The Last Word with… İmre Azem
It has been several years since ‘Ecumenopolis’ came out -- have things changed for the better or worse in İstanbul since 2011, do you think? Both. Of course, it is true that both megaprojects such as the third bridge, the third airport, the Bosporus tunnel crossing and so on and urban transformation projects have made some headway since 2001, although we know that in the past couple of years, financing these projects has gotten much more difficult.
However, all this social, economic and environmental destruction is being increasingly met by an informed and conscious people. It is critical to note that the Gezi uprising of June 2013 was a turning point for the people of this country. First of all, it clearly put the urban question at the center of the political debate. Yes, it can be said that many factors contributed to the Gezi uprising and that it was mostly an outcry against the authoritarian behavior of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, it is also a fact that it all started from the defense of an urban park, a public space in the heart of the city that the government had wanted to turn into a shopping mall. So, the origin of the uprising as an urban issue is very clear. And, since the Gezi uprising, we have witnessed the formation of many neighborhood forums, urban defense platforms and ad-hoc urban resistance groups. This is very encouraging. Today, the Turkish public is more aware of the risks of poorly managed urbanization -- if not too late. What do you think is the next step in tackling this issue?
Today, the critical question is how to evolve from a system that shapes our cities and living spaces in the interest of capital to a system that shapes them in the interests of people. We must evolve from a system that sees our parks as empty lots for another skyscraper to a system that sees them as part of an urban ecosystem. Our living spaces are not commodities to generate income for real- estate corporations; our cities are not brands to be sold to investors. It is not buildings that make a city -- it is the people and their social networks. We must create cities that strengthen these networks, not destroy them, as the current neoliberal system does. We must first of all change these perceptions. Thus, we must first get informed. Second, we must get organized. And third, we must act. Knowledge and organization are the pillars of action, but without action they are meaningless. Thus, action -informed and organized -- is what will bring about change. You have talked to many experts and residents in İstanbul. How do people want to see this city and what is needed to make this a reality?
People want their right to the city respected. The “right to the city” is very simply the right to shape our living spaces according to our needs and desires. Urban science and architecture can open new horizons to meet these needs and desires. This means a more just city and a more democratic city. We tend to see democracy as “the rule by the majority”; whoever gets the highest number of votes gets to decide how we all live. In the present system, this means those who have the most money. But this is a democracy of the middle ages. Contemporary democracy is one that is built on rights. After World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was accepted in 1948, following the creation of the United Nations. Certainly it is not possible to say that any nation today fully respects these rights, but they are there as a starting point. Contemporary democracy is built upon and ensures these rights, however contrary they may be to the opinions or the interests of the majority. It is a democracy that protects the rights of the minority against the power of the majority and it follows that the struggle for these rights, which the right to the city is a part of, is at the same time a struggle for real democracy.
A longer version of this interview is available online