Trees versus Concrete: Deforestation in the North Bosphorus Region and Civil Society Responses

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3. Köprü inşaatı 1 Nisan 2014

Despite the rapid growth of the megacity Istanbul, vast areas in the north of the city are still forested. Due to urban sprawl and the implementation of enormous infrastructure projects, these areas are under heavy pressure. Large-scale deforestation is underway, which could change the ecological balance in the region and negatively affect the quality of life in Istanbul. Currently, up to 4 million trees are cleared in connection to the construction of the 3rd Bosphorus bridge and a new airport, and this might just be the beginning. Against the background of this threat, Turkish environmentalists have organized protests and taken up the fight against deforestation. Due to problems with democratic decision-making and the rule of law, civil society efforts have so far shown very limited results. One of the pressing questions of the future, therefore, will be which other options are available to civil society to respond to the threat of deforestation. 

What is at stake: Istanbul’s Green Lungs

North of the megacity of Istanbul, large green areas to both sides of the Bosphorus comprise terrestrial ecosystems such as forests, meadows, farmlands, and wetlands. While the southern part between Marmara and Black Sea is densely populated, the northern area is still less affected by the growth of the metropolis. Most of the northern Bosphorus region is forested. Important forests on the west side of the Bosphorus include the Arnavutköy Forests as well as the Belgrade Forests. The latter are at least 8,500 years old. Tree species in the respective areas include chestnut, maritime pines, stone pines, Turkish pines, black pines, oaks, hornbeams, ash trees, limes, alders and cedar-type trees.

The dense forests in the Northern Bosphorus region are on the list of the 100 forests in Europe with the most urgent need for protection. They serve several important functions both for human well-being and natural balance. They produce oxygen, while winds from the Black Sea transport this clean air to the city of Istanbul. Besides, providing water to the city of Istanbul is a function that the Northern Forests have fulfilled for centuries and up until now. For locals, especially the Belgrade Forests serve as important recreational areas. The special importance of these ecosystems for vegetation results from their position at the intersection of three large geographical areas: the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and Iran-Turan. The Northern Forests are furthermore located on one of the most important bird migration paths in the world; birds can rest here during their journeys. Up to now, the comparably low degree of fragmentation has provided good conditions for wildlife to develop.

Urban Sprawl and Megaprojects – the Drivers of Deforestation

Due to urban sprawl, the construction of infrastructure projects and other human interference, the ecosystems in the north of Istanbul have been under considerable pressure in recent years. Deforestation has a long history in the region around Istanbul. Since the rapid spread of the city started in the 20th century, forested areas and other ecosystems have been shrinking rapidly. In the 2009 Istanbul Environmental Plan Report, a further spread along the Marmara Sea was suggested, while the Northern Forests and other ecosystems have been described as areas with a high protection need. However, looking at recent developments, the contrary is the case and urban sprawl towards the North continues.

One of the main drivers of the pressure on forests is urban sprawl. The term refers to the expansion of an urban area to accommodate its growing population. Urban sprawl has been a major issue in Istanbul since the 1950s. The main reason for the rapid spread of the city is migration from rural areas and from other countries to Istanbul. There is a clear connection between large-scale infrastructure projects and urban sprawl. Transportation network proximity matters for urban growth in Istanbul. New settlement areas appear along highway areas and along the bridges, as it could be observed after the construction of the first two Bosphorus crossings (1973 and 1988). Their opening resulted in a northward grow of the city and in a destruction of forested areas north of Istanbul.

In the same way, current mega-projects can serve as catalysts and further accelerate the growth of the city of Istanbul. This is what is likely to happen in the case of the North of Istanbul. The most prominent projects currently underway are the third Bosporus Bridge (Yavuz-Sultan-Selim Bridge), the third airport on the shore of the Black Sea, and the construction of a canal that would connect Black Sea and Marmara Sea parallel to the Bosphorus. These projects are interconnected with other development and infrastructure projects in the region.

The Yavuz-Sultan-Selim-Bridge is the third bridge connecting the European and the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus. Construction began in 2013. On March 6, 2016, the last section of the bridge has been installed. The opening is expected for August 2016. The bridge is located in the northern forest area near the Black Sea, connecting Garipçe in Sarıyer on the European side and Poyrazköy in Beykoz on the Anatolian side. The bridge is part of the Northern Marmara Motorway project that will connect Edirne and Izmit. Therefore, it is not only an isolated project. Expected environmental damages have to be seen in the context of a large-scale highway project including 115 kms of highways, connecting roads, and 35 viaducts. The official investment value is 4.5 billion TL, and the project will be carried out through a Build-Operate-Transfer mechanism. There have been over 30 lawsuits filed against the construction of the bridge due to environmental, social, procedural and other concerns. The third bridge has not undergone an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process (Turkish: ÇED). According to an amendment to Turkish Environmental law, projects were exempted from submitting an EIA report if they had been included into financial planning before 1997. Recently, the Council of State, in line with a decision of the Constitutional Court in 2014, has annulled the exemption of these projects from the EIA process. Consequently, the third bridge must be taken under an EIA; however, so far the process has not been started.

Likewise controversial is the construction of Istanbul’s third airport close to Yeniköy and Akpınar at the coast of the Black Sea. The airport is planned to be one of the biggest in the world, built for 150 mio. passengers yearly and featuring six runways. A Public-Private-Partnership has been set up to implement the project. It has started in 2015 and is expected to be finished by 2018, although this is currently questionable. In connection with the airport, a number of other construction projects are likely to follow. An EIA report has been filed for the project, receiving heavy criticism from experts and activists. Critics of the project furthermore state that the area of the planned airport is oversized and point to the fact that the architectural consortium has announced “commerce and shopping centers” that will emerge in connection with the airport. The notion of an Aerotropolis illustrates the idea that the actual aim of the project is not to build an airport close to a city, but that rather that the airport serves as a motive to build a city around it.

A third megaproject in the Bosphorus region is the construction of a canal that is supposed to connect the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. The 45 km-long Kanal Istanbul would run parallel to the Bosphorus on the Western side. Although the project is said to be strongly desired by Turkey’s president Erdoğan, its actual implementation is not yet certain. Currently, different locations are under discussion. Critical reports point to the devastating effects for the balance of waters in the region, including a loss of water quality and the alternation of migratory routes for fish. Experts also warn that the project could drain the Black Sea if the depth of the canal is not sufficient. Besides the environmental concerns, the financing of this enormous project is still unclear. While the Kanal Istanbul is supposed to relocate shipping traffic from the Bosphorus to the new canal, it would also trigger a lot of connected infrastructure investments again for housing, bridges, electricity etc.     

These examples point to a general criticism towards these kinds of projects in Turkey. While they are announced as transportation projects, they mainly seem to serve the construction sector and trigger further investments in the respective area. At the same time, urban planners criticize that none of these projects will substantially solve traffic problems in Istanbul, but rather induce additional traffic through the existing opportunity structures.

Deforestation and Related Environmental Threats

Due to the aforementioned developments, a major environmental damage appears through deforestation and other detrimental environmental changes. In connection with the two megaprojects currently under construction, a number of up to 4 million trees will be removed. This calculation consists of approximately 2,5 mio. trees on the area of the third airport and 1,5 mio. trees in connection with the third Bosphorus bridge. For the third airport, the total project area is 7.650 ha. of which more than 80% is forested land and another 9% are lakes and ponds. For the bridge, 740 ha. of oak, conifer and other woodland species will be lost just within the 60,5 meter-wide construction corridor, while reports acknowledge that a corridor of between 500m and 5 km has to be taken into account in order to assess deforestation and other ecological damages. Fragmentation of forest lands is another issue as 80% of the area where the connected motorways pass through is forested land.

The construction of megaprojects often serves as a start signal for further urban sprawl and related large-scale construction processes. This is the reason why environmental effects go far beyond the currently observable directly related threats. These impacts cannot be calculated at this point. Although deforestation has a long history in the region, the threat is currently comparably higher, since the aforementioned projects circle in the city and could result in a more substantial change. If Istanbul is deprived of its forests, water basins and other crucial ecosystems, the basis of existence of the city might be threatened. Between 1975 and 2005, the share of forests on the total surface of the Istanbul province has decreased from 51% to 41%. This development continues and currently accelerates.

The direct ecological impacts in connection with deforestation are diverse. A degradation of water basins is expected, since forests serve the function to balance the water regime. For hundreds of years, especially the Belgrad forests have served as the main source for potable and domestic water for the city of Istanbul. The area comprises the Istranca, Terkos, Büyükçekmece, Alibeyköy and Sazlıdere basins on the European side, and Ömerli, Elmalı and Darlık basins on the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus. These areas are also expected to be exposed to a higher residential pressure.

Air quality in the respective area as well as in the city of Istanbul will be reduced significantly. Through deforestation, the absorption capacity of greenhouse gases will decrease and the filter function of the North forests will deteriorate. Since meteorological patterns show that the wind blows predominantly from the North West, this will be felt in the city of Istanbul. Once the highway and the airport will be opened, emissions from vehicles and planes will be transported directly to the city. Forest loss will also result in a loss of the climatic cooling function in summer, thereby making Istanbul more vulnerable to the heat island effect.

The negative effects on biodiversity will include shrinking spaces, loss of resting places for migrating birds and negative effects on plant migration routes. Fragmentation is another issue, since some of the construction sites cut directly through the habitats. The construction of roads in connection with the third bridge cuts the forestland in two parts, which will make it harder for species to migrate from North to South. Apart from the environmental effects, the mentioned infrastructure projects receive heavy criticism due to work safety issues on the construction sites, ‘urgent expropriations’ and the social impacts of the projects that will deprive fishermen and farmers of their livelihoods.

Civil Society Responses

Deforestation in the northern Bosphorus region has received considerable attention, and different groups of Turkish civil society have voiced their concerns over the developments. Activists especially from the Northern parts of Istanbul had opposed forest loss and construction projects in the area for quite some time, for instance through the Platform for Life against the Bridge. Opposition increased considerably in the wake of the Gezi resistance 2013. These civil society protests had been triggered by the planned destruction of a park in Istanbul’s Taksim area. Environmental issues have been at the root of the Gezi movement.

The most active and most visible group opposing the project is the Northern Forests Defense, Kuzey Ormanları Savunması (KOS). This platform emerged in the aftermath of the Gezi protests when the Platform for Life against the Bridge joined forces with environmentalists including youth groups who established KOS right after Gezi. The main environmental groups working on the issue are all members of KOS. It comprises experts and academics as well as young political activists and locals that are affected by the projects (farmers, fishers etc.). Weekly meetings are held; the decision-making process of the grass-roots group is based on consensus. Besides KOS, there are other smaller local groups working on the issue. Major environmental NGOs in Turkey work on the issue as well, but deforestation is not their only focus.

Although the negative environmental and social impacts of the developments are obvious, it is important to state that not all local communities oppose the construction projects. In some affected villages, the vast majority of residents support construction projects despite the environmental damages, while only a handful of people are in opposition to it. This interesting situation can be partially explained through a strong trust or obedience to decisions of the AKP government. A second explanation provides the hope for individual benefits, be it through rising land prices or through emerging tourism. Activists from KOS stated that they have not found a spirit of resistance in these villages, which would have enabled them to cooperate on the issue of deforestation.

On a general note, civil society has a very hard time to oppose deforestation and environmental degradation in connection with projects like the third Bosphorus bridge or the third airport. These projects are implemented in a top-down manner on orders from the Turkish government. Public consultation is lacking. Even the municipality of Istanbul was vastly excluded from the decision-making process, which points to a conflict of authorities. This means that possibilities to exert influence prior to the project implementation were very limited. It was only after all decisions had been taken, that locals were informed about the measures. A mutual exchange of ideas, scenarios and alternatives did not take place. According to activists, government and ministry officials are generally not willing to discuss the impacts or even the projects themselves with civil society organizations.  

KOS has organized rallies, protests and social media campaigns. They also carry out research, publish reports and focus on awareness-raising. Concerning the third airport, KOS has published a comprehensive report covering the project and its problematic implications. Another civil society strategy in order to oppose deforestation activities is the legal battle against construction projects. Many of these lawsuits have been brought by professional chambers such as the Chamber of Urban Planners or the Chamber of Architects. According to activists, many legal possibilities to challenge the ongoing projects are currently closed; existing laws are changed or abolished. Environmental and land use plans have been changed during ongoing lawsuits in order to escape current jurisdiction. Even if cases were won, projects have not been halted or suspended. Therefore, together with a further deterioration of the rule of law in Turkey, the legal battle has not proven as a successful option to counter the ongoing projects. The eroding rule of law in Turkey in connection with megaprojects has also been a main issue in a conference in Brussels in January 2016, where environmental justice challenges were discussed between Turkish civil society and European decision-makers.

It has to be stated that environmental movements, locals, experts and civil society NGOs have so far not been successful in effectively countering the deforestation and environmental destruction in the region. Although these groups are very active, they have to deal with considerable obstacles through the current political system in Turkey. There is clearly an imbalance between civil society opponents on the one side and supporters from politics and business on the other side. In recent years, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest and to demonstrations have been under threat. Arrests, court cases and state violence have appeared in connection with environmental conflicts in Turkey.

Besides awareness-raising, protests, rallies, civil disobedience and legal