Ur­ban­iza­tion and the ‘right to the city’ in İs­tan­bul, By Nez­ihe Başak Er­gin

In Tur­key, ur­ban strug­gles with po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics date back to the 1970s. Since the early 2000s, ur­ban poli­cies and de­ci­sions about ur­ban trans­for­ma­tion projects have been marked by a rad­i­cal change from the pop­ulist to the ne­olib­eral. To­day, ur

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These ur­ban strug­gles with po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics have oc­curred mainly in gecekondu neigh­bor­hoods2 (self-built hous­ing with spon­ta­neous char­ac­ter­is­tics). From the early 2000s on­wards, due to spa­ces be­ing in­creas­ingly gov­erned by in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity and com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion in a process of ho­mog­e­niza­tion, 3 frag­men­ta­tion4 and hi­er­ar­chiza­tion, 5 via a seem­ingly end­less se­ries of ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion projects, some neigh­bor­hoods have sought to (re)claim their “right to the city.” How­ever, the no­tion of so­cial spa­ces based on val­ues, mean­ings, per­cep­tions and prac­tices is be­ing erased by so­cio-spa­tial in­ter­ven­tions un­der the ban­ner of ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion.

Since the early 2000s, ur­ban poli­cies and de­ci­sions about ur­ban trans­for­ma­tion projects have been marked by a rad­i­cal change from the pop­ulist to the ne­olib­eral. 6 Ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion was pro­posed as the so­lu­tion to so-called “so­ciospa­tial” prob­lems by of­fer­ing “new, mod­ern and ap­pro­pri­ate lives” not only in gecekondu neigh­bor­hoods in İs­tan­bul but later in his­tor­i­cal neigh­bor­hoods like Fener-Balat7 and Su­lukule8 as well as dis­tricts such as Tozkoparan. 9 Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, İs­tan­bul was la­beled with var­i­ous brands, such as Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture, which were sub­se­quently uti­lized in re­gen­er­a­tion projects. From the early pe­ri­ods of ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion -which of­ten takes the form of de­mo­li­tion -- the crim­i­nal­iza­tion and stigma­ti­za­tion of neigh­bor­hoods has gone hand in hand with the use of pre­texts such as the risk of earth­quakes and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters to le­git­imize these projects.

State­ments by for­mer En­vi­ron­ment and Ur­ban­iza­tion Min­is­ter Er­doğan Bayrak­tar, 10 a for­mer chair­man of the Hous­ing De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Tur­key (TOKİ), are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the belief in a re­la­tion­ship be­tween the phys­i­cal and spa­tial con­di­tions of an area and moral and so­cial im­prove­ments to in­hab­i­tants’ lives. The mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of some of these dis­tricts, the İs­tan­bul Metropoli­tan Mu­nic­i­pal­ity (İBB) and leg­isla­tive ar­range­ments at

the na­tional level have launched a cy­cle of re­gen­er­a­tion, whereby neigh­bor­hoods un­der the threat of de­mo­li­tion are re­gen­er­ated via the con­struc­tion of lux­u­ri­ous houses by pri­vate firms and TOKİ. On the home­page of the English ver­sion of TOKİ’s web­site, there is a wel­com­ing mes­sage de­tail­ing the “right to hous­ing,” as stated in Ar­ti­cle 57 of the Con­sti­tu­tion of the Turk­ish Re­pub­lic. TOKİ states that its aim is to col­lab­o­rate with lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties on ur­ban re­newal projects and cre­ate fi­nan­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties for the pri­vate sec­tor to fi­nance so­cial hous­ing projects.

