Song Do (Songdo) Tidal Flats

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Click here to go to Birds Korea’s Report on the Song Do (Songdo) Tidal Flats, Korea

In 2009, the Song Do International Business District (Songdo IBD), just a 15-minute drive from the Incheon International Airport, opened. Part of the US $30 billion Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ), Songdo IBD and the surrounding Songdo International City are Korea’s latest effort at a public-private partnership in business development, attracting Korean and international corporations. Already, Songdo IBD touts its sustainability awards, LEED certification, recycled/natural materials, and general green growth.

Yet the process of bringing the IFEZ into being has destroyed most of the region’s critical tidal flats, a serious situation that has been entirely overlooked. When SAVE began to work on this issue in 2008, an estimated 4,000 hectares of the Songdo tidal flats were already gone, and approximately 1,000 hectares remained. Most of this remaining area is now being filled, as the 11th and final section under the overall plan to fill nearly 95% of the original extent of the tidal flats at Songdo.

The birds of Songdo are suffering. In 2008, 18,218 shorebirds crowded into this area on their northward migration. Thirteen species of waterbirds feed or nest in this area in “internationally important concentrations”, including Nordmann’s Greenshank, Saunders’s Gull, Black-tailed Godwit, Eastern Oystercatcher, Chinese Egret, and the Black-faced Spoonbill. The organization Birds Korea predicts further population declines in all of these species as a result of the loss of tidal flats.

The Black-faced Spoonbill is the rarest spoonbill bird in the world. Ten years ago, there were only 600 Black-faced Spoonbills left, making the species critically in danger of extinction. Extraordinary protection and expansion of their winter habitat in Taiwan and Hong Kong have helped the population to increase to around 2,000 birds (according to an annual census each January), but their summer habitat is vulnerable. The spoonbills build their nests on islands off the coasts of North and South Korea, including at Incheon City. In a bird count in 2006, fifty-eight spoonbills were recorded in the remaining 1,000 tidal flat hectares of Song Do. If the other 4,000 hectares of tidal flat had not been filled for the IBD, Songdo could probably have been feeding a quarter of the entire population.

Like other industrial second cities around the world, Incheon is trying to step out of the shadow of Seoul, but its ambition is particularly difficult. Such second cities have long done the dirty work for their more famous and glamorous partners, suffering from extraordinary pollution, feeling inferior by comparison and envious by proximity. In the 1970s Incheon destroyed most of its cultural heritage and natural amenities to accommodate unregulated industrial development, resulting in heavy contamination and a toxic wasteland for a waterfront. Rather than clean up, Incheon began filling the surrounding tidal-flat wetlands in hopes of emerging as one of the “10 must-see cities in the world”.

Image by SAVE International

Touted as a “new Chicago,” Incheon has filled the wetlands to offer free facilities to American universities and schools. Its partners include the Chadwick School, the State University of New York at Stony Brook (Stony Brook University), North Carolina State University (N.C. State), the University of Missouri, the University of Southern California (USC), George Mason University, the University of Delaware, the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), the University of Illinois, Carnegie Mellon University, and Boston University. Stony Brook and N.C. State, as the first two universities induced to join “this hub of education in Asia,” were originally scheduled to open their facilities in 2010 but the estimated date has been pushed back. The Chadwick School opened its Songdo campus in 2011.

In the case of N.C. State, IFEZ will pick up the entire US$50 million tab. On its own website, N.C. State has boasted that it expects to accommodate 3,000 students and notes that the campus and research lab will be like North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. No one will confuse the IFEZ with Research Triangle Park, but the free land and facilities, international architectural design competitions, and a global fair that have accompanied the project are too good to pass up. The American-based Gale International is one of the lead developers of the IFEZ, and Cisco has been selected to “supply network-based technologies and value-added real estate services.”

The Songdo Tidal Flats meet the Ramsar Convention’s criteria for wetlands of international importance, but South Korea is refusing to nominate them. It is shocking that any American university would open a campus on land whose very creation (“reclamation”) would be illegal under Ramsar criteria, U.S. coastal best-management practices, or state regulations. Certainly North Carolina State, USC, and Stony Brook, if they were expanding their home campuses, would abide by the laws that protect fisheries, local economies, and biological diversity in their own state. Maybe they just didn’t know, but colleges are the last place one might accept ignorance as an excuse.

Photo by SAVE International

Meanwhile desperate birds do desperate things when searching for places to nest. In 2009, eight pairs of spoonbills built their nests on an artificial island (a pile of rocks) in an industrial-drainage pond less than two kilometers from the wetland where the new IFEZ campus is being built, and more nested there in 2010 and 2011. The spoonbills keep coming because this fragment of habitat is all that is available. As the tidal flats are filled and the birds crowd into the few remaining foraging areas, botulism and other diseases could drive them into an extinction vortex from which they would never recover.

