Dr. Tom Borrup and the Upcoming Gwangju Urban Design Forum

Written by E. J. Jones
Photograph courtesy of Dr. Tom Borrup

In my opinion, Gwangju is a wonderful, creative, and unique city. I tell people all the time that I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else in Korea. For me, the size is perfect: with a population of just over 1.51 million, it isn’t as overwhelmingly large as Seoul, yet it has the vibes of a big city while still allowing one to enjoy a close connection with the community. Aside from its size, I also love Gwangju because of its cosmetic beauty, which displays a blend of history and modernity. Walking around the streets downtown, you can find modern shopping spots, traditional Korean houses or temples, and handcrafted sculptures all in the same block. I’m constantly delighted by new findings as I explore the city, from the blooming neighborhood of Dongmyeong-dong with its independent shops and restaurants to the charm of Yangrim-dong where Penguin Street lies.

Thankfully, as Gwangju, along with other parts of Korea, has rapidly been modernized over the past couple of decades, gems such as the ones I have mentioned can still be found. This, however, is only due to a rising new awareness of the damaging effects that poor planning in urbanization can have. In fact, many of Gwangju’s citizens have raised concerns about the loss of culture and history that has already occurred through recent additions to the city. In a partial response to these concerns comes the Gwangju Urban Design Forum (GUDF), which will take place this month (December 5–7). The forum is honored to host urban design expert Dr. Tom Borrup, who will be delivering a keynote speech at the opening ceremony addressing the forum’s theme, “Reflecting Culture and Humanity in Urban Design.” I was able to get in contact with Dr. Borrup to find out more about what the forum will entail.

First, a little about Dr. Borrup. He worked for 25 years in arts and cultural management at the foundational level with artists and neighborhoods who were both ethnically and culturally diverse. He also has experience in political organizing and has traveled internationally, consulting hundreds of cities around the world about urban planning, arts, and culture. Borrup says he is especially interested in “bringing artists into collaborative roles in designing and building communities and cities.” The urban design expert also wrote a book in 2006 entitled The Community Builder’s Handbook, which has been called the leading text in its field. When it comes to Borrup’s area of expertise, it seems that Gwangju will be well covered at this year’s urban design forum.

As far as Borrup’s history with Korea, he says he has visited Seoul twice as a symposium speaker on future trends in the arts and creative place-making. The journey to Gwangju for the Urban Design Forum will be Borrup’s first visit to our area, and he says he looks forward to familiarizing himself here and is especially interested in exploring the Asia Culture Center.

Borrup was kind enough to give us a brief preview of what he’ll be discussing during his keynote speech at the forum. He says,

“I hope I bring to the conversation a unique blend of experiences and interests related to culture, creativity, and urban environment that inform how we approach urban design and the never-ending process of building cities. I am interested in how our cities and different districts in them take on distinct and complex personalities – much like people – and how we go about engaging collectively to contribute to that personality. Winston Churchill said, ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.’ The same goes for our relationship with our cities. This back-and-forth shaping happens on a continuous basis. Each of us adds a drop to the bucket, and then we drink from that bucket. Can we see the difference our drop makes, and can we identify the unique taste when we drink from it? Does everyone have a right, responsibility, and equal opportunity to add their drop?”
Based on his statements, it sure sounds like Borrup knows exactly what he’s talking about, and also a little bit about what Gwangju might need to know moving forward. And speaking of opportunity and responsibility, he makes a great point. The forum is our chance as citizens and residents to share our opinions, concerns and ideas, as well as be more informed about the place we call home. Borrup adds, “Shaping our cities in a way that make them reflect who we are, what we care about, and what makes us (and our visitors) comfortable is something we all need to take part in.”

I asked Borrup what he hoped the forum would accomplish, as well as his opinion on what changes should be made to improve urban design in Gwangju and other cities around the world. In his response, he stressed again the importance of bringing people together from diverse areas, disciplines, sectors, and cultures in order for fresh thinking and innovation to take place. He believes that asking questions such as, “How can we create more opportunity to build culture and humanity into the personality of our cities?” is key to finding answers to many of the problems cities face in urban design.

Borrup’s keynote speech is scheduled to take place at the GUDF opening ceremony on Wednesday, December 6 (10:00–11:00 a.m.), and is sure to be a great kick-start to the three-day event. Aside from Borrup’s keynote speech, there will be three major sessions taking place during the event with the topics of “Reflecting Culture in Urban Landscape,” “Valuing a Pedestrian Culture in Urban Setting,” and “Urban Design of Gwangju – Now and Future.” Major parts of these discussions will include: the Asia Culture Center pedestrian network establishment project as one of Gwangju’s major urban plans, the direction of Mudeung Mountain Namdopia establishment project, landscape of modern cultural heritage sites in Yangrim-dong, cases of neighborhood regeneration around Songjeong Station, and cases of the Saetteul Neighborhood Project around Yang-dong.

We at the Gwangju News are excited about this year’s Urban Design Forum and hope our readers will take interest as well. So come on out and, as Dr. Borrup suggests, “add your drop to the bucket.”


Eden has been living in Korea since 2014 and enjoys reading, writing, snowboarding, and enchanting the locals with her violin when she can manage to find a spare minute away from her editing responsibilities at the Gwangju News. Eden became Managing Editor in September 2017.

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