Talk of the town: Is 'urban transformation' of Istanbul another name for urban looting?

People are increasingly reacting negatively to urban transformation projects which have long been viewed as prestigious moves of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, according to a news story by Today’s Zaman:

Under a law concerning areas that are at risk of natural disaster, which entered into effect on May 16, 2012, after the earthquake in Van, one-third of the buildings in Turkey need to be demolished and remade.

As part of an urban transformation project that was officially started by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Nov. 5, 2012, more than 500,000 houses in 25 districts including Esenler, Bağcılar, Gaziosmanpaşa, Zeytinburnu, Pendik, Kartal, Küçükçekmece, Sarıyer, Bayrampaşa, Güngören, Sultangazi, Tuzla, Kadıköy, Beşiktaş and Üsküdar will be destroyed within a short period of time. However, there are now concerns that this ambitious project will affect thousands of people.

Gülizar Karslıoğlu, whose house was partially demolished by local authorities, left her home with her daughter and granddaughter. Karslıoğlu, who lives in the Sarıgöl district — which is part of the transformation project — says that they faced intimidation and threats by construction firms despite the fact that they had been assured procedures would be performed fairly. Karslıoğlu says that she takes cares of her mother, who is 85: “We stayed hungry sometimes to build our home. But now the municipality and the construction firm are doing their best to take it away from us. We were threatened by local authorities to leave immediately and that even the rest of the building could be demolished.”

Even after being partially demolished, the rents for homes in Sarıgöl have increased dramatically. Noting that rental subsidies given to land and homeowners would not be enough, Fatma Kartal says that they are trying to coordinate people who are affected by this process in an attempt to defend their rights.

Saying that they are unable to sleep well at night because of the unsafe environments, Kartal also said: “We want transformation here. We do not want to go anywhere else. We spent our childhood here. But the views of the people are not taken into account. We do not want to live in concrete cages.” Minister of Environment and Urban Planning İdris Güllüce, who visited the Esenler district last week, stressed that people’s consent was very important in the urban transformation projects.

Sabahat, who is opposed to the demolition of her house, says that she takes care of her handicapped brother. She asks how they can live in a flat after the demolition. Recalling that the landlord is not collecting rent at the moment because of their financial difficulties, Sabahat further says that she would have to pay rent after the transformation. She also says that promises made to the tenants before the start of the project have gone unfulfilled.

There are also growing concerns that the urban transformation is a huge process where large amounts of money will be made and distributed to certain groups, given that only strategic areas are being subjected to this process.

The Cumhuriyet neighborhood in Sultangazi, an oasis between concrete buildings, has a magnificent view and location along the TEM Highway. Şenol Arslan, a resident in the district who notes that this area was declared a risk last year without the consent of the local people, also says that he was told that his house was at-risk because it does not comply with a 2007 directive. Indicating that his house attracts the attention of construction firms because of its location, Arslan notes that he filed a lawsuit at the Council of State. He said that even the parks were declared to be at-risk, and stressed that the mayor himself made some promises but these promises were not kept at all.

Noting that they are told to talk to GEDAŞ construction firm, an affiliate of the state-run Mass Housing Development Administration (TOKİ), Arslan says that they formed the Site-Der association to protect their rights last year. Seval Büyükarıkan, who also lives in the same district, argues that the government, municipality and the construction firm try to weaken the resistance of the people and that this seriously injures the social interaction between the residents. Under the urban transformation project announced by Erdoğan, 2 out of 6 million of the buildings in all of Turkey should be renewed immediately. About 500,000 of these buildings are in İstanbul. Arslan, arguing that most of the residents were intimidated so that they would sign a consent paper, says that the people feel that they have to comply with what they are asked to do.

Mücella Yapıcı, secretary-general of the İstanbul branch of the Chamber of Architects, notes that all the legal guards protecting İstanbul were removed to attract foreign investment. Recalling that İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş converted the mega-city transformation project devised by former mayor Ali Müfit Gürtüna into earthquake-based projects, Yapıcı also says that the government seems to be relying on economist Friedman’s thesis that the people would do anything after a disaster and that the law introduced right after the earthquake in Van is the best example of this.

