Hundreds of South Koreans gathered in downtown Seoul on Saturday as the city officially reopened a stream that had been hidden under cement paving stones for nearly 50 years.
The Cheonggyecheon, which runs 5.8km through central Seoul, was opened to the public after a two-year multimillion-dollar face-lift ordered by Mayor Lee Myung-bak, who had pledged to recover the city's ecological landscape.
"It seemed like a far-fetched dream when they first said they will restore the stream," said 59-year-old Yoo Young-koo, who runs a business in central Seoul. "It's really nice to have a place to rest and take a stroll right in the center of the city."
South Korea's drive for industrialization in the 1960s and 1970s has helped the country become the world's 11th-largest economy, but it has also trapped major cities like Seoul in walls of concrete.
The US$380 million project involved demolishing an elevated highway that was built on top of the Cheonggyecheon, which was paved over in 1958-61 to prevent flooding and pollution.
Now the stream flows alongside the heavily congested roads of downtown Seoul, adorned with artistic sculptures, fountains and plant-filled paths. Each of the 22 bridges that cross the stream is distinct in style.
"The city looks a lot brighter and cleaner," said 34-year-old Lee Ho-chung, who came to see the opening ceremony with his wife, two children and mother-in-law. "It's amazing that we have a stream flowing in the heart of the city. We will come more often for our family outings."
The official opening ceremony was to begin on Saturday evening with a parade of people carrying jugs of water collected from major rivers and lakes throughout the country. The water will be poured into the Cheonggyecheon in a symbolic gesture calling for unity and reunification of the Korean Peninsula, Seoul officials said.
Not everyone hailed the city's new look.
The Korean Federation of Environmental Movement issued a statement on Saturday criticizing the Cheonggyecheon project as "nothing more than an exhibition."
The group said the Seoul city government didn't make enough effort to restore the natural habitats of animals and plants along the waterway and also criticized the large amount of money to be spent on pumping water into the stream.
Some 120,000 tons of water will be pumped daily into the Cheonggyecheon, which is naturally dry. The environmental group estimated at least 1.8 million won (US$1.7 million) will be spent annually to manage the stream's upkeep.
"The first stage of Cheonggyecheon's restoration is complete, but Seoul city will have to exert efforts to make the Cheonggyecheon sustainable," the group said.