Unfortunately, Korea’s record of wetland destruction is among the most disappointing of all the developed and near-developed nations in the world. But certainly these American universities do not conspire to exterminate the Black-faced Spoonbill or any other species, but their actions are nevertheless dooming the birds. So what should the universities do? Sign on only if Incheon City and the Korean government agree to do the following:
1. reaffirm the Korea’s “Changwon Declaration” of 2008, when it hosted the Ramsar Conference of the Contracting Parties, that intertidal mudflats would henceforth be preserved;
2. implement this policy by immediately classifying all qualified wetlands as Ramsar sites and ceasing to fill the remaining Songdo Tidal Flat;
3. improve the quality of water, nesting, and foraging habitat along Sorae Creek and in adjacent lake impoundments;
4. find more appropriate sites for campuses, outside filled wetlands; and
5. repair the proposed campus area to shorebird habitat.

Additionally, any university that considers locating in Korea (or elsewhere for that matter) should first do its own comparative research on human rights and environmental policy; in this case, the research would particularly focus on conservation biology, the Black-faced Spoonbill, and other endangered species. Why, for example, could the spoonbill babies’ parents find no better nesting site than that sewage lake in Incheon? Research might also focus on South Korea’s highly advanced capacity for ecological double-talk, whereby outmoded and destructive engineering practices are clothed in the latest green vocabulary, such as its “Green New Deal.” The success with which Korea deceives foreign investors and its own populace is fertile ground for study.

Far more productive research, though, would focus on the best ways to repair and restore habitat at Songdo and other tidal flats. Start with the very campuses that Stony Brook and North Carolina State seek to occupy, by shrinking the campus footprint and repairing the remaining filled wetlands. These universities might also study the economics of filling wetlands to provide the “free” incentives that attracted them in the first place.

Gale International and its partners must be held accountable, but right now, the universities planning to move into the Songdo area of the IFEZ have the gravest responsibility and the most clout to save the Black-faced Spoonbill and the other threatened species. Their students and alumni should be especially keen to follow the story, but the entire world is about to learn something. The universities have to decide what lesson they will teach us.

SAVE International has been developing parallel campaigns to ask the universities to reconsider their actions. We have also developed alternatives for the use of this area.

For a further analysis and critique of the plans for Songdo IBD and Songdo International City, please see the article “A Conflict of Greens: Green Development Versus Habitat Preservation – The Case of Incheon, South Korea” by Yekang Ko, Derek K. Schubert, and Randolph T. Hester (Environment magazine, May-June 2011).

Photo Courtesy of Birds Korea, 2009


Gale International Headquarters (developers):
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Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (architects):
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Cisco Systems, Inc. (framework infrastructure):
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Toll-Free Tel: 800-553-NETS or 800-553-6387

Boston University:
Robert A. Brown, President
Boston University
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Carnegie Mellon University:
Jared L. Cohon, President
Carnegie Mellon University
5000 Forbes Avenue
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Chadwick School:
Ted Hill, Headmaster
26800 Academy Drive
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Columbia University:
Lee C. Bollinger, President
Columbia University
202 Low Library MC 4309
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New York, NY 10027
Tel: 212-854-9970
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George Mason University:
Dr. Alan G. Merten, President
George Mason University
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Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel: 703-993-8700

Georgia Institute of Technology:
Dr. G.P. Bud Peterson, President
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, GA 30332
Tel: 404-894-2000

Ghent University (Belgium):
Paul Van Cauwenberge, Rector
Ghent University
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9000 Gent BELGIUM
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North Carolina State University:
Dr. William R. “Randy” Woodson, Chancellor
North Carolina State University
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Raleigh, NC 27695-7001
Tel: 919-515-2191

State University of New York at Stony Brook
(Stony Brook University):

Nancy L. Zimpher, Chancellor
State University of New York
State University Plaza
353 Broadway
Albany, NY 12246

Dr. Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., M.D., President
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, NY 11794

University of California, Berkeley:
Robert J. Birgeneau, Chancellor
University of California, Berkeley
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Berkeley, CA 94720-1500
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University of California, San Diego:
Marye Anne Fox, Chancellor
University of California, San Diego
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University of Delaware:
Patrick T. Harker, President
University of Delaware
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University of Florida:
J. Bernard Machen, President
226 Tigert Hall
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University of Illinois:
B. Joseph White, President
University of Illinois
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University of Missouri:
Brady Deaton, Chancellor
University of Missouri
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University of Southern California:
Steven B. Sample, President
University of Southern California
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University of Surrey (United Kingdom):
Christopher Maxwell Snowden, Vice Chancellor & Chief Executive
University of Surrey
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University of Utah:
Michael K. Young, President
University of Utah
203 Park Building
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