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A look into the urban redevelopment of Istanbul.
Ariel view of the European side of Istanbul
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

All cities are in a constant state of change. They adapt, expand and develop in an answer to their inhabitants’ ever-changing demands. Today’s cities have more responsibilities in an ever-changing environment, so there is a real need to create inviting, innovative and expressive spaces for its inhabitants. And the cities that cannot adopt this evolution are doomed to disappear.

These evolutions in a city are much more pronounced in developing countries, where the changes are fast-tracked and more drastic. However, such developments can pose a major threat if left uncontrolled: the destruction of a city’s identity.

As a city that has embraced many different cultures at its heart, Istanbul has undergone many major changes during its vast and complex history.

These issues are at the heart of the book Bir Şehri Yok Etmek: İstanbul’da Kazanmak ya da Kaybetmek (Destroying a City: Winning or Losing in Istanbul). Uşaklıgil lays bare a depressing picture for the painful urban developments taking place in all of Turkey, and especially Istanbul: the destruction of the city one plot at a time for personal and political gains, the marginalization of the inhabitants throughout the process, the oppressive priority of material gains, and possibly the saddest of all, the irreconcilable communication gap between the citizens and the decision-makers.

Despite all this, Uşaklıgil also proposes difficult, but attainable solutions to these problems. The public must use its voting power to fight for more just and transparent processes in order to prevent the city losing its identity, soul and history altogether.

Since the publication of the book in 2013, let alone approaching these solutions, Istanbul has been rendered more and more into an unidentifiable profit source. The recent 3 years I have personally spent in Istanbul unfortunately support this outcome.

And in the current political climate, it seems unlikely that the citizens will be able to take back their city.

“A city made up of people, neighborhoods, streets, markets, buildings that are the city’s historical witnesses, streams, forests, memories and stories show how it has become a profit source.”

The Destruction of a City

The main cause that should be addressed in this issue is the Istanbul-centered development. For decades, Istanbul has been the focus of economic and social growth in Turkey, attracting millions of rural citizens to its urbanized heart. There are few alternatives to the metropolis, perhaps other than Ankara, in terms of economic, cultural and social opportunities in the country.

As a result, the city is home to more than 15 million people at the present day. However, the city has been struggling to keep up with its exponentially growing population. The city’s urban plan has not been able to anticipate and to spearhead the urban migration efficiently. The infrastructural and the socio-cultural balances in Istanbul have been neglected during the rapid growth, and hence resulted in irregular and sometimes unregulated urban sprawl. Instead of managing the migrations with an official system, setting up and enforcing settlement regulations and creating new parcels, the newcomers were free to construct as they seemed fit. The result was a cluster of unauthorized and unmonitored settlements throughout the city.

As the limits of the city expanded over the years due to the growing population, these areas were either left as blind spots in urban plans, absorbed by the expanding neighborhoods, or razed down to make room for newer structures, much to the chagrin to its inhabitants. Over time, unable to control or monitor the irregular urban sprawl, the government has allowed a pardon for the existing illegal settlements, legitimizing the structures and inadvertently encouraging further spread of unauthorized slums.

Inevitably, the city’s image as a whole could not be consolidated or merged into a solid identity through this patchwork of structures.

Graphic depicting a tangled web of Istanbul monuments inside held between two hands. Text reads "Istanbul, they call it chaos, we call it home"
The city’s current identity can be best described by the locals as “chaos.”

Another major issue threatening to erase the city’s identity is the motivation to earn profits through the land, where the construction sector was presented as a trump card in order to promote economic growth. Uşaklıgil suggests that the legal system has been used as a tool to redevelop and reshape the city to the wishes of those in power for fast economic or political gain.

“Istanbul has been turned into a meta to be easily marketed through the legislation, with the use of this law and that. More importantly, the laws passed to redevelop Istanbul have also turned the zoning and urban laws into a marketing tool.” – Emine Uşaklıgil, Bir Şehri Yok Etmek

For example, the natural disaster prevention and control laws have been designed to benefit the construction industry, opening the doors to the possibilities of extensive urban redevelopment. The aim is to demolish the potentially risky buildings as soon as possible, and construct a newer, more profitable structure in its place. However, the designation of a risky building is decided through a series of unclear processes and unreliable criteria, which is a harmful approach to the conversation between the inhabitants and the lawmakers.

The damages inflicted on the city’s plan and identity for the short-term and limited profits on a personal level are hard to ignore. A city’s development and expansion is a delicate and important subject, which must be approached through the consideration of social, cultural and economic factors. However, Istanbul is currently treated as a real-estate development opportunity.