The in­hab­i­tants of neigh­bor­hoods such as Ayazma have been re­lo­cated to newly built so­cial hous­ing ar­eas such as Bezir­gan­bahçe, lo­cated far from the city cen­ter. For­mer own­ers have been obliged to ac­cept long-term pay­ment plans that can in­volve life­long debts, while ten­ants have had to find new ac­com­mo­da­tion. In some cases, such as in

In­hab­i­tant s of re­de­vel­oped neigh­bor­hoods have ben re­lo­cate d to newly built so­cial hous­ing, of­ten lo­cate d far from the city cen­ter

Ayazma, although the mu­nic­i­pal­ity made prom­ises to ten­ants, they found them­selves with­out any­where to live, a move that pro­voked a hos­tile re­ac­tion from lo­cals. Re­lo­ca­tion de­vel­oped into the dis­place­ment and dis­pos­ses­sion of the poor, only achiev­ing the ge­o­graph­i­cal re­lo­ca­tion of poverty. 11 Such poli­cies trans­form cities from “spa­ces of hope” into “spa­ces of hope­less­ness” for those whose goal is liv­ing and sur­viv­ing in the city. 12

The leg­isla­tive ba­sis of these in­ter­ven­tions varies from changes to acts in old pieces of leg­is­la­tion to the in­tro­duc­tion of new laws. 13 Par­lia­ment passed Law No. 6306 con­cern­ing the “Trans­for­ma­tion of Ar­eas at Risk of Dis­as­ter” on May 31, 2012. Pop­u­lar fig­ures sup­ported this change, which was pro­moted as a “na­tional mo­bi­liza­tion” with public spots on tele­vi­sion. How­ever, the law in­cludes a num­ber of clauses that pre­vent peo­ple from ques­tion­ing, ap­peal­ing and

protest­ing against de­ci­sions of de­mo­li­tion and re­set­tle­ment, even when in­hab­i­tants have the le­gal ti­tle to their houses. This trans­for­ma­tion in the form of “au­thor­i­tar­ian ne­olib­er­al­ism” 14 has cre­ated a boom in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try.

Bar­gain­ing strate­gies fo­cus­ing on dif­fer­ences in res­i­dents’ land ten­ure have some­times been used by con­struc­tion com­pa­nies to ob­struct op­po­si­tion to re­gen­er­a­tion. Based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of peo­ple in af­fected neigh­bor­hoods, the “col­lec­tive right to hous­ing” has evolved into a tacit agree­ment to al­low de­vel­op­ers to go ahead with projects based on per­sonal gain, a sit­u­a­tion in­ten­si­fied by lo­cals’ lack of ex­pe­ri­ence in protest and by state vi­o­lence. 15

State­ments made by Bayrak­tar in Novem­ber 2012 were im­por­tant in two re­spects: First, Bayrak­tar stated that the ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion projects would be in­tro­duced to the public in new ways and would not be done with­out the con­sent of ev­ery­one af­fected. Sec­ond, he said that the re­cent global eco­nomic cri­sis in Tur­key was not as se­vere as in many other coun­tries in the world thanks to the con­tri­bu­tion of TOKİ hous­ing and the con­struc­tion sec­tor. How­ever, crit­i­cal as­pects of the right to the city should be re­mem­bered: Ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion be­came a gen­eral pro­ject valid for ev­ery neigh­bor­hood but mainly for build­ings deemed to be at threat, en­com­pass­ing for­mer so­cial- hous­ing neigh­bor­hoods such as Tozkoparan and his­tor­i­cal neigh­bor­hoods such as Fener- Balat, in ad­di­tion to gecekondu neigh­bor­hoods. The other as­pect is that TOKİ ini­ti­ated a sys­tem of low qual­ity hous­ing pos­ses­sion; in other words, pri­vate prop­erty based on debt16 rather than the right to hous­ing.

Ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion projects in­volve not only residential ar­eas but also his­tor­i­cal, public and above all so­cial and com­mon spa­ces such as the Emek Movie Theater, Galata Port, Hay­darpaşa and Tak­sim Square. In this re­spect, we must ask why and for whom ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion is be­ing un­der­taken, given that it cre­ates new de­pri­va­tions and dis­pos­ses­sions due to dis­lo­ca­tions and leads to an eco­nomic and so­cial ag­gra­va­tion of ex­ist­ing in­equal­i­ties, when so­cial hous­ing is re­lo­cated to the fringes of the city.

