Transportation and Public Space in Ottoman Istanbul
Today (in 2011) İstanbul ranks seventh among world cities in the number of foreign visitors and international meetings it hosts and fifth in the number of dollar millionaires living within its premises…
What these numbers indicate is that İstanbul is moving at a fast pace towards becoming a global city and it finds its place in the world city map as a global magnet of capital and people. “Global city” is a project made possible via the reproduction of the city in the framework of processes of capitalist accumulation and mechanisms of neo-liberal production and consumption. This project consists of spatial, economic and social processes as well as those that are by content and application political.
Although İstanbul’s current transformation has been presented as a non-Western miracle of development in the face of the destructive effects of economic crises, it is actually possible to think of this transformation as a “skillful” application of well-known global(urban)ization strategies by an alliance formed between the state, the capital and local governments:
(a) The segmentation of the city into detached islands through the construction of profit-making fragments of the global urbanization catalogue, such as shopping malls, gated communities, mass housing settlements (TOKİ: Republic of Turkey Prime Ministry Housing Development Administration of Turkey), residences, plazas, airports, techno parks, golf courts, cruise harbors;
(b) Rendering lower and middle classes “powerless” in the face of this transformation by means of forced evictions and legal pressure in order to secure the land necessary for the construction of these urban fragments; such that social and class-based segregation is conducted alongside spatial segregation;
(c) The production of urban corridors and transportation infrastructures that will facilitate the flow of capital, goods and humans between these fragments of the urban catalogue.
Consequently, while prioritizing the city of fluxes composed of corridors to the city of integrated urban spaces, İstanbul’s global(urban)ization project constructs wealthy spaces on the sites of poor spaces. Lower class neighborhoods inhabited by the city’s poorest, which at time same time carry the highest potential in terms of the rising value of urban land, are refashioned by local municipality-private sector partnerships and allotted to new İstanbulites with highest cultural and economic capital (such as local and foreign executives working in sectors that are in great demand in the post-industrialist era like finance, design and informatics, as well as professionals of the institutionalized field of arts and culture).
The aforementioned strategies can be explained with reference to gentrification processes inherent to neo-liberal urban transformation. While these processes construct new wealthy spaces and forge new socio-spatial relationships, they are abstracted from the concrete space where the transformation is taking place; they are de-spatialized. If we take a bottom-up-look at gentrification rather than adopting the bird’s eye view of capital, we will see that the transformed spaces are renewed without respect to their cultural and ecological contexts or the existing spatial habits and relationships belonging to their inhabitants. Consequently, instead of a “rational” planning process that functions via the accumulation of consecutive stages, in line with the conjunctures of the neo-liberal economy, İstanbul’s global(urban)ization project treats the city space as an abstract, empty plate (a tabula rasa) and plans, designs, and reconstructs the city and its constitutive elements from scratch on a daily basis.
Whether through “soft” transitions whereby spaces are acquired parcel by parcel by real estate developers in accordance with the imposing rules of the market mechanism, or through renovation/transformation projects imposed by state-capital partnerships that do not hold back from using police force, the inhabitants, the real owners of the transformed spaces, are displaced against their will. Throughout İstanbul, forced eviction does not only become the means of gentrification but an end in-itself.
The colorful images of the global city emerge along with conflicts and tensions…the local government-capital alliance imposes its vision of gentrification via commercialized and disciplined city spaces…
Adanali, Yasar Adnan; “De-spatialized Space as Neoliberal Utopia: Gentrified İstiklal Street and Commercialized Urban Spaces” Red Thread Journal, 2011
“We live in a giant construction site!”
I live in the historical Beyoğlu District of Istanbul, the center of my poly-centered mega-city. In any given day, 2 million visitors pass within one kilometer of my home. Taksim Square and Gezi Park are approximately 700m from my front door. My office, from where I work on urbanism-related projects, is also within walking distance of my home.