What the City Has Lost

The most visible consequence of these problems is the destruction of the city’s unique texture. Istanbul, unlike fast developing and construction-driven cities like Dubai, has an intricate and complex history that cannot support drastic architectural and urban changes without sacrificing its identity. The diversity of Turkey and its culture has not reflected into the plans. On the contrary, the planners have been imposing generic, uniform structures that almost decidedly ignore the regional nuances and the cultural fabric. And when this diversity is reflected into the design, it seems to be done in the least thoughtful way: the latest trend in Turkish architecture is to combine architectural elements from different historical influences; brought together to create a mismatched patchwork of all the cultures that once inhabited the land, free of context.

From the public’s point of view, one of the biggest losses from the urban fabric can be the disappearance of the neighborhood culture. Along with this, the feeling of belonging to a community and to the city has also suffered damages. For a city that loses its neighborhoods, loses an authentic and natural part of itself.

All of this redevelopment also has a social impact. When the fantasy of replacing the old with the new and modern is sold, the targeted audience is the middle and upper class. The lower class, who already struggle with the integration into the city, are sacrificed to the urban redevelopment and forcefully pushed to the margins of the city. The “reclaimed” land from the slums are reintroduced into the city as central living spaces encouraging spending more money by the middle class throughout their isolated lives. The gentrification creates yet another barrier for the inhabitants of the city in economic, regional and social contexts.

Ariel view of Mecidiyekoy district, focusing on the Trump Towers
The Trump Towers in Şişli, Istanbul. Gentrification in Istanbul generally comes in the shape of tall residence towers and shopping malls.

As a result, the city dwellers’ lives are choreographed around a culture of consumerism, with very few public and green spaces. Either the inhabitants do not have a park to breathe in, or it is too far to be accessible. The infrastructure is not enough to support the demands of such a dense population, therefore creating a difficult and stressful commute. In general, the quality of life in Istanbul is greatly crippled by the misguided approaches to urban redevelopment and the wrong priorities during this process.

How To Save a City

All of these present a depressing image as to the future of Istanbul. The destruction of the city for personal and political gains, where the public cannot contribute to the conversation or the decision making process, reflects the deep communication problem in the system.

The solution is a tough, but achievable one: bridging this significant gap between the public and the decision-makers. The inhabitants of Istanbul have to fight for their city through the power of their vote and force the lawmakers to carefully deliberate the densification of construction regulations by even a small amount. The coefficient of the construction should be proportionate: if one unit is taken up by concrete and metal, one unit should be given back to the public in the form of parks, public spaces, institutions or widened pavements.

The public should be involved in the process, through committees and transparent procedures. They should be allowed to have a voice through civilian participation in administrative settings and to inspect the proceedings. The urban regeneration and redevelopment of Medellin, Colombia, is a great example to this urban cooperation. A city torn apart by violence and poverty have been revitalized through efforts of urban planners, architects, politicians, academicians, artists, activists, neighborhood representatives, social service specialists and the public, into an accessible, beautiful city.

2 images of a street in Medellin, Colombia, comparing the before and after of the urban redevelopment project
Northeastern Urban Integration Project in Medellín, Colombia. – image © Harvard GSD

The issue is about achieving an agreement over the creation of a political system, where a fair, environmentally and historically sensitive city can be realized. The potential risks and threats to the city’s future should be carefully analyzed and prioritized during the redevelopment process, rather than a race for the maximum profitability.

The fact that the city has become a stage for a profit battle and the opportunistic approaches to the city’s history is a cultural problem. – Prof. İlhan Tekeli, Bir Şehri Yok Etmek

The zoning and architectural regulations in place should also be consistently and thoroughly imposed. Other historically significant European cities, such as Paris, can be used as an example, where strict regulations have helped to preserve the city’s unique identity, while still allowing new developments. In addition, any form of irregular and unauthorized construction should be prevented and penalized at all costs to avoid further damage to the city’s urban fabric.

Reclaiming the City

Istanbul is no longer the beautiful fairy tale city told in the history books. It is gradually becoming a concrete city wiped of its unique character and complex history. In a city that has habituated itself to the drastic and irregular changes to its unique fabric, the public must take a firm stand against the further damage to its roots, and its identity. For the destruction of a city’s identity is the destruction of the city itself.


Reading Recommendation

Cover of Bir Şehri Yok Etmek: İstanbul’da Kazanmak ya da Kaybetmek by Emine Uşaklıgil

Bir Şehri Yok Etmek: İstanbul’da Kazanmak ya da Kaybetmek by Emine Uşaklıgil

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