Seongmisan: A village within a city

Seongmisan community is an urban community located within the City of Seoul. The residents in the area around a hill called Seongmisan have created a cooperative “village” model within the urban context, where faceless individualism and fierce sense of competition is prevalent. What is unique about Seongmisan community is that it was able to create a location-based, traditional “village-like” solidarity among residents through active participation and collaboration of community projects. The continuous trust and relationship-building among residents was the key to creating what proved to be an innovative and resilient community within an urban context.

© The Hope Institute

The origin of Seongmisan community traces back to a joint childcare cooperative set up by a group of young dual-income families in 1994. The young couples were discontent with the education philosophy and the quality of childcare programmes provided by the market and the state, and together they considered an alternative future of their children. The birth of this community reflected the residents’ desire to fundamentally challenge the Korean society’s obsession for economic growth, industrialisation and technological progress (Seongmisan community’s thinking is also in line with the arguments made by Thai Buddhist economists and Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.)

“The obsession for growth, as a result, has made capitalism and communism alike… Both have pursued only economic growth and technological progress, consequently strengthening centralised monitoring and control by technical bureaucrats and intensifying economic conflicts. This also led to social imbalance, bringing about the degeneration of environment and the exhaustion of natural resources.” (Hansalim, 1990: 15)[i]

Disillusioned by the heavily materialistic trend in Korea, Seongmisan community sought to form a cooperative, mutually-beneficial society based on value of peaceful and harmonious co-existence of human and nature. The community emphasises ecological way of living and a genuine personal and face-to-face social relationships in an urban neighbourhoods (that are often filled with faceless strangers and apathy).

The creation and growth of Seongmisan community was an organic process. There were no carefully designed plans, structures or hierarchies. Personal needs widened into social needs. People recognised the needs, came together and found collaborative ways to solve community challenges. Various community activities were ideated, proposed, experimented by the residents and these activities naturally evolved into cooperative childcare, schools, social care, co-housing models, carsharing model, collaborative model of consuming and producing food, community theatre, radio channels, festivals and art projects.

Here we explore some of Seongmisan community’s key features:

Reinterpretation of “traditional/indigenous” knowledge Dure (a traditional form of collaboration and shared workload during labour-intensive agricultural seasons) and daedongye (gye is a traditional form of micro-financing where small amount of money or grain was collectively saved) are both traditional/indigenous form of collaboration in agricultural villages in Korea, which have disappeared or forgotten after the rapid industrialisation period. Seongmisan community revived and reinterpreted the “traditional/indigenous” knowledge in the urban and modern context of Seoul.

Locality: placed-based solutions to intractable social problems Another significant feature of Seongmisan community is its placemaking element. By capitalising on the community’s assets and potential, Seongmisan community creates “good” spaces that promote people’s well-being and happiness. Public spaces (restaurants, cafes, open theatre, streets etc) are utilised as space for engagement and communication – to explore the needs of individuals and the wider community. This happens not only through community activities but also as a daily part of living.

Democratic decision-making within the community Democratic decision-making structure is key element of building solidarity and trust in Seongmisan community. Seongmisan community generally uses unanimous consent rather than majority votes during decision making process. The unanimous consent rule forces people to listen and empathise with other people’s thoughts.

Unanimous consent rule was used from the very first collaborative project, childcare cooperative. The parents realised that when the “majority” decision was made, the wishes of small “minority” group always had to be sacrificed. As the decisions were regarding the well-being of children, it was crucial to for the parents to unanimously agree on a decision.

Mixing formal and informal The Seongmisan community also combines informal and formal dialogues and meetings to make decisions. Board member role rotates around the group and democratic, open environment is encouraged. In order to maintain the informality and flat relationships, calling nicknames (regardless of titles, age) is a common feature in Seongmisan.

© The Hope Institute

The essence of Seongmisan community is its social capital. Social capital refers to “the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions”[ii]. According to Putnam, there are two types of social capital: “Bridging social capital refers to social networks that bring together people of different sorts, and bonding social capital brings together people of a similar sort.”

The social capital of Seongmisan community has great potential to create a sustainable future for the city, and provide fertile environment for social innovation. But to what extent is its impact? Will Seongmisan community serve as a needle point intervention (like Jaime Lerner’s idea of urban acupuncture in Brazil) that can transform urban life of Seoul? Will Seongmisan community go further than bonding social capital and bridge the social networks existing outside its physical space?

[Thank you to the Hope Institute for their contribution to this blog post.]

[i] Ku, D. (2009) The Emergence of Ecological Alternative Movement in Korea, Korean Social Science Journal, XXXVI No. 2(2009): 1~32.

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