The “Smart City 2.0” was a two day event filled with inspiring sustainable urban development stories from cities and districts all over the world. Among all the interesting, heart warming and “smart” presentations, the most thought-provoking to me is probably the one from the South Korean District, Jongno. They didn’t come with a tale about their achievement in waste management, smart technology implementation or ecosystem recovery like many other. Instead Jongno got everyone’s attention with this unique proposal: EMPTYING the city for better quality of life.

The presenter told the story of how urbanization in recent decades has replaced mountains and fields with buildings and streets, which made the city of Seoul “disordered and complicated” for their residents. The urban planners took their residents’ sentiment seriously and came up with the most straightforward strategies to rectify the situation: leaving more space in the urban area to please the soul of Seoul, the residents.

Now how did they achieve that? There are three layers of this unique measure:

  • Emptying city- filling the urban area with nature. The land that used to be occupied by old buildings built in the last century was not replenished with new constructions after the old ones were demolished. Instead, the area was reserved to return to their pure natural state. A shabby looking suburban neighborhood in the 70s is now once again pristine green mountains.

Before VS. After

(Images from “Jongno’s smartness” slides presented at Iclei smart city 2.0, Berlin 2016)

  • Throwing away complexity- choosing simplicity. The district removed thousands of outdated structures like phone booths, unnecessary signage and traffic light poles from the streets. The effect was stunning. The streets now have a lot more open space (where natural wind can blow through).

Before VS. After

(Images from “Jongno’s smartness” slides presented at Iclei smart city 2.0, Berlin 2016)

  • Emptying the mind- filling with happiness. The Korean culture puts much emphasis on making money. Recognizing economic wealth doesn’t necessarily enrich the mind, the district made attempts to switch attention from personal profit to community building. Residents are encouraged to participate in community projects like organic gardening, helping the disadvantaged and etc, which brings more fulfillment and happiness in their daily life.

Those are quite some bold measures to restructure the city, not only physically but most importantly, culturally. It is only when space is created, what’s truly important can stay. I find traces of this idea in various oriental philosophies.

“Leaving space” (留白) is an important technique in ancient Chinese art. A painting crammed with subjects is thought to be limited; a painting with proper blank space, on the other hand, provides limitless possibilities in the viewer’s mind. Such is “less is more, more is less”.

(Leaving blank in An Ancient Chinese Painting)

Then of course there is the famous Japanese concept of “Wabi-Sabi” that urges people to get rid of all that’s unnecessary. In other words, it advocates for material poverty so that there is room for spiritual richness. People always spend their lives chasing after wealth, status, power and luxury, but forget to appreciate all the non-materialistic beauty we encounter in daily life.

Wabi-sabi celebrates the human rather than the machine. It celebrates asymmetry and transience, an understanding of emptiness and imperfection. Wabi-sabi centers around the idea that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.:

(Wabi-sabi, the beauty of material poverty)

The Chinese, Korean and Japanese philosophies behind these ideas are of course much more profound and complex than what was presented here on the matter of leaving space, which in fact does not only exist in oriental wisdom. Another movement currently sweeping the western world, the “Minimalism Movement” is a good occidental counterpart to study. As such ideas always first emerge in the art world, the “minimalism” concept was originated in the early 1960s in New York artsy community, but was adopted to be a lifestyle, notably popularized by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus in their recent minimalism documentary and blog.

These two conventionally “successful” corporate workers realized that their lifestyle of working to be able to buy more was not satisfying anymore. The Six-figure job, big house, luxury car and more and more stuff have cluttered their lives, leaving no room for what’s truly meaningful. Finally realizing that there is another way, they went on a journey to discover how to engage in a more free and mindful way of living.

(Photos of Joshua’s minimalist apartment)

“Minimalists don’t focus on having less, less, less; rather, we focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more experiences, more growth, more contribution, more contentment. More freedom. Clearing the clutter from life’s path helps us make that room.”

the Minimalists

Similar ideas with the Jongno story, space is precious and limited. You can either choose to clutter it with junk, or carefully make room for what’s more valuable: happiness, passion, fulfillment, purpose, living in the moment, health, growth, helping others and ultimately, freedom.

“Leaving space”, “less is more” and “de-cluttering” are principles we can adopt to apply to everything we do or possess. As the Japanese de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo told us, if something no longer brings you joy, let it go because in the limited space you have, every single item counts and you should only keep what sparks joy.

Why does it make sense for sustainability? In my view, sustainability is not just to “sustain”, to barely get by, but to let people thrive and realize their passion and potentials as fully as possible. The consumer culture make people mindlessly chase “things” even when they are already in excess and exploit people and our planet. These novel, yet ancient philosophies let us reexamine the space in our lives and be more mindful about what we bring in it, thus reform our consumption behaviors.

“Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things—which actually aren’t things at all.”

the Minimalists

It takes wisdom to find the perfect balance of the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom from things. But at least from now on, knowing that everything we purchase occupies space in our lives, we can be more mindful and more perfectionist about our consumption. That would already be a great start.

Leave a comment below to let me know your thoughts.

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