Note: I wrote this piece early on during the demonstrations in Gezi Park. Since then, police have used water cannons, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas against the protestors, and demonstrations have spread across the country. Makes this analysis a bit less pertinent. These protests are about far more than trees and town planning. They expose the nature of the Turkish state and the approach of the AKP government to dealing with opposition. But here are some thoughts on Istanbul.
Last week, Turkish activists occupied a park in the heart of Istanbul to protest the destruction of one of the megacity’s few remaining green spaces. The authorities want to flatten Gezi Park as part of a redevelopment programme, replacing trees and lawns with a shopping center.
The authorities’ reaction to the protests was aggressive. Police fired tear gas and water cannons, injuring dozens of protestors, and made dozens of arrests. The harsh police response sparked sympathetic protests across Istanbul and in the capital, Ankara, and the demonstrations have now spread to 67 cities.
This episode is about more than the trees of Gezi Park. The #occupygezi movement encapsulates the relationship between the ruling Islamist-leaning AKP party and the country’s secular left. It exposes the attitude of the Turkish state towards freedom of expression and public protest.
But it’s significant that such a movement was triggered by the basic human desire for green space.
I moved to Istanbul last August, renting a room a few blocks from Gezi Park. I’d fallen in love with the place, a centuries-old cultural bridge between Europe and Asia, former capital of two empires. From the beautiful Hagia Sophia church-turned-mosque to the stylish French architecture of Beyoglu and the colourful old houses of Fener and Balat, it is bursting with history.
Yet those cultural treasures are severely threatened by short-sighted development. This megalopolis lacks the essentials for quality of life in a city of its size: parks and open spaces, an adequate public transport system and most importantly, an enlightened approach to new development. Bad urban planning is destroying Istanbul’s soul.
This city is home to at least 14 million people. It sprawls over 2,000 square miles, spanning the Bosphorus straights that separate Europe from Asia. Most of the charm is located in the older, central districts. Beyond them, drab office blocks and commercial centers line four-lane highways that heave with traffic 24 hours a day. Visit the western suburb of Zeytinburnu and you’ll see the protestors’ point: the last thing Istanbul needs is another shopping mall.
A satellite view of Istanbul shows how little green space remains in the city. Erhan Demirdizen, the Istanbul branch president for the Ministry of Public Works and Settlement, told Hurriyet newspaper in 2009 that the ratio of green spaces in a city should be at least 10 square meters per person. According to Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the green area ratio per person in Istanbul is only is 6.4 square meters. People in most European cities had 20 square meters.
Another constant irritation is the lack of public transportation. True, there is a metro, a tram and a couple of cross-city train services. But the network is poorly integrated and sorely inadequate given Istanbul’s size. As a result, this is Europe’s most congested city, according to data from GPS provider TomTom. In rush hour, the … mile taxi ride from Taksim to Bagcilar can take as long as two hours.
And yet they keep building – because it’s all about business. The construction continues, ever creeping outwards, adding more traffic to the city’s clogged arteries. Last week, work began on a third bridge across the Bosphorous. It echoes Margaret Thatcher’s solution for too many cars: build more roads. It didn’t work in Britain, and it won’t work in Istanbul.
Even more bizarre is the decision to build another airport, Istanbul’s third. The two existing airports already generate huge amounts of traffic. Only one of them is connected to the overcrowded metro network. Building another airport without first easing the existing traffic congestion is pure madness.
It is easy to fall in love with Istanbul. Catch a ferry across the Bosphorous at sunset, as the call to prayer echoes from a thousand mosques, and you will see what I mean. But living there is exhausting. Witnessing the demolition of charming old houses is as depressing as sitting in the city’s endless traffic jams.
New airports and shopping malls might attract prestige and investors, but they are socially disastrous. The Gezi Park movement highlights the urgent need for a long term vision for Istanbul: a plan that focuses on sustainability, preserving the city’s priceless cultural heritage and making it a liveable place for all its inhabitants.
Click here to watch a trailer of Ecumenopolis – a city without limits, a documentary on Istanbul’s out-of-control growth.