Living and working in such a central area has a lot of merits, yet it also has its drawbacks. The major problem is the intense level of commercialization and threat of forced eviction. The tourism industry and real estate developers are extremely interested in buying and converting residential buildings and local businesses into hotels or short-term rentals. For exactly this reason I was evicted from my previous house, which is not far from where I live now, two years ago – and I can see the encroachment of the tourism related spaces upon my existing neighborhood.
Istanbul is the city of transformation and contradiction…At the moment we live in a giant construction site, where skyscrapers, mega projects and urban renewal projects are taking place all around. There is a gold rush to real-estate development. Istanbul is a city of contradictions in many respects. It is one of the oldest metropolises in the world (more than 8,000 years old), but only a fraction of its buildings remain from 100 years ago. Istanbul is number five on the list of world cities with the highest number of dollar billionaires, yet on the other hand it accommodates some of the poorest people in Turkey. It’s a mega-city with 99% of its 15 million inhabitants living in an urbanized area, yet, it is still possible to find a ‘slow city’ lifestyle within the city’s boundaries…
Acclaimed geography academic and Professor of Anthropology at City University of New York provides an interview on urban issues in the district of Tarlabasi, Istanbul; an area [having been] in the last throes of evictions for the long-standing residents. Tarlabasi [has been] in the process of a gentrification program to create an upscale housing and shopping district in the center of the city.
Istanbul’s children are being crowded out by the rapid transformation of the city’s public realm. Bahar Aksel, Assistant Professor at the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in Turkey makes the case for a fresh approach to the capital’s urban agenda; one that could make Istanbul a child-friendly city.
With its 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul, as well as being the capital, is also the most crowded city in Turkey. It is the main destination for international investment, urban development and employment, as well as being the main centre for high quality public services such as education and health care.
The transformation of Istanbul began in 1980’s with the large-scale movement of people to the capital from Anatolia. This dramatically affected population density, the balance between industry and services and the city’s urban structure. Squats appeared for the first time as newcomers sought to settle in the city’s overcrowded housing stock.
After 2000, the local government identified Istanbul’s potential as the new investment capital of its region and started to construct a global city, complete with new high-rise buildings, highways and bridges. Gated communities in the outskirts of the city became the most desirable residential areas, especially for families with children.
HB & NM: While in Istanbul the urban roots of the Gezi Park uprisings were more highlighted, those of the Arab uprisings are less evident–even though in Egypt, for instance, the housing crisis and the impossibility of young adults to secure housing to start families have been rampant problems. How would you characterize the difference in locating the urban crisis in these two uprisings?
Well, I am not an expert on Istanbul or on Cairo, so I have to say it is very embarrassing being the world’s expert on things I know nothing about. Having said that, I was in Istanbul just before the uprising and, of course, I knew enough about Istanbul to see that it was undergoing an astonishing process of urban redevelopment. There were construction cranes everywhere! The Turkish economy is the second-fastest growing economy in the world, and construction and urbanization, of course, play a part in how it grows. But, this is a bubble and, in the course of a bubble, people get displaced. I became very unpopular because I went on the radio there, and told them it reminded me of Madrid in 2005 before the crash. There were a lot of struggles against displacement going on in Istanbul. I was very fortunate to have some colleagues there who took me to various parts of the city, showing me where the gentrification and the evictions were happening.
It seemed to me that, in this situation, the urban-social movements were clearly distressed. There was a lot of agitation against these mega-projects, which the government had designed for the city. When they announced the plans for the square, I was not surprised at all that there was some sort of reaction to it. But, as far as I could tell, the reaction did not possess the same kind of center as in Egypt and in North Africa generally. In North Africa, the background to many of the struggles had been recurring food riots that have taken place over the last fifteen to twenty years. The high cost of food has been a serious question, but the populations also see massive increases in inequality emerging around them; there is clearly a great deal of corruption.
