Originally known as Seonyubong Peak, Seonyudo Island was used in the 18th century by poets and philosophers as a site for rest, contemplation and inspiration. The area was not yet an island, just a rocky outcrop on the Hangang River’s northern bank.
Following massive flooding in the 20th century, the Japanese colonial administration began a dike construction project. The peak’s rocks and boulders contributed to the new embankment and sand at its base was hollowed out for use in a nearby airport project. Continued quarrying led to its complete separation from the riverbank and it was renamed.
In 1965 Seonyudo Island became the structural midpoint of Yanghwa Bridge, one of Seoul’s early vehicular river crossings. It was transformed in 1978 into a site for water purification facilities to serve the growing metropolis. Seonyubong Peak and the natural ideal it signified ceased to exist.
New Seoul initiative
In 1998, the Seoul planning authority introduced the ‘New Seoul’ initiative, which aimed to provide the city with more green space and to diversify cultural programming. Its mission also included the rehabilitation of the Hangang River’s relationship with the city.
This planning push coincided with a general urban makeover in preparation for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics, constructing facilities such as the Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Village, which are both in close proximity to the river. For the World Cup, the city chose a network of environmentally sensitive public spaces over event-related construction.
The treatment plant was decommissioned in 1998 and relocated in 2001. There was no residential or commercial community on the island, which precluded the process of public consultation. The Seoul Metropolitan Government held an international landscape design competition, which was won by Seoul firm Seoahn Total Landscape.
The Seongyugyo footbridge – the ‘Footbridge of Peace’ – links the island to the Hangang’s southern bank. The project began in 1998, when the committee overseeing France's millennium celebrations honoured the event with a gift to South Korea. The bridge was designed as a tribute to the River Seine in Paris by the French architect Rudy Ricciotti.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced the ‘Han River Renaissance’ project in 2006. This aims to transform the Hangang river basin into a belt of culture, ecology and tourism. Initiatives like the construction of thematic riverside parks will eventually link Seonyudo Island into a more visible and accessible chain of green space.