These projects have be­come a turn­ing point for the ( re) emer­gence of gecekondu grass­roots re­sis­tance( s), op­po­si­tions and the for­ma­tion of new types of non- hi­er­ar­chi­cal and flex­i­ble types of “or­ga­ni­za­tions” of dif­fer­ent ac­tors as well as new types of as­so­ci­a­tions in var­i­ous neigh­bor­hoods in İs­tan­bul. This has inspired in­tel­lec­tu­als from both within and also out­side af­fected neigh­bor­hoods to claim the “right to the city” by chal­leng­ing the pri­vate mean­ing and ex­change val­ues of ur­ban space.

Within the frame­work of the ge­og­ra­phy of sur­vival, the “right to the city” was a fac­tor in the very first for­ma­tion pe­riod of gecekondu neigh­bor­hoods. It could also be de­scribed as the right to ap­pro­pri­a­tion, or the process of us­ing and pro­duc­ing space ac­cord­ing to need. In af­fected neigh­bor­hoods of İs­tan­bul, forms of protest­ing in­clude oc­cu­py­ing a bus stop, as hap­pened in Güzel­tepe in Eyüp, while in another ex­am­ple, protesters spent sev­eral nights in a park in Küçükçek­mece to cam­paign for their right to shel­ter af­ter the de­mo­li­tion of their homes in Ayazma. As a re­ac­tion to ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion, in­hab­i­tants ac­tive in the ur­ban op­po­si­tion have re­claimed the right to oc­cupy and the right to the use and pro­duc­tion of ur­ban spa­ces once again. Some of those in­volved have broad­ened their claims, start­ing from their own houses in terms of prop­erty rights and their neigh­bor­hoods.

In Tur­key, dis­cus­sions over and prac­ti­cal us­age of the slo­gan the “right to the city” in the aca­demic world and within move­ments are quite new, dat­ing back to 2007-2009 -- the mo­ments of al­liance at in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal lev­els -- which could be re­lated to its pop­u­lar us­age in the world and to the com­mon need for ex­pla­na­tion and fur­ther con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion, with the in­flu­ence of in­tel­lec­tu­als from both within and out­side neigh­bor­hoods. Protesters were able to ar­tic­u­late their com­plaints, start­ing with newly formed neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tions and the per­ceived right to one’s neigh­bor­hood in spite of ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion, thanks to the es­tab­lish­ment of

We must ask why and for whom ur­ban re­generati on is be­ing un­derta ken

in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tions of ac­tivists and in­tel­lec­tu­als.

Us­ing the ex­am­ple of strug­gles in İs­tan­bul and in the wider world, many in­tel­lec­tu­als en­gaged in ur­ban move­ments17 dis­cuss the idea’s rad­i­cal po­ten­tial and the im­por­tance of the “right to the city” as some­thing that goes be­yond ur­ban space, while propos­ing that the “right to the city” was the nec­es­sary key to the al­liance of ur­ban op­po­si­tion groups and ac­tors. One of the ear­li­est scholars from Tur­key to write on the “right to the city,” Ali Ek­ber Doğan, pro­poses that the idea came from a de­mand for a slo­gan of ev­ery­day life, a so­cially just, more demo­cratic, plu­ral­ist and “sol­i­daris­tic” ur­ban sys­tem in har­mony with na­ture. 18 The right to the city also rep­re­sents re­bel­lion against overly tech­no­cratic, top-down ur­ban poli­cies, plans and projects de­pen­dent on cap­i­tal­ist ra­tio­nal­ity. 19 The strug­gle for the “right to the city” in­volves ideas such as left-Key­ne­sian­ism, tam­ing the global cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket, en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly

This is also a clai m for the right to cen­tral­ity -- to refuse to leave cen­tral ur­ban space s

cap­i­tal­ism and par­tic­i­pa­tion in­stead of ne­olib­er­al­ism, glob­al­iza­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy. 20

The prepara­tory meet­ings and fo­rums that brought to­gether ur­ban op­po­si­tion groups and ac­tors on June 26- 27, 2010, for the Euro­pean So­cial Fo­rum, held be­tween July 1- 4, 2010, must be cited as a turn­ing point in the search for al­liances con­cern­ing the “right to the city.” 21 The con­cept was dis­cussed the­o­ret­i­cally and con­tested con­cep­tu­ally by neigh­bor­hood in­hab­i­tant ac­tivists, other ac­tivists and aca­demics in­volved in ur­ban op­po­si­tion groups like the Peo­ple’s Ur­ban­ism Move­ment (İMECE) and

Dayanış­macı Atö­lye ( Sol­i­darist Work­shop). These dis­cus­sions evolved into weekly meet­ings and sem­i­nars by the group Ur­ban Move­ments ( Kent

Hareket­leri). The Ur­ban Move­ments al­liance con­sisted of the main ac­tors from these groups, who came to­gether with the pri­mary pur­pose of help­ing neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tions to func­tion ef­fec­tively dur­ing strate­gic mo­ments. Func­tion­ing

as a call to Euro­pean so­cial move­ments, a man­i­festo22 was writ­ten col­lec­tively and the “right to the city” was pro­posed as a uni­fy­ing slo­gan and as a bridge to form al­liances be­tween var­i­ous ur­ban op­po­si­tion groups and ac­tivists.

One of the most im­por­tant lay­ers and mostcited com­po­nents of the “right to the city” in terms of the re­fusal to ac­cept dis­crim­i­na­tion and seg­re­ga­tion over use of the city cen­ter, de­ci­sion­mak­ing and pol­i­tics is the right to a ren­o­vated cen­tral­ity in terms of a trans­formed and re­newed right to ur­ban life, which is not only a sim­ple vis­it­ing right or a re­turn to a tra­di­tional city. 23 The “right to the city” is also a de­mand for the right to na­ture, some­thing that also man­i­fests it­self as a de­sire to trans­form the dis­in­te­grat­ing, ne­glected city and “alien­ated ur­ban life.” 24

These de­mands have in time evolved into the right to a prop­erty to in­habit and to the ap­pro­pri­a­tion of one’s own neigh­bor­hood as a so­cial space for ev­ery­day life, be­fore broad­en­ing to en­com­pass other neigh­bor­hoods and İs­tan­bul. In some neigh­bor­hoods and for some ac­tors, this strug­gle be­gan to cover claims from the ur­ban to the en­vi­ron­men­tal spheres and from health to trans­porta­tion, and be­gan to rep­re­sent hopes and op­por­tu­ni­ties for a bet­ter so­ci­ety. The man­i­festo claimed that the right to a dwelling su­per­seded a prop­erty’s ex­change value and that the re-ap­pro­pri­a­tion of neigh­bor­hoods is valid, with public spa­ces and ar­eas of his­tor­i­cal her­itage be­com­ing val­ued in terms of peo­ple’s con­trol over the pro­duc­tion and use of ur­ban space.

This is also a claim for the right to cen­tral­ity -to refuse to leave cen­tral ur­ban spa­ces and for peo­ple to make their own de­ci­sions about their neigh­bor­hoods and com­mon spa­ces. Ex­am­ples of this in­clude, in İs­tan­bul alone, the con­struc­tion of the third bridge over the Bosporus and the Gezi Park pro­ject in Tak­sim Square. One could also cite trans­for­ma­tions af­fect­ing ru­ral ar­eas else­where in the coun­try, such as hy­dro­elec­tric power plants. The in­ter­na­tional call for ac­tion at the Euro­pean So­cial Fo­rum, ini­ti­ated by ac­tivists and neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tions, led to new con­nec­tions and lo­cal and transna­tional links pro­vid­ing a flow of in­for­ma­tion and sup­port be­tween new ac­tors all over the world.

Due to the pi­o­neer­ing ef­forts of ac­tivists from both within and out­side neigh­bor­hoods, com­bined with the power of the idea they were fight­ing for -both as a dis­cussed idea and a con­tested slo­gan -the “right to the city” cre­ated tem­po­rary coali­tions, protests and cam­paigns, all of which took a va­ri­ety of forms depend­ing on the dif­fer­ent groups and ac­tors. Start­ing from the right to stay in one’s home and neigh­bor­hood, res­i­dents are claim­ing and defin­ing the “right to the city” in terms of ap­pro­pri­a­tion, cen­tral­ity and par­tic­i­pa­tion in de­ci­sion-mak­ing about “ur­ban com­mons” such as Tak­sim Square, and re­sist­ing ur­ban in­ter­ven­tions.

How­ever, the “right to the city” has in prac­tice re­mained the fo­cus of small groups of ac­tivists within and out­side neigh­bor­hoods. In the dia­lec­tic be­tween the­ory and prac­tice and in hu­man and so­cio-spa­tial terms, the “right to the city” must be de­fined by dif­fer­ent ur­ban grass­roots groups and by in­hab­i­tants them­selves. Ur­ban op­po­si­tion groups must take ac­tion col­lec­tively, ini­tially fo­cus­ing on hous­ing is­sues but even­tu­ally broad­en­ing to other fields. The strug­gle for the “right to the city” does not just re­sult in new slo­gans, imag­i­na­tions and strate­gies on the way to

The ‘right to the city’ has in prac­tice re­mained the fo­cus of smal groups of acti vists

a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent and just city of the fu­ture25; the “right to the city” cre­ates cracks in cap­i­tal­ism, 26 and as one of the most prom­i­nent ac­tivists stated: This is a move­ment that is grow­ing more and more. The cracks are grow­ing in cap­i­tal­ism, so we aren’t wait­ing for a revo­lu­tion. […] How­ever, ev­ery strug­gle and ev­ery ac­tion that we have pur­sued is to­day re­sult­ing in new forms of protest. Ev­ery strug­gle that we are tak­ing part in to­day must be part of the so­cial or­der of the fu­ture. Oth­er­wise, this or­der will col­lapse to­day and to­mor­row another or­der will take its place. We have to quit this strat­egy and form another, so that that we can cre­ate cracks to­day. 27 This is an ur­ban prob­lem, de­fined by the ac­cu­mu­la­tion and dis­pos­ses­sion of the as­sets of low-in­come ur­ban pop­u­la­tions. Ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties have been lost for the ben­e­fit of

This is an ur­ban prob­lem, de­fined by the acc umu­lati on and dis­pos­ses­sion of the as­sets of low-in­come ur­ban pop­u­lati ons

cap­i­tal­ist en­clo­sures and con­trol mech­a­nisms, lead­ing to forced dis­place­ment in cities. Such projects in Tur­key have led to protests that have erupted against de­ci­sions con­cern­ing the uti­liza­tion of space by those who are ex­cluded from cen­tral ur­ban ar­eas in spa­tial and po­lit­i­cal terms. It is nec­es­sary to un­der­line that strate­gic and tem­po­rary al­liances and cam­paigns have cre­ated the po­ten­tial for suc­cess­ful strug­gles, and have also given hope to neigh­bor­hoods and ur­ban op­po­si­tion groups for the for­ma­tion of new types of or­ga­ni­za­tions and new col­lec­tiv­i­ties. Although the goals and at­ti­tudes of dif­fer­ent groups, lo­cal-level ac­tivists and or­ga­ni­za­tions in İs­tan­bul can be dif­fer­ent and can vary within ur­ban strug­gles for the right to and be­yond the city, they have paved the way for com­mon ac­tions, sol­i­dar­i­ties and prac­tices; “new ur­ban com­mons” for a bet­ter so­ci­ety.


The in­hab­i­tants of neigh­bor­hoods such as Ayazma have been re­lo­cated to newly built so­cial hous­ing ar­eas lo­cated far from the city cen­ter.

Oct . 7, 2006 PHOTO: ZA­MAN

Ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion projects in­volve not only residential ar­eas but also so­cial and com­mon spa­ces such as the Emek Movie Theater.


Pro­tes­tors de­mand the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a rul­ing to halt the de­mo­li­tion

of the Emek Movie Theater.

July 28, 2013 PHOTO: REUTERS, MUrat sezer

The ‘right to the

city’ is also a re­fusal to leave cen­tral ur­ban


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