“Seoul Food”: Edible Food Production between Tradition, Resistance and Sustainability in South Korea - #RKEFest23
In this post, as part of our Festival of Research and Knowledge Exchange blog series, Dr Natalia Gerodetti shares her new research into Urban Farming practice in South Korea.
Urban food cultivation by individuals and/or communities has come to be seen as part of Urban Agriculture (UA) practices, even when done on a non-commercial basis. In rapidly growing cities, urban farming practices are being considered in relation to addressing food security and food sovereignty, environmental sustainability, or community well-being and resilience.
But often the motivation to get involved is more spurred by defending urban green and recreational spaces, the creation and strengthening of urban communities, or pursuing individual wellbeing and continuing family traditions. In the academic field the socio-spatial impact of UA policies and practices remains a subject of intense debate and some also point to how “greening” up neighbourhoods unintentionally fosters gentrification processes: Changing the aesthetics and improving the environment can have unintentional impacts on marginal and working-class neighbourhoods and suburbs.
Urban food cultivation is not always visible when hidden behind the hedges of allotments or tucked away in back gardens. But in South Korea, vegetables are omnipresent in the streets of Seoul, not just on the table but also in its urban landscape. Since 2012 Seoul Metropolitan Council has actively supported and fostered formal programs for increasing urban agriculture (both commercial and non-commercial), but what is really striking about the city landscape is the retention of informal food cultivation practices in and above the streets of Seoul.
In South Korea, one becomes an Urban Farmer when involved in any form of growing edible plants. Seoul citizens can apply to their district for various growing opportunities away from home or at home (such as the box farm - literally a box, compost and some seeds), on an individual or communal basis.
To some extent this is part of the extensive greening initiatives of the urban landscape that Seoul Metropolitan Government has put in place since the Millennium (e.g. Cheonggyecheon River in 2003, Gyeongui Line amongst the successful ones). Also notable is how Seoul transformed its food waste policy and has become a successful food waste collector (from 2% in 1995 to 99% in 2023).
A research project on urban food growing entitled “From Seed to Compost” was conducted in 2023 after Seoul announced the wish to become a world leader in Urban Agriculture in 2022. Part ethnography, partly based on interviews with urban growers, a series of formal growing projects were investigated across various schemes to include individuals, groups, schools and businesses in practices of urban farming. Innovative amongst these formal schemes are the free, small plots that citizens can take up for a year which are at no cost and supported by Farm Managers in some places and an extensive online network of Urban Farmers (서울농부포털(도시농업) (seoul.go.kr)).
Yet also prevalent across the backstreets of any Seoul neighbourhood that still contains older housing (pre 1990s and no higher than 5 stories) are household or individual based food growing practices that make creative use of any growing space available; be that on rooftops or in strips of land adjacent to a car park. Despite its front stage image of the glass towered downtown and the high apartment complexes familiar in any image of Seoul look closely and you will probably find Gochu (Peppers) or Sanchu (Lettuce) being grown within any radius of 300 meters.
In these neighbourhoods, edible plants are being grown in the smallest of spaces in public view or public space by people alongside their everyday practices. From older women who tend to large pots outside their houses or roof gardens to male parking assistants who repurpose available ground and space for growing vegetables. The research on Seoul’s urban food growing practices is illustrative of a diversity of UA forms and highlights in equal measures the “bottom up” household and individual practices as well as the policy driven municipal initiatives.
All images taken by Natalia on the research trip this June. They were all taken around the area of Insadong and Bukcheon Hanok Village in Northern Seoul.
Dr Natalia Gerodetti is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and has a history of research and teaching around gender, sexuality and feminist theory. She has also been working on urban food production and food justice issues.