Urban Ecological Crisis of Istanbul – A report by Sunday’s Zaman

Scale of destruction in Istanbul forests increasingly visible

One of the few projects that environmentalists say will be the end of İstanbul’s last green forests has been under way since June of this year, but the great extent of the damage already caused by the onslaught of the bulldozers has only recently become visible.

Aerial photographs of the city’s northern parts, which were until recently covered with lush forests, clearly show the level of havoc the bridge and highway project have already caused. Environmentalist groups also say that little plots here and there, in addition to the bald serpentine dirt road that marks the route of the new highway, have also been destroyed. Officials, who initially promised that there would be no developments in the area other than the highway, are keeping quiet on what is planned for these areas. In fact, they are so secretive that photographing the site from the air was recently forbidden. The photographs accompanying this story were taken about a month ago. The bald spots are believed to have expanded significantly since then, as according to members of the Northern Forests Defense group who marched through the forest, bulldozers continued working uninterrupted during this time.

Bulldozers are active on both sides of the Bosporus, felling trees to make room for the highway. Hundred-meter-wide segments of forest going on for kilometers have been razed on both sides, forming a dirt road that will be asphalted over. In some parts, there are also smaller inroads that will be merging roads from the city. The felled trees — pine, oak and acacia — are piled up on the sides of the newly created dirt road. They will be transferred to the regional forestry directorate.

The government says the bridge is being built to lighten İstanbul’s congested traffic, but officials don’t offer any answers to the question of why an elevated road could not be constructed. Most experts also say that although a new bridge and a new airport might be needed, there are better places to build these inside the city.

The new highway will cost approximately TL 4.5 billion. It will be 164.3 kilometers long in total, covering a stretch of 490,000 acres of destroyed forestland. There will be seven tunnels in the project, as well as wildlife overpasses, according to promises, although environmentalists are skeptical that these will really be fulfilled. The bridge will be completed by May 29, 2015, according to terms personally agreed upon with the contractor by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Can it be stopped?

The bridge runs contrary to the 1/100,000-scale İstanbul Provincial Environmental Plan and the 1/25,000-scale İstanbul Master Development Plan, according to environment protection groups and professional chambers. In addition to the bridge and its connecting highway, the government is planning a new international airport atop whatever will remain of the city’s northern forest on the European side and another major project that will see the creation of a new waterway connecting the Black Sea and the Marmara, which scientists say might have disastrous ecological consequences.

Çare Olgun Çalışkan from the İstanbul office of the Chamber of Urban Planners (ŞPO) — a member of the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects Chambers (TMMOB) — says, echoing many other experts, officials appear to be creating new land for development to spur economic growth by offering more opportunities to Turkey’s construction and development sector, which has been the locomotive of growth in the past decade. Since contractors and builders have now run out of room to build, the city’s last forest is the only place conducive to making a profit. In İstanbul’s experience, every highway built has soon seen a relaxation of zoning plans in nearby areas and buildings and developments soon sprout like mushrooms.

But is there hope? Çalışkan says the most significant obstacle in achieving any concrete result to minimize the damage from the projects is that the media, which — with a few exceptions — have been unwilling to report on the colossal damage the projects will cause to the city. “What civil society organizations, some opposition politicians, scientists and academics have said against this project should normally be enough to stop it,” he said. “However, this hasn’t happened. The only thing that keeps our hopes alive is that the northern territory is very resilient and greenery takes hold very quickly even after it’s destroyed if it is not covered with concrete. So that is our hope, that we can recover later what we lose today.”

He said a number of associations, such as the Northern Forests Defense group, professional organizations and civil society groups as well as chambers have taken the bridge project to court. “Courts have increasingly been overturning objections against wrongful urban planning projects citing laughable reasons. Expert witness reports are increasingly less scientific. For instance, an expert report in a court case against an İstanbul Municipality [İBB] project can be prepared based on reports prepared by the İBB itself. We are seeing such incidents increasingly often. Our only hope is that if there is one court decision against one of the projects, this could spur public debate, which in turn might fuel some awareness.”

Çalışkan said the forests, since they are uninhabited, are not very visible to the residents of the city and with the obvious lack of interest of the mainstream media — mainly owing to fears regarding the government’s unrelenting reaction to dissidence — civil society groups have failed to convey the full impact of the bridge project and others planned atop the city’s last forests.

