How One Neighborhood in Seoul Sparked a Movement of Urban Villages

What began as a childcare coop in Seoul, South Korea has grown into a cooperative, urban village and sparked a national movement of urban villages.

In 1994, when city officials threatened to remove trees from the top of Mt. Sungmi, in Mapo-gu, Seoul for the creation of a water facility, a group of neighbors joined forces to oppose the plan. By banding together, a community was created. After defeating the plan for the facility, the community continued to organize, eventually becoming the Sungmisan Village which encompasses a one-kilometer radius at the base of the mountain and now connects over 700 families.

The first project for the village was a childcare cooperative for village families. Following the success of the childcare coop, villagers launched a consumer coop in 2001 for purchasing eco-friendly goods, and created community clubs for hiking, farming, parenting, studying, photography, and more. They started hosting music events, festivals, and theatrical productions. The village stresses social interaction and prioritizes taking care of its elders.

A gathering of some Sungmisan villagers

In 2004, the community opened Sungmisan Village School, the first village school in Seoul. A community-driven alternative to traditional education, the school focuses on hands-on learning from other villagers as an adjunct to a classroom environment. Students have regular school staff, but they also learn about organic farming, ecological responsibility, trades, skills, and our relationship to the earth and each other, from community members. Offering elementary through high school education, the school connects students with potters and other craftspeople, farmers, builders, writers, musicians, and more. In an overview of the school, principal Park Bok Sun explains:

"The villagers feel that the school is their school because they are involved. Children know all teachers well. It’s not just about learning information. They can see how a potter makes pottery, exhibits, sells and does bookkeeping. Imagine what a vivid example it is! The teacher isn’t someone who just comes to class, teaches few things then runs away to his home and no one knows where the teacher lives.

"The children can understand alternative farming by learning what is organic, why it’s needed, and what is distribution connecting production and consumption. Furthermore, they can learn about solidarity of the people in the world by learning how people’s trade occurs.

"The children can learn about organic, ecological activity and fair trade. They learn the significance of the work their parents and adults in their neighborhood do. Then they learn how their table is connected to alternative life. They also learn that they are participating in planning an alternative life. That is a great experience."

The idea for the village school was born of concerns about traditional education. Parents wondered why schools looked like prisons, and how they could draw from the wealth of skills and experience already present in the community create a different kind of school. The vision they held was of an organically-designed school that grows and shifts as the village evolves.

Sungmisan Village School focuses on hands-on eduction and community-building

With a focus on sustainability, healthy food and connectedness, village schools are more than educational institutions—they’re hubs for learning, sharing, growing and community-building.

Sungmisan Village has inspired numerous urban villages around Seoul. City government officials actively support the creation of more villages through the Seoul Community Support Center. Urban villages rekindle a lost sense of community and, through village schools, provide a way for young people to grow up in a hands-on, educational community rather than an overly-competitive and isolating learning environment.

“It is of great significance that we created a village school in the city,” writes principal Park. “This is part of dreaming an alternative life and making it come true one by one.”

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