Reclaiming, Rethinking, Re-producing Space and Democracy
The Turkish Prime Minister’s proposal to build a new shopping mall on the site of Gezi Park, the only remaining green space in the extreme densely populated centre of Istanbul, triggered a revolutionary moment. The protests rapidly spread beyond the city and led to the articulation of intertwined demands for social, political, and economic reform throughout the country. The different dimensions of the protests voiced and the nature of the demands made had global echoes. The event itself being larger than life, this article aims to reflect on the following questions in relation to the Gezi Park uprising.
(1) Is it possible to overcome the urban ecological crisis within the existing institutional framework, i.e. without tackling the crisis of democracy?
(2) What sorts of spaces can strengthen democracy and contribute to a more equal distribution of power?
(3) Can we imagine a radically different future, not for the few, but for all?
To answer these questions, first, the social and political context of the Istanbul protests will be briefly considered, followed by six propositions that analyze the specific spatiality of the movement.
Context: The double-edged crisis of urban ecology and democracy
(1) An economy dominated by the construction sector
The AKP government came to power in 2002 in the aftermath of one of Turkey’s worst financial crises. Since then, the government has initiated and supported urban and rural interventions at a grand scale to resolve the country’s capital surplus absorption problem. Today, after more than a decade, economic growth in Turkey is heavily dependent upon the construction sector.
(2) Massive-scale urban transformation
Turkey is currently experiencing an urban transformation at a massive scale. The expected number of housing units in Turkey to be demolished and redeveloped is around 7 million, a substantial part of which is located in Istanbul.
(3) Rapid and unlimited access to urban and rural land
Rapid and unlimited access to urban and rural land is at the centre of this economic model. This year, 60% of all decisions made by the Council of Ministers were related to real-estate development and construction. The dispossession of the urban poor, the loss of public spaces, and the threat to urban ecology are unavoidable repercussions of the search for further urban land to be developed.
(4) Istanbul becoming global
Being at the centre of this economic policy, Istanbul, in the last ten years, has rapidly become a mega construction site where around 30% of the national GDP is produced. It is a Global City in the making. The fact that Istanbul was ranked first for real estate investment and development in Europe in 2012 underscores this assessment.
(5) Uneven social development
The construction boom that the city has been undergoing is accompanied by a highly uneven social development. On the one hand, Istanbul is now number five on the list of world cities with the highest number of dollar billionaires, yet on the other hand, Turkey is ranked last among the 31 OECD countries in terms of social justice.
The urban ecological crisis is intrinsically linked to the crisis of democracy. The Networks of Dispossession Project is an initiative that seeks to contribute to social and political reform in Turkey by exposing the collusion of political and economic elites in reshaping the country with no or minimal participation by the millions of ordinary citizens who are affected by these elites’ policies. The website offers a series of maps that identify the actors behind projects that have a detrimental impact on the ecology and exacerbate urban inequalities. On one map the urban and rural projects in question are indicated individually through black dots; the monetary value of each project is rendered by the relative size of a dot. The blue lines connect the projects to their developers. The logos name relevant media outlets, which are owned by the same companies developing those projects. The map thus reveals a highly interconnected network of public and private actors characterized by an extreme concentration of power and wealth. We see an economy worth more than 100 billion euros, around one fourth of the Turkish GDP. Hence, within the established institutional framework, how can common people reclaim their living spaces and overcome the current urban ecological crisis? The Gezi Park uprising gives a hint at possible answers.
Gezi Park and Taksim Square
In line with the overall makeover intended for the city, Taksim Square, Istanbul’s most central and most political public space, and the adjacent Gezi Park have both been subjected to a dramatic transformation. Gezi Park, dating back to the early 1940s, is one of the very few non-commercialized open spaces in the centre of Istanbul. The park constitutes 15% of all green areas in a district where a quarter million people live and 2 million visitors pass through daily.
The government’s intention was to turn Taksim Square into a depoliticized, museum-like static space, from which all political demonstrations would be banned, even if this represented a breach of democratic rules. Simultaneously, the government started to build a massive gathering place for up to one million people on the Marmara Sea, created by filling a stretch of coastal bays with rubble from the demolitions taking place all around the city. Also at the same time, a new infrastructure project, called Taksim Pedestrianization Project, was introduced to radically transform mobility at the square by diverting car traffic to an underground tunnel. In conjunction with the Taksim Pedestrianization Project, Prime Minister Erdoğan proposed to replace Gezi Park with the reconstruction of an old army barracks demolished in the 1930s, to function as a shopping mall.
The new plans for Taksim Square sparked widespread opposition among the citizens of Istanbul since their inception in early 2011. Initially, this opposition coalesced into the Right to the City Movement, which then rapidly evolved into an urban ‘revolution’ that voiced demands going far beyond the initial neighbourhood-related concerns:
- In reaction to the Taksim Pedestrianization Project, mainly academics and public intellectuals founded the Taksim Platform in 2011. This group succeeded in collecting 50.000 signatures against the Taksim Project.
- In March 2012, the Taksim Solidarity Platform was founded with the aim to expand the reach of the Taksim Platform. The Chamber of Architects and other professional associations joined the movement.
- In March 2013, the Taksim Gezi Park Association was founded, through which the artist communities of Turkey as well as various celebrities joined the struggle against the Taksim Project, making the protest movement more popular among the public.
- On the night of 27 May, less than 50 activists responded to the call to prevent the felling of trees in Gezi Park by shielding the trunks with their bodies against the approaching bulldozers. The excessive police violence triggered more protests. Activists set up a camp in the park, which was repeatedly attacked by the police. Growing in proportion to the stepping up of violence by the police, the ranks of the protestors swelled from 50 to half a million in less than five days.
On 1 June, the uprising spread to almost all major cities in Turkey. The police was driven out of the park and the Taksim Square area. For almost two weeks the city centre was completely controlled by citizens. The following six propositions are based on the on-site experiences and research carried out during those two weeks in and around Gezi Park.
(1) The Gezi Park community as a multitude
The community of activists that gathered in Gezi Park consisted of heterogeneous individuals, groups, and politics. The plurality within the boundaries of the park comprised all forms of political ideologies, and also non-political positions. Groups representing a variety of causes, including environmentalists, feminists, secularists, Armenian and Kurdish rights activists, socialists, communists, anti-capitalist Islamists, LGBT rights activists as well as football fans, shared the space of the park and cooperated to reach a common goal. The Gezi movement, while allowing singular subjectivities to be expressed and a wide range of struggles, each with a particular agenda, to be presented, yet formed a unified multitude. Spontaneous and unavoidable contacts within the multitude enhanced the feelings of collectivity among these diverse groups of people.
(2) The Gezi movement as a heterotopia of resistance
This condition of multitude was no utopia of diversity where a certain version of a perfected society had emerged. Rather, the Gezi movement may be described as a heterotopia of resistance, capable of juxtaposing various incompatible spaces in one place. Indeed, the confluence and co-existence of incompatibilities allowed the creation of an effective ‘counter-site’ that inverted and contested existing economic and social hierarchies (Kohn 2001). To provide an example, Gezi Park did not become a utopian space where the existence of substance addicts and street youths was denied or overlooked; instead, it turned into a heterotopia of resistance as a space where they could feel equal with and respected among the multitude.
(3) Spatial agency at Gezi Park
During the Gezi uprising, we observed the transformation of a highly controlled and closed area into a reclaimed space, initially, and soon after into a self-created space. In the course of this short period, an extraordinary level of spatial agency developed on the part of the people. The demand to take part in the spatial reproduction was like a rallying cry; self-created spaces were springing up all over the place. Speaker’s corners, allotment gardens, soup kitchens, libraries, free exchange markets, health care centres, cafés, nurseries, the Gezi Revolution museum, citizen-run TV stations, and monuments remembering the martyrs of the movement were among the many spaces created by the people.
In the park, the customary roles and clear boundaries between designer and user were blurred. Participants determined their own level of engagement in these space-building processes. And those few architects involved in the production of spaces, very much followed a pedagogical approach, i.e. they were supportive of existing space-building practices. Creating spaces oneself was only possible via strategies of encampment or ‘occupation’, which provided the crucial ‘spatial’ dimension to the resistance activities. Via territoriality, the temporal resistance could evolve into a more profound accumulation of experience.
(4) Towards an autonomy of governance
The high level of agency that we observed in the production of spaces was interrelated with the way in which the park was governed. Gezi Park rapidly became a self-governing space, i.e. a space of autonomy. Political participation of individuals and organized citizens’ groups, compared with the usual low intensity of engagement, was at an extremely high level, with minimal forms of representation and maximum direct engagement.
In terms of service provision, the park became a self-serviced space. For instance, as soon as the police retreated from the area, activists stepped in with a rigorous cleaning campaign. Garbage was collected by volunteers; medical support during and after police attacks was provided by volunteering doctors and nurses – with activists carrying stretchers; food was distributed by the people. The lack of media coverage was compensated for by social media and the park media initiatives, such as ustream, twitter, radio, photocopied daily newsletters, etc. Security, both at the borders against the police and within the park against internal fights and thievery, was provided collectively.
We witnessed, from the very early days of resistance, an explicit demand for the citizen’s right to political participation. There was an evolution to be observed from speaker’s corners (which reflected the call for freedom of expression, the right to voice one’s opinion and the right to be publicly heard) towards forums (popular assemblies as decision-making platforms). This was clearly a new form of democratic experience, intended to develop horizontal mechanisms for organization and democratic practices of decision making, so that all participants could lead together, which made the experience unmediated, revolutionary, and collective. Directly out of the Gezi experience, local popular assemblies emerged in 40 parks all across Istanbul, and in a number of other cities in the wake of the massive police raid on 15 June. These local forums are organized into thematic working groups many of which devote their efforts to dealing with the pressing urban ecological issues of the city as a whole, and do not limit themselves to one particular locality.
(5) Redefining the public sphere
At the heart of the spatial agency and autonomous governing observed at Gezi Park lies a new understanding of the public sphere. According to Habermas, the public sphere is a space where different citizens can gather to collectively determine at least the general principles governing their common life. However, this definition of the public sphere is limited to a bourgeois milieu characterized by high levels of elitism and homogeneity. In order to democratize the public sphere, Nancy Fraser proposes to include a variety of subaltern counterpublics. By creating a temporal space that was freed from the influence of the dominant power poles of the state and the market, the Gezi movement empowered a multitude of citizens (including numerous so-called marginal groups) to estabish a new kind of public sphere, in which an alternative political discourse could be articulated.
(6) A struggle for urban commons
While the multitude of ideologies voiced through the protests would not allow us to characterize the Gezi movement as a ‘socialist’ project, it clearly expressed an anti-capitalist direction, which in fact functioned as a common denominator among the various policies that were proposed. Within the park’s ‘ecosystems’, solidarity and sharing among people were the social norm, on the basis of which a gift economy could flourish rapidly and vividly. As a principle, monetary currency was not allowed (signifying an abolition of sorts of the market) within the boundaries of the park. All essentials, such as food, water, health care, books, entertainment, art, etc. were provided by the joint efforts of the people, in other words by the park communities. There was a categorical rejection of commercialization and privatization of urban land and public spaces, which most immediately manifested itself in the stance against the shopping mall project.
The revolutionary events that take took place in and around Istanbul’s Gezi Park reveal how it is possible to create new kinds of spaces that strengthen democracy and contribute to a more equal distribution of power. Months after the uprising, in September 2013, a few citizens from a neighbourhood next to Gezi Park painted the steep stairs climbing up to their houses in rainbow colours. Thanks to the social media, the stairs rapidly became a civic monument enjoyed by many Istanbulites and visitors. The district municipality painted the stairs grey in less than 48 hours! Presumably this would have been the end of this story in the pre-revolutionary Istanbul as we knew it. However, the next day thousands of people painted their stairs and many other public spaces in rainbow colours all around Turkey. Some municipalities quickly responded to the demands of their citizens and provided them with free paints. Such instances of people-driven, bottom-up spatial processes, and consequent adaptation of (local) authorities, are regaining presence in our cities. This might be interpreted as the resurgence of ‘the public’ as a political ideal, in the age of extreme privatization and commercialization of the urban realm. In search of the post-neoliberal city, the public space and its defence has a very central role, through which the city reborn as a space for politics. Indeed, we can imagine a radically different future, not for just the few, but for all.
This article was published at Topos Magazine: The International Review of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design
Margaret Kohn, “The Power of Place: The House of the People as Counterpublic”, Polity, vol. 33, no. 4 (summer 2001), pp. 508.
Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere”, in Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 109–42.