Can Istanbul Be Saved from Overdevelopment?

An installation exhibited at Istanbul Design Biennial. It writes "Construction, my dear Prohpet", and humorously criticized the ongoing construction thirst of the government.

An installation exhibited at the Istanbul Design Biennial. It reads ‘Construction, my dear prohpet’, satirising the thirst for construction of Turkey's religiously-inclined AKP (Justice) party. Widely shared on Twitter.

In the space of the last decade, Turkey has become a land of construction: highways, strategic bridges, ostentatious hotels and other items are constantly being built throughout the republic in the name of development and economic prosperity. Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city, lies at the heart of this frenzied process. 

Critics argue that this construction culture has become a form of violence. By relentlessly covering Istanbul in concrete, they argue, forests, sites of historical and cultural importance, and the spirit of the city itself are under threat.

The following are just some of the numerous projects that have aroused anger among residents that want to claim back their public spaces.

Plantations in danger

One of the things residents of Istanbul complain about most is the lack of green areas within the city. In this sense, large plantations such as Validebağ and Emirgan assume a special significance to local people. Both are currently threatened by ongoing construction projects.

Validebag is one of the biggest protected green areas of Istanbul. It is a shelter to many animals, including migrating birds, and also one of the few green spaces left in the city. Since last year people have been struggling against plans to construct a mosque within Validebag's boundaries.

Despite a court injunction against the construction, the mosque grows more visible every day. 

Moreover, Validebag is not the only green space under threat. Recently, TOKİ (the Housing Development Administration) announced the sale of 158,479 square meters of land located close to Emirgan plantation for the construction of yet another hotel and shopping mall.

Citizens protest against Mosque construction at Validebag Grove

Citizens protest against mosque construction at Validebag
on November 2, 2014. Photo by Avni Kantan. Demotix ID: 6171532.

The owner of the construction company has tried to calm people by explaining that construction will interrupt neither the plantation nor the Bosphorus skyline, but few believe him. 

Time has now come for Emirgan Plantation after Validebag. I just want a Turkey that protects and loves green spaces. Is this too much to ask?

 Tarlabasi Project

At the same time, many areas of Istanbul are undergoing aggressive gentrification. Old neighbourhoods have been destroyed to make way for lucrative commercial projects.

Tarlabasi, near the famous Taksim district, is one such area. With its historical buildings, and its central location, it is one of the most valuable areas in Istanbul. In 2012, many of the residents living there were forced to move out and sell their houses in return for small amounts of money as a giant redevelopment of the area began.

Tarlabasi area of Istanbul undergoes redevelopment project by Soultana Kabouridou. Demotix ID: 2684393.

Some areas of the Tarlabasi neighbourhood in Istanbul are undergoing aggressive redevelopment, while others are being being deliberately neglected by municipal officials. Photo by Soultana Kabouridou. Demotix ID: 2684393.

Those who refused compensation and insisted on staying in their neighbourhood have had to endure water, electricity and gas cuts, the smell of non-collected trash, and threats from municipal officials.

 Laetitia Vancon, a French photographer who documented the stories of the families — many of them low-income ethnic minority groups — explains:  

Tarlabaşı, located almost in the centre of the city, is a quirky, urban conundrum in the throes of a government gentrification drive. Officially, they are calling it a renewal programme – in reality, it’s a complete makeover and redevelopment, involving tearing down old structures, which are part of Istanbul’s architectural heritage, to make way for a new commercial zone, comprising shopping centres, malls and hotels.

In July 2014, residents of Tarlabasi won a law suit to prevent the expropriation of their land and stop the redevelopment in its tracks. Ahmet Misbah, the Mayor of Beyoglu district and a member of the ruling AKP (Justice) party argues that such judicial experiences prevent the modernisation of the city.

But opponents of the process say this modernisation mostly benefits the wealthy elite with a stake in these projects, as real estate prices in the gentrified area soar.

It seems like the only people gentrification left poor are the residents of Tarlabasi and Sulukule.

With the gentrification, apartments in #Tarlabasi, which used to cost 50 thousand lira 10 years ago,now cost $2 million.

Gentrification, Gentri-distribution: UNEARNED INCOME ISTANBUL

Tarlabasi's story is covered by the Istanbul Stories blog, which consists of features from different neighbourhoods in the metropolis.

Destruction of Historical Places

While some of Istanbul's history is UNESCO-protected, much of it is vulnerable to redevelopment drives. Historical landmarks such as Haydarpasa train station lose their original purpose and are converted into hotels and shopping centres. 

Emek theatre is Turkey's oldest and most prestigious cinema. It is a part of the Cercle d'Orient complex, which is currently being converted into a shopping mall.

The theatre was closed down in 2010, when authorities argued that the building was in a poor and neglected shape. Since then, the struggle against Emek's demolition has been ongoing. While the construction firm working at the site argues that they are not destroying Emek theatre but moving it up a level, many people see this as another cultural space sacrificed in the name of profit.

In 2014, an Istanbul court decided to suspend construction. But the apparent injury of a worker on the site suggests the court order is being violated. 

A child carries a banner at the Emek Movie Theater Protest on April 5, 2014. Photo by Görkem Keser. Demotix ID: 4396772.

A child carries a banner at the Emek movie theatre protest on April 5, 2014.
Photo by Görkem Keser. Demotix ID: 4396772.

The unlawful construction at Emek movie theatre continues.

On February 5, the Turkish Council of State, the highest administrative court in the land, ruled to block the implementation of specific gentrification regulations that lend disproportionate power to TOKİ, the housing and development body.

Following this ruling, many have expressed hope that Turkey's biggest and most overdeveloped city can find space to breathe.


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