Interview with David Harvey: On Why Struggles over Urban Space Matter


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.

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Orhan Pamuk’s Memories of a Public Square


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.

Orhan Pamuk

June 2013

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Learning From Taksim Square: Architecture, State Power, and Public Space In Istanbul


The protests in Istanbul began with public dissatisfaction with urban planning: they reacted against the city’s ambitious ongoing plans to remake the square and its surroundings…

with the attempted uprooting of trees in Gezi Park, one of the last remaining open spaces in bustling, sprawling Istanbul. These grand plans have unfolded with little consultation with the public or those who live and work in that area. Daniel Jost aptly and succinctly describes these plans as “awful,” while Gokhan Karakus likens them to “a neo-Ottoman Las Vegas in [a] 6,000-year-old city.”

The area of Taksim Square and Gezi Park have always been politically charged for the residents of Istanbul, who are now re-asserting their right to their city. Orhan Pamuk reminisces about the significance of Taksim Square, tied to many social movements and demonstrations of the past. In its present form, designed in the ‘40s by the French urban planner Henri Prost, the Taksim area is a vibrant section of the city and a symbol of modern Istanbul. When I lived nearby as a Ph.D. student, Taksim and its surroundings were endlessly fascinating and unexpected, where you encountered the wealthiest and poorest of the city, old cosmopolitan Istanbulites as well as immigrants from the Black Sea region, anarchist students and Islamist conservatives.

Beyond a commentary against neoliberal urbanism, however, the protests have another crucial dimension: that of concern for environmental degradation and unsustainable urban policies, perhaps especially apparent in the debates surrounding the adverse impact of the planned bridge and canal on the ecosystem of the Marmara sea.

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Urban Green Spaces as Socially Sustainable Places (Istanbul’s Gezi Park)


The opportunity to get out in nature alongside other people is one of the strongest aspects that publicly accessible urban green spaces contribute to a sustainable city. While green spaces provide opportunities to participate in sport and leisure activities, to commune with nature and wildlife, and to increase property values and investment, they also have a significant impact on the social sustainability of cities. However, the social dimension of green spaces – particularly in dense urban environments – is largely overlooked.

Research that does address social aspects of green spaces has focused on the role urban green spaces play in social interaction and inclusion, cultural identity, and community development. Such social purposes are essential for the livability of cities, as Chiesura (2004) notes that “developing more sustainable cities is not just about improving the abiotic and biotic aspects of urban life, it is also about the social aspects of city life…” (see “The role of urban parks for the sustainable city” in Landscape and Urban Planning, 68).

Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul

As a rare urban green space in the city centre of Istanbul, the nine-acre Gezi Park was created in the 1940s, a result of French urban planner Henri Prost’s master plan for Istanbul. Before that, the site had a long history that included military barracks, football matches and rebellions. Filled with sycamore trees, the urban green space that has existed for 70 years – albeit with some changes – has provided Istanbul residents and visitors with a respite from a densely developed urban core.

The unassuming green space was thrust into global news in May 2013, when a group of environmental protestors sought to save Gezi Park from government-backed plans to redevelop the park with a shopping mall and residences. The protests quickly escalated, turning violent and resulting in several deaths.

While the initial protest may have been sparked by the loss of public green space, it ignited intense demonstrations that spanned much broader issues than the physical loss of green infrastructure. Ultimately, the protests were about broader issues, including authoritarian government, urban development, war in Syria and even a ban on kissing in public. The Guardian quoted Ugur Tanyeli, an architecture historian, as saying, “The real problem is not Taksim, and not the park, but the lack of any form of democratic decision-making process and the utter lack of consensus” (see Meanwhile, an Al Jazeera reporter in Istanbul noted that “The protesters are saying that this is not about trees anymore” (see

Yet, although the protests may have grown larger than efforts to save a park, the importance of that park from a social sustainability purpose should not be lost. Gezi Park, like other green spaces in cities around the world, serves as a social space for the community. The protests themselves demonstrate the use of such spaces as communal places. Green spaces do not just occupy a physical space that we can measure in hectares, number of trees or number of users. More significantly, publicly accessible urban green spaces provide a social sphere, where people can gather and interact. This is magnified in a dense, urban environment. To me, that the protests about larger societal, environmental and political issues played out in an urban green space is symbolic.

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Urban Heroes of Istanbul: It’s About Public Space


Occupy Gezi Park

For too long residents of the city sat by as their government incrementally destroyed Istanbul, the beautiful ancient seat of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Forced evictions clear the way for tabula rasa urban renewal in historic districts, the Turkish housing authority (TOKI) is building luxury gated communities in infinite quantity, and a new bridge and airport in the forest to the north will write the death certificate on the city’s source of oxygen. This resistance has been less of a political demonstration and more of a territorial battle: citizens physically defending their beloved city of winding streets and charming old facades from the global forces that want to turn it into a Dubai, a commodity of glass and highways.

As part of a project that would pedestrianize Taksim, Istanbul’s main square, the adjacent Gezi Park was to be demolished to build an Ottoman-via-Las Vegas Mall. [Opposition] protest was an effort to save a park by occupying that very park; it was not a symbolic or ideological demonstration like the Occupy Wall Street movements, but a primal struggle between human bodies and bulldozers, that made the political discourse all the more potent.

Taksim is also the first place where protests have historically occurred; the planned pedestrianization of the square would have cut off the avenues where protesters could enter, effectively a vasectomy of its power as a commons.

You might be thinking that it is an awful place to be, with violent clashes and anarchy, and Mad Max-like images of blazing fires and destroyed property. But is it more like a utopia: food, drink, books, and entertainment is shared, and a great cross-section of society is united with the common objective to occupy the space peacefully.people are on their best behavior, convinced that peace is necessary to preserve the legitimacy of the occupation…

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