My first thought when the Arab uprisings occurred in Cairo was how similar it was to Paris during the French Revolution of 1848. Paris 1848 and Cairo now have interesting parallels. In Paris in 1848, the people decided to get rid of the king, Louis Philippe. They got rid of the king, but that was the easy part. These were called the February Days of the 1848. The equivalent would the 25 January (2011) uprisings in Egypt, which ended with the overthrow of Mubarak. In Paris, a few months later, during the June Days of 1848, facing workers’ rebellion, order was restored by a military apparatus, and the rebellion was crushed. In the Parisian case, this knowledge of how to handle people was brought back to France from Algeria, which was a French colony. The military apparatus treated the people on the boulevards as colonial subjects and shot them down. That was the end of that uprising. What happened after 30 June 2013, on 3 July in Egypt, bore an uncanny resemblance to the June Days, with repression imposed by the military. In Cairo, however, it was not a socialist revolution; it was more of a bourgeois republican revolution with the aim of getting rid of corruption and inequality, trying to create a more democratic society. I am not sure how useful the parallel is, how far I could push it.
There was also a clear alliance of forces, which emerged in Cairo, and this might have some parallels with Istanbul. Workers’ movements turned out in Cairo–they had also been agitating for some time. So, there was a workers’ movement which joined in, there was the obvious discontented youth movement, and there was the city population who was discontented with inequality, high food prices, and corruption. But, the alliance in Cairo was quite disparate, and I think the same thing applied to Istanbul. For instance, in Istanbul, soccer fans of the working class club [Beşiktaş] joined in. They were chanting sexist slogans, which the feminists objected to. They told them they should change their slogans, and they actually did. So, in both cases, there was a disparate alliance with the focus of discontent on a regime that operates in a very autocratic way, and will not stand for any kind of consultation. I would not say that either of these were socialist revolutions. They are urban uprisings around discontent.
Within Istanbul–and this is a classic case where the parallel with Paris is significant–the Turkish central government does not like Istanbul. Istanbul is the center of opposition, as are the other major urban centers. So, while the government itself is not really anti-urban because they favor this sort of urban developmentalism, they are certainly not in favor of the populations who predominate in those areas.
The Gezi uprising that rocked Turkey in June 2013 was sparked by a government project to transform the park in central Istanbul into a gigantic mall. And while a relentless police crackdown has led many of last year’s protesters to abandon hope, the problems at the heart of Erdogan’s vision for Turkey’s urban development have not gone away. Those directly affected by the aggressive development of their neighborhoods are often left with only one of two options: to despair, or to fight…
In February 2012, the city released the animation below. The video begins with an aerial shot of Taksim Square as it is today, with many mature trees, and then shows the barren pedestrian zone that was initially set to replace it. The plans call for the reconstruction of a historic barracks that was to serve as a shopping mall and cultural destination, and almost all of the greenery was to be enclosed within this structure. (These plans have been removed from the municipality’s YouTube channel, but we have found another link to them.)
Apparently, the government got the message that those plans would not do for one of Istanbul’s most prominent open spaces. But instead of engaging with the public, the municipality released these slightly edited plans last October—on the same day it announced that construction would begin. The plans, which the municipality was showing off as recently as Saturday, break up some of the vast stretches of paving with panels of grass but the space they show is still quite inhumanely scaled with benches surrounded by fields of pavement and none of the shade the square previously provided.
Today, Taksim Square is Istanbul’s chestnut tree. I’ve been living in Istanbul for sixty years, and I cannot imagine that there is a single inhabitant of this city who does not have at least one memory connected to Taksim Square. In the nineteen-thirties, the old artillery barracks, which the government now wants to convert into a shopping mall, contained a small football stadium that hosted official matches. The famous club Taksim Gazino, which was the center of Istanbul night life in the nineteen-forties and fifties, stood on a corner of Gezi Park. Later, buildings were demolished, trees were cut down, new trees were planted, and a row of shops and Istanbul’s most famous art gallery were set up along one side of the park. In the nineteen-sixties, I used to dream of becoming a painter and displaying my work at this gallery. In the seventies, the square was home to enthusiastic celebrations of Labor Day, led by leftist trade unions and N.G.O.s; for a time, I took part in these gatherings. (In 1977, forty-two people were killed in an outburst of provoked violence and the chaos that followed.) In my youth, I watched with curiosity and pleasure as all manner of political parties—right wing and left wing, nationalists, conservatives, socialists, and social democrats—held rallies in Taksim.