many of its original residents, resisting the assumption that revitalization is inherently accompanied by gentrification.