Noting that there is no control mechanism for the municipal activities, Yapıcı further says: “Likewise, TOKİ, which has become a monopoly in the field of construction, is not controlled. It is allowed to implement any plan in any place or area. It is authorized to initiate a process of expropriation, annuls any land deed and employs anyone it wants. In addition, it builds roads, ports and military outposts.”

Assistant Professor Özge Yücel from Maltepe University notes that people in the cities should be able to live a decent life. Stressing that the human dimension of the problem is never considered in the areas subjected to urban transformation, Dericiler also argues that the only priority in this process is whether or not the buildings are earthquake-proof.

Asım Hallaç, who lives in İstanbul’s Karagümrük neighborhood, notes that the bill on the natural disasters is exploited by some contractors; he also calls on the people who live in the areas of urban transformation not to bow to intimidation and threats. Recalling that they took the transformation project in Sulukule to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and that they expect a decision confirming their stance, Hallaç also notes that despite domestic court judgments supporting their approach, the political administration remains dedicated to the project.

Noting that the Sulukule transformation project, which was presented to the Turkish people as an ambitious initiative, is actually a dead move and that this became a place hosting the Syrians who escaped the civil war in their country, Hallaç underlines that the same thing could happen in other parts as well. Hallaç argues that the government, the municipalities and construction firms collectively seek to address the resistance of the owners and then take their properties away from them.

İsmail Altıntoprak, the muhtar of Karagümrük, has closely followed what happened in Sulukule. Altıntoprak, who has been serving as muhtar for three decades, burst into tears when talking about the neighborhood’s past. He says people are no longer happy in this place.

Seyfi Süngü, a friend of his for five decades, recalls the entire lineup of the Ed
irnekapı soccer team in the 1960s; he still remembers their names: “Goalie Petro, right defender Sotiri, left defender Yani, right attacker Laki, midfielder Yanço, who also played for the Greek national team, and Vasil. Our Captain Kris and Arto, other players on the team, were Armenian. A left defender, Alaattin, was called Aleko because the majority of the team was Greek.”

Süngü, who says that he lives with his sister, is one of the rare people who have a place to live in Sulukule after the transformation process. He took the government offer reluctantly because he is not retired and does not have any regular income. Noting that their flat was appraised for TL 57,000 and that they had to pay an additional TL 27,000, Süngü argues that this amount then increased to TL 96,000. He says even this might change in the future and that they are unable to settle this debt.

One of the best examples of the irregularities in the urban transformation project, which allegedly cost $400 million, is a lack of attention to the general rules of demolition. More recently, one died in Altındağ, Ankara, due to irregular demolition to reduce the costs. Arguing that professional methods are not chosen because they are too costly, he says construction firms rely on unprofessional methods as this reduces the cost but increases the risks.

Mücella Yapıcı, who says the urban transformation projects actually started following the 1980 coup, recalls that the AK Party government decided to continue with them for some reason. Yapıcı says these projects revive the economy but that it is no longer viable to implement them.

Stressing that what is being done in these projects could be called urban looting rather than urban transformation, Yapıcı says firms and local authorities do not comply with the projects planned and devised by more than 500 experts from four universities in 2009.

Yapıcı, arguing that fast expropriation decisions are forms of intimidation and threats, says the entire ecosystem of İstanbul, including agricultural areas, watercourses, water reservoirs and green lands, is being marketed as part of the urban transformation project. Yapıcı also notes that his greatest fear is that even military zones and graveyards may be included in the scope of transformation in İstanbul.

The development plan of İstanbul did not originally include a third bridge, a third airport and the Kanal İstanbul project. The third airport is now being considered for construction to the north of İstanbul. The plan also shows that there are measures to ensure that the city does not expand northward. However, there are also fears that the north of the city will be included in the development plans after recent projects initiated by Erdoğan.

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