He said since 2010 his organization has been trying to contact the Prime Minister’s Office, the President’s Office, the governor’s office, headquarters of political parties, local branches of political parties and every ministry and related state agency to schedule a meeting and talk about the projects, but only few have returned their calls.

Another shot at stopping the projects could be organizing a public boycott against the six banks financing the project. “These banks also borrow loans from banks abroad, and the public’s reaction, the lack of Environmental Impact Assessment reports in such projects are all major problems for European banks.” However, little awareness remains an issue in this instance as well.

No escape from urban sprawl

According to Minister of Forestry and Water Affairs Veysel Eroğlu, 381,096 trees will be felled to make room for the bridge, the highway and its viaducts. However, Sunday’s Zaman reporters who visited the area say trees have been felled at places where, according to the project, there should be viaducts. Both experts and locals who live in the forest villages here are certain that within two years, the area will be covered with concrete. The songs of the forests’ birds are already being drowned in the loud hum of massive bulldozers.

The village of Anadolu Feneri is located at the eastern end of the highway project on the Anatolian side. It consists of 10 houses, which will all be confiscated as they turn into the highway’s safety lane. The villagers are worried that they will lose their homes to a mere pittance the government will pay in return for its confiscation. Abandoned beehives — the primary source of livelihood for the village until recently — can be seen along the village’s narrow roads.

Emrullah Bektaş, who moved to Anadolu Feneri to escape the city seven years ago, says: “I fled to this place from the city, but it has come and found me again. I spent more than TL 400,000, built this house and the yard. I have my trees here; I grow my own fruits and vegetables.” He is also worried that the government will pay him an amount below the value of his home’s real worth. “I will go to court in that case,” he declares.

Protection for wildlife

Kadir Erdin, a professor in İstanbul University’s forestry engineering department, doesn’t hold out any hope that the projects can be stopped. But he does hope that there can be an effort to minimize the impact. “One should concentrate on minimizing the ecological damage in such projects. The Northern Marmara Highway is a dagger that has stabbed nature right through the heart. What can be done after this point is try to minimize the damage. The region should not be included in zoning plans after the road is built. Past projects show that in such cases all nearby areas are given zoning permits. This should not be allowed here.”

Erdin notes that many species will suffer, but predominantly, the birds of the region. “The second most important issue is the migratory routes of birds. The noise and pollution might change migration routes. It might be a little costly, but special resting stops with water should be created in the north for the birds. Another major problem will be how to keep the underground waters uncontaminated. The north of İstanbul receives heavy snowfall, which will result in ice on the road. They will use de-icing chemicals on the highway that will permeate the ground and contaminate underground water.”

Head of the Nature Warriors Environmental Organization and the İstanbul Environmental Council Zafer Murat Çetintaş is also concerned: “We, as environment groups, are not against development,” he says, an automatic reflex many civil society groups active in environment protection show these days, as government officials have publicly accused individuals critical of destructive projects of being against Turkey’s development. “But the projects that will be developed should not damage the environment. For example, in Romania, they use oak trees on both sides of highways to offset the carbon dioxide produced by the passing vehicles. Underground waters will also be contaminated and it will be hard for the soil to absorb rainwater because of the asphalt road.” He also said the road will be an encroachment on wildlife.

They say the great fire of Rome burned for six uninterrupted days. The fire first broke out in a central part of the city, and fanned by the warm winds of the summer, it quickly spread through every alley, consuming the city in a matter of days. Rumors that Nero himself ordered the torching of the city and played his lyre in his palace watching the flames devour the imperial city, spread faster than the fire itself, although these are unconfirmed.

İstanbul in Turkish is known as the city of the seven hills. This is because, just like ancient Rome, it was built on seven hills. The rate of its destruction is reminiscent of the great fire that destroyed Rome, only, this time, the flames have taken the form of the urban development juggernaut. To future generations, though, unlike in the case of Nero, those really responsible for the city’s destruction will be known beyond doubt.

*Sevgi Korkut, Derviş Genç and Cihan Acar from Zaman’s İstanbul office contributed to this report.

Check todayszaman for the original post and additional photos from the area

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