Urban renewal in the popular districts of Istanbul

The fight of the inhabitants against the demolition of their places of life

Derya OZEL, 2008

Collection Passerelle

«   City of encounter, city crossroads, city-world, universal cradle of civilizations   »  : superlatives flourish to designate Istanbul. The metropolis is promised a future as a large international city by local leaders.

Istanbul  : urban ambitions out of step with residents’ expectations

Internationalization corresponds to an old dream of Turkish elites to modernize and westernize the metropolis. The realization of this project has continued to accelerate since the coming to power of the Party for Justice and Development (note) 1 in 2004. This ambition is legitimized in public discourse by the need to develop equipment. and the prestige of the city. The municipality of Greater Istanbul seeks to «   bring the city to international standards  ", that is to say to make it attractive for the outside world and in particular for tourism - «   classic   » (on the model of Paris) but also commercial (on the model of Dubai). But these dreams of grandeur seem completely out of place in the light of the daily concerns of residents, who find it difficult to grasp the reason for these changes from which they do not benefit.

The ideology of urban renewal

These great ambitions are not part of a city project, which would take into account the metropolitan scale and its development  : on the contrary, we think of the urban development of Istanbul by project and by district. It is moreover fairer, in the Istanbul context, to speak of “  urban transformation  ” (kentsel dönüsüm), which refers to the Anglo-Saxon model (“  urban regeneration  ”) than of “   urban renewal   »French  : private actors, who benefit from delegations from the public authorities, are in fact at the heart of these operations. Rather than rehabilitating or making improvements to the urban fabric, we prefer to destroy entire neighborhoods and rebuild them, in degraded historic centers or in outlying neighborhoods of spontaneous housing (gecekondu). The seismic threat serves as a technical alibi for elected officials to justify the demolitions of the targeted neighborhoods, which are also singled out in the media as «   hotbeds of terrorism, prostitution, drug trafficking …   » . Behind these alibis hide less obvious reasons  : to recover well-located public land to resell them, to develop investments and to eradicate from the urban fabric neighborhoods whose image does not correspond to a « modern » city.

A platform for residents against the demolition of their neighborhoods  : IMDP Istanbul mahalle dernekleri platformu

It was the Symposium on Urban Renewal organized by the Chamber of Urban Planners in Ankara in November 2006 that served as a catalyst for the unification of residents of various parts of Istanbul threatened with demolition. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss and debate the problems linked to urban transformation (social, technical, institutional, legal…). This type of event is generally used for these professional chambers to establish their role as lobby vis-à-vis public decision-making.

During the preparation of the symposium, the inhabitants of 8 districts met to produce a common press release. Over the months, the platform has strengthened with the arrival of new participants and neighborhoods in the mobilization. Today, it brings together local associations from 18 neighborhoods. Located on the outskirts of the city, but well integrated into the Istanbul urban fabric, these neighborhoods are former slums that have acquired legal status over successive waves of regularization. With a history of several decades, they have all the basic services thanks to the efforts and the will of the municipalities but above all of the inhabitants who have built them themselves. These neighborhoods are now in the crosshairs of profit-seeking investors who are exacerbating land speculation. Their geographical location, close to road infrastructure or with a view of the Bosphorus, is particularly coveted.

The development plans of the district town halls are not always known with precision, but residents suspect the dangers hanging over the future of their neighborhoods. Faced with the threat, illusions are not great as to the inevitability of urban renewal plans, but the demands are firm  : «   we want to stay in our neighborhoods and participate in the definition of the projects developed by the town hall  ".

The Gülsuyu district experience

The Gülsuyu district is located on the Asian side of Istanbul. Close to communication routes such as the E-5 motorway, the district is well integrated into the urban fabric (proximity to the airport, universities, large shopping centers, other “  central  ” districts on the Asian side. …). Its geographical advantages make it even more attractive  : resistance to seismic risks, air quality (it has extensive forest areas), panorama of the Sea of ​​Marmara and the islands. The district covers 200 hectares and has about 27,000 inhabitants (according to an estimate by the Municipality of Maltepe in 2003  ; 50,000/60,000 according to the inhabitants).

The neighborhood was formed for the most part spontaneously and illegally but benefited from regularization practices (that of 1989 legalized 60% of the occupation). The development of the district led to the formation of two separate entities, Gülsuyu and Gülensu, which today depend on two different town halls.

In 2004, residents discovered that a general urban development plan concerned their neighborhood. The mayor is responsible for consulting the residents, but the residents dispute  : what is the meaning of a consultation if the plan has already been drawn up and approved without them  ? What to do then  ? Remain mobilized together or resign themselves and accept the operation as it is  ? A wave of information and communication begins in the cafes, in the homes of the inhabitants, in the common rooms. 7,000 letters of opposition to this development plan were sent to the Municipality of Maltepe. 32 lawsuits are open for the cancellation of the plan with the financial support of the inhabitants themselves (1,130 people). The use of legal tools gives them hope that justice will be favorable to them. But as advocates for the movement point out, the ongoing trials cannot replace the daily mobilization and organization.

Following these protests, the metropolitan town hall changes the urban development plan, which represents a small victory for the inhabitants. More informed, they then seek to understand this new project with the support of experts and lawyers. It is again rejected by 4,000 letters addressed to the town hall. However, he is recognized as an exemplary innovation  : he specifies that local application plans at the district level must be participatory and involve the mayors of districts, local associations, academics and professional chambers. Meetings are being organized again to determine how the residents will get involved in this operation. There is consensus in the neighborhood about the interest of the proposal, even if we remain cautious about the real intentions of the town hall. As a precautionary measure, a lawsuit for the cancellation of the plan is envisaged, in case the participation processes do not suit the inhabitants. Because, until now, development plans have been synonymous with destruction and disrespect for the right to housing (note) 1.

The Planning Directorate of Istanbul Metropolitan City Hall requested Mimar Sinan University to participate in the development of the participation model for the Gülsuyu district. He set up an action research in the district with the inhabitants so that they know better their place of life. The result of this work was not taken into account by the town hall and did not lead to the effective involvement of the inhabitants in the development of the project. It had at least the merit of leading to the election of street representatives (more than 300), who form the link between the inhabitants at the street level and the neighborhood association. Today, the inhabitants of Gülsuyu feel empowered in their legitimacy to participate in the reflection and decisions concerning the future of their neighborhood. They are ready to intervene in front of the town hall, in the form of dialogue or direct confrontation. The resistance of the residents of this neighborhood has become a case study in terms of the role that residents can play today in urban renewal projects in Istanbul.

(note) 1 The Justice and Development party is Islamist and liberal in tendency.

(note) 2 Note that the right to housing is contained in article 57 of the Turkish constitution.


PEROUSE Jean-François, “  Istanbul, between Paris and Dubai  :“ international   ”compliance, cleaning and resistance  ”, in BERRY-CHIKHAOUI Isabelle, DEBOULET Agnès, ROULLEAU-BERGER Laurence, International Cities  : between tensions and reactions of the inhabitants, La Découverte, Research collection, Paris, 2007

Site of the (http://imdp.blogcu.com/) istanbuliote platform of neighborhood associations (Istanbul Mahalle Dernekleri Platformu, IMDP)

This sheet was originally published in n ° 1 of the Passerelle Collection. You can find the PDF of the issue (https://www.coredem.info/IMG/pdf/europe_pas_sans_toit-2.pdf) Europe  : not without a roof  ! The accommodation in question