In Turkey, in Search of a More People-Sensitive Gentrification

Istanbul, Turkey. 23rd August 2013 -- Demolition areas have become part of community life as the Tarlabasi area of Istanbul undergoes a major redevelopment project. Children are playing there all the time. -- Istanbul's Tarlabasi area is to undergo a redevelopment project. Whole building blocks are getting demolished and people are being evicted. Expensive hotels and shopping centers will take their place. Demotix, ID: 2684393

Istanbul, Turkey. 23rd August 2013 — Demolition areas have become part of community life as the Tarlabasi area of Istanbul undergoes major redevelopment work. Whole building blocks are getting demolished and people are being evicted. Expensive hotels and shopping centers will take their place. Demotix ID: 2684393

June 7's sensational General Election in Turkey concluded with the long-ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) losing its parliamentary majority. Among other things, AKP's one-party government was famous for turning Turkey into a land of building sites, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for construction firms and — allegedly — unscrupulous government officials.

We have built social equipment including 577 houses, a health center, and a trade center.

They have taken away yellow, blue, green, orange, purple, red, and turned them into brown and white.
They have destroyed Sulukule [an area of Istanbul undergoing aggressive re-development].

The themes of redevelopment and gentrification have been especially politicised in Turkey since the Gezi protests of 2013, which began with a conflict between Istanbul residents and the government over public spaces.

Kids play in Tarlabası

Kids play in Tarlabası. Photo taken by Soultana Kabouridou 23 August, 2013. Demotix ID: 2684393.

Two years later, pro and anti-gentrification groups continue to talk past each other as law suits over development works pile up in the background. Given the unrest and even violence already triggered by construction conflicts, the question arises: Is there a peaceful way out?

In order to find an answer, Global Voices spoke with Boğaçhan Dündaralp, an award-winning architect and a scholar who played a key role during the campaign to save the Kuzguncuk Garden.

Understanding gentrification

According to the Oxford Dictionary, gentrification is “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.” For the past decade, this has been prevalent across Turkey, especially in Istanbul. Residents of certain districts — such as Sulukule and Tarlabaşı — have effectively been shifted out of their homes through a combination of enticements and coercion by developers looking to increase the value of that particular place. Critics of the process say its rapid, exclusively profit-driven nature is reinforcing growing social and economic inequality in Turkey and ignoring the security and happiness of the people living in these areas.

Boğaçhan Dündaralp explains how rapid gentrification can create long-lasting damage to community fabric:

When we consider the roots of ennoblement [gentrification], we realize that it comes from the word noble, and indicates a renovation of areas that are valuable within a given city, [and consists of] remaking them in accordance with their status and economic value. The outcome of ennoblement changes when there is an existing settlement involved. In this sense, ennoblement might also have a forceful aspect as well, creating a problem within the bigger picture. Because by considering only the economical aspects — instead of the whole — you root the place in purely abstract, mathematical values, and forget or refuse to pay for the possible consequences that occur outside the economic reality.

Who belongs where?

Dündaralp stresses the fact that the architects who take part in the projects such as Tarlabaşı are very successful and respectable people. When you talk with them, their main argument is that the people who reside in Tarlabası are not really from Tarlabası anyway, so when rapid gentrification takes place their displacement from a particular neighbourhood is not a historical loss.

However, while acknowledging that this point might be partly accurate, those people still create networks of relationships in a particular neighbourhood — networks that are destroyed when construction companies enter with bulldozers. When people are moved into new houses outside their old districts they cannot bring these vital networks with them, he says. Successful gentrification requires that a common language be built between different parties, including the residents, architects, companies and NGOs, who all understand and experience physical spaces from different perspectives.

A lack of historical continuity

It is this lack of understanding in terms of the historical or cultural significance people may assign to a space, that has made the gentrification process in Turkey so problematic, says Dündaralp.

One example of this was the recent attempt to demolish Camp Armen, a powerfully meaningful spot for Armenians, where the impoverished children of Anatolia — including Hrant Dink and his wife Rakel — stayed when they were forced to move to Istanbul between the 1960s and 1980s.

Although the demolition has been stopped thanks to the efforts of many activists, the future of Camp Armen is still unknown.

Dündaralp says:

What is it that requires protection? What is it that we would like to protect generations after generations? What should we protect so that the value of that particular place proceeds?

Saving only the physical object of history is not enough to establish this continuity. What is essential is to proceed from the perspective of the networks and relationships that make that place what it is.

On the other hand, there are the needs and expectations of today. But meeting the expectations of today while incorporating the perspective of historical continuity within these given relationships is a very different approach from what we are doing at the present moment.

Dündaralp explains that if one perceives a place only from an economic perspective, one can only produce economic solutions. Understanding the identities that have been built in connection with a place involves studying it in detail. During that process locations with meanings too heavy to be simply lifted by anyone who wishes may be uncovered. Instead of totally changing the meaning of these places for profit, one must respect what that particular place stands for and try to satisfy the needs of today within that context.

Is a common language possible?

Today, according to Dündaralp, the major problem in terms of discussing the changes happening in and around Istanbul — or Turkey — is that everyone has retreated to their own corner and clung doggedly to a given own point of view, leaving no space for discussion and mediation. Instead of  a culture of compromise, a mentality that takes its own point of view as the law has emerged, eroding trust and understanding. Thus, many people capable of working together are standing opposite each other.

Dündaralp observed this tension himself as well, when he was taking part in negotiations over the Kuzguncuk Garden:

For example, during the dialogue between the Kuzguncuk residents and the Municipality, radical ecologists also wanted to get involved by saying that ‘this is a garden, a green space and it has to stay that way, no person should enter.’ Now, if they knew the 20 years-old background of the garden, they would have never said such a thing. Instead, they would have realised that this garden has a very public identity.

Now you look at the garden and people are doing their sports in the morning, elderly people have started to make use of it more, children are there as soon as they get out of the school, farming continues, and the upper side is left as green space. As to the ideal image of the garden, we all had different perceptions and comments. Maybe no-one would say of the current garden ‘this is exactly how it was supposed to be!’ For some of us it is less, for some of us it is more.

Yet, essentially, we agreed on a precise point: The garden is safe from construction threats, and continues to provide public and farming space. Natural products were used in every arrangement […] The important thing is to be able to form this common aspect from our different visions.

For now, the solution found to the Kuzguncuk Garden problem is the exception rather than the rule, but Dündaralp remains convinced that small examples can lead to big change.


  • Ike

    You should also keep in mind that Turkey (Istanbul the most) are vulnerable to severe earthquakes. Many housing and infrastructures are inadequate to handle any shock from earth quakes. So yes you can say this mass development seems too much, but at the same time you would be probably criticizing the govt at the same time for failing to address and solves these issues.

    But im sure you already know that… This is politics for you

  • […] Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has urged opposition parties to unclench their fists and turn swords into ploughshares if they want to form a coalition with the Justice and Development Party (AKP). In Turkey, in Search of a More People-Sensitive Gentrification […]

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