In the midst of construction on a scale that was formerly thought only to be found in China, Istanbul faces an uncertain future.
“In 2002 -2012 TOKI [Housing Development Administration of Turkey] has constructed 475,000 social housing units and approximately 80,000 upper-class units have been made by private-public partnership,” Özgür Bingöl, architecture professor at Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, said.
Starting in the 1950s, the city began to grow, from just over 1 million to the current population of well over 14 million. With such a population growth the housing stock grew at an equally rapid pace. The first solution was the gecekondu (squatter houses, literally meaning “built overnight”), neighborhoods that were built in what open space could be found. Soon after, new laws allowed for the legal ownership of such housing after which transformation to 5-10 story apartment blocks began.
“Seventy percent of the housing in Istanbul has been built in the 30 years and a quarter of it is at risk during earthquakes,” Sıla Akalp, strategic design manager and urban planner at Design in Kadakoy (TAK) said.
In August 1999, the geologically unstable region under the city of Istanbul produced a devastating earthquake. The death toll was in the thousands with much of the infrastructure collapsing. This tragedy sparked a serious effort by the government to improve the infrastructure of Istanbul to withstand natural disasters. In 2002, Turkey entered what is now known as the “AKP era,” after the acronym for the ruling Justice and Development Party. The AKP era saw the transformation of TOKI from its bank-like existence to a large and powerful land-owning developing entity. The gecekondu all but disappeared, while urban transformation, historic renewal, and mass housing developed.
Some of the gecekondu were changed into apartment blocks by previous residents. Others are being transformed by the government from illegal shanties into legal apartments. “The creation of new gecekondu has strict regulations" which makes it no longer possible to build them, Ali Emre, an architect in Istanbul, explained.
One of the few gecekondu that remains, Sahintepe, can be found in Kayabasi. It is a neighborhood located within the master plan of Kayabasi and will be redeveloped in the future. Süleyman Şahin, a member of the Gaziosmanpaşa housing rights council, explained the gecekondu as "more of a life style." This is characterized by houses with gardens, a tight-knit community, large families, and a lower density of residents. The image portrayed by Sahintepe is the very essence of what a gecekondu once was.
Unlike Sahintepe, across the Bosporus is the gecekondu neighborhood of Basibuyuk, where urban transformation is readily apparent. In the middle of a gecekondu, six large apartment towers were built as the first step of the transformation project. Current residents are gecekondu dwellers who do not own the land under their houses. As such they are under threat of losing their homes to the project that is quickly transforming Basibuyuk. The people who live there find solace in their respective residences. In one of the towers, a young banker who had just moved into his new apartment commented on how great it was and how big it was for him. Just down the way in the remaining gecekondu, its owner said he did not like the towers because his family wouldn't fit.
Apart from the gecekondu on the periphery, the city center is also changing. There historic restoration impacts the old neighborhoods. Locations were selected by the municipality as historically significant and thus an area for historical renewal. One such location undergoing this change is Tarlabasi. Centrally located, it is walking distance from a major business district and the main tourist areas. As such, this location is faced with the issue of “the land and location [becoming] more precious than the historic buildings,” Ali Emre said.
Buildings here are superb examples of 19th century art nouveau architecture. They were abandoned in the early 1900s when non-Muslims were expelled from the city. Later, as immigrants looked for housing in the city, these buildings were filled with the working poor. After Tarlabasi was chosen as a location for historical renewal, the land was slowly bought up by private developers, under the historic renewal law. Age, lack of upkeep, and neglect had left these buildings in a state of disrepair.
Mucella Yacipi, secretary for the Chamber of Architects in Istanbul, said, “It is not gentrification, it is more than that.” The project has been considered less than perfect as the old tenants who are forced out cannot find affordable housing.
North of the Ataturk Airport, examples of mass housing are readily apparent. Dr. Emrah Altinok, a professor at İstanbul’s Bilgi University-Santralistanbul Campus, said that the area of Kayabasi is the “heartland” of TOKI, one of their biggest ventures in the country.
In Kayabasi, TOKI commissioned the construction of prototypical towers. These towers are unmistakable as “all are based on prototype blocks.” Bingöl, explained, “There is no design involved. They have some types: B composed of 2-bedroom flats, C composed of 3-bedroom flats and CK composed of 4-bedroom flats.” These towers all look the same on the outside and are exactly the same on the inside.
"These towers are not conducive to the urban condition," said Bingöl.
Tension is increasing between groups of people that support the government in its endeavors and those who are actually affected and displaced by them. The ruling AKP party is able to push development of the city and, as a result, they have upset many people, though they have also satisfied enough to keep winning elections.
As a result of projects like Tarlabsi, Basibuyuk, and Sahintepe, many residents have been displaced. When asked about the rights of the renters who lived in the historic area threatened with evictions, Cihan Baysal, a housing rights activist, said, “[They have] no rights. They were thrown out."
When asked "What will happen in the future?" citizens, activists and academics all answer the same: "I don't know." The only thing that can be known for sure is that if these projects continue, Istanbul will be facing a larger social issue than housing. Displacement and social segregation will lead to unrest.
Architects and urban planners are working to create better designs for the future to provide alternatives for newly arrived migrants and others who have called Istanbul home for decades.