The Last Word with… İmre Azem

Turkish Review - - REVIEWS CONFERENCE -

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

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