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
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.
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.
The ‘right to the
city’ is also a refusal to leave central urban