I live in the historical Beyoğlu District of Istanbul, the centre of my poly-centred megacity. In any given day, 2 million visitors pass within one kilometre of my home. Taksim Square and Gezi Park are approximately 700m from my front door. My office, from where I work on urbanism-related projects, is also within walking distance of my home.
Living and working in such a central area has a lot of merits, yet it also has its drawbacks. The major problem is the intense level of commercialisation and threat of forced eviction. The tourism industry and real estate developers are extremely interested in buying and converting residential buildings and local businesses into hotels or short-term rentals. For exactly this reason I was evicted from my previous house, which is not far from where I live now, two years ago – and I can see the encroachment of the tourism related spaces upon my existing neighbourhood.
Most of my neighbours are relatively poor internal and external migrants. They have been enjoying low rents and employment opportunities nearby for many years. However, the widening rent gap and gentrification process has put them under threat of eviction.
Istanbul is the city of transformation and contradiction. As an urbanist, I am trying to keep record and make sense of this transformation and am especially interested in its winners and losers. At the moment we live in a giant construction site, where skyscrapers, mega projects and urban renewal projects are taking place all around. There is a gold rush to real-estate development. Just to give an example, the founders of one of themost successful local IT firms sold their shares to eBay and joined the highly profitable real-estate development sector.
Istanbul is a city of contradictions in many respects. It is one of the oldest metropolises in the world (more than 8,000 years old), but only a fraction of its buildings remain from 100 years ago. Istanbul is number five on the list of world cities with the highest number of dollar billionaires, yet on the other hand it accommodates some of the poorest people in Turkey. It’s a megacity with 99% of its 15 million inhabitants living in an urbanised area, yet, it is still possible to find a ‘slow city’ lifestyle within the city’s boundaries.
What’s the best building in your city?
One of the most iconic buildings in Istanbul is Haydarpaşa railway station. It was built at the beginning of 20th century as the point of departure for the Istanbul–Baghdad railway line. With its beautiful architecture – and being located next to the sea so passengers can cross the Bosporus by ferry right on arrival to the city – the building is an indispensable part of Istanbul’s cityscape and imagery.
The government wants to privatise the building and the surrounding area for hotel and real estate development, despite urban social movements’ resistance. In 2010, a suspicious fire destroyed the roof of the heritage building. Many people believe the blaze was an act of sabotage.
And the worst?
It is hard to choose just one worst building in Istanbul among many horrific ones. In a city where the principles of urban planning and building codes can be generously stretched by developers and authorities, in accordance with their appetite for profit, the sky is literally the limit in terms of committing ‘crimes against the city’.
The Four Winds Project is probably one of the ‘worst’ buildings, if not theone, with its disproportionate height for its setting. The ultra high-income residential towers are constructed on publicly owned green space, right next to a city park. This project on steroids not only allows its ‘well-connected’ developer to make unjustifiable profit with its ridiculously lavish floor permit, but also steals the sunshine of the surrounding public park and apartments.
How clean is the city?
Even though the city’s air quality has improved significantly in recent years, it can still be very poor under certain weather conditions and at particular times of the year. Over 3 million vehicles, heavy marine traffic, and the use of polluting fuels are some of the factors behind this.
Most people, including myself, do not drink tap water, even though Istanbul’s water agency claims that it is safe. In terms of trash collection, municipalities do a fairly good job. Informal garbage collectors do an even better job of making sure that recyclable or sellable materials are being picked up and brought to one of the numerous collection centres, one of which is located right next to my apartment. Overall, the streets of Istanbul are clean, but its metro is spotless, to such an extent that we can compare it to the fabulous Moscow Metro.
What’s the best way to get around?
Well, if you have to use the motorway during rush hour, there is no good way to do it – just good luck! Given Istanbul’s size, you cannot get away with travelling just by metro or by foot and extremely poor infrastructure, aggressive drivers and steep hills make cycling a tough choice too. If you happen to be living and working on the same ‘continent’ (remember Istanbul stretches over Europe and Asia), or at least if you are located somewhere accessible to ferries (Vapur in Turkish), then you are in a better situation.
For me the the picturesque Vapur is the best mode of urban transportation, not only in Istanbul, but in the whole world. Depending on the station, it can take between five to 20 minutes to cross the Bosporus. Yet, it is a gross underestimation to call Vapur a mere mode of transport.Vapur is a culture, an urban therapy, a treat, and an elegant way to relax in the middle of this mad city.
What does your city sound like?
My house is right next to a mosque; hence my ‘biased’ answer would be the call to prayer. Considering the number of mosques in Istanbul, one can easily generalise my answer to the rest of the city. Seagulls are another significant and loud part of Istanbul’s soundscapes.
Best place for a conversation
In the city centre, one of the best options for a good conversation would be a rooftop bar or café, some of which have amazing views. I would go for the bar on top of the Grand Hotel de Londres Istanbul, facing the Golden Horn and its dense urban fabric, especially at sunset.
Another personal favorite is to take a long ferry ride to the Princess Islands (but definitely not at the weekend!) and stroll among the beautiful historical mansions and natural heritage sites to end up at the free public beach.
What one thing is indispensable for life in your city?
That’s a tough question, but the first thing that comes to my mind is AKBIL – ‘the smart ticket’ for public transport. AKBIL comes in two forms: one as a key ring and the other as a card, identical to the size of a credit card. You top up your AKBIL at money machines or corner shops and use it for almost all sorts of public transport, except for shared minivans (Dolmus in Turkish), which are another indispensable thing for life in Istanbul.
How is Istanbul changing?
Istanbul has changed radically over the last decade. Urban renewal projects target inhabitants of gecekondu [slum neighbourhoods], and state and market-led gentrification processes force the poor to leave the city centre.
Gated communities, social housing and shopping malls segregate society according to people’s income levels, while speculation in the housing market rings alarm bells.
The shopping malls of which Istanbul now has the highest number in Europe endanger small local businesses, while central government is privatising heritage sites and public buildings for tourism projects.
This process of privatisation also encloses urban commons (such as the failed attempt on Gezi Park); and mega projects such as ‘the world’s biggest airport’, ‘Canal Istanbul’ and ‘New City Istanbul’ all threaten the ecology of the northern part of the city.
Are you optimistic about your city’s future?
Given the grim picture of transformation summed up above, Istanbul has increasingly become a city of resistance. We have experienced one of the most exciting, hopeful and truly urban uprisings in the contemporary history of the world. The awareness and willingness of Istanbul’s residents to do something for their city and their future has probably never been at such a level. Hence, yes, I am optimistic about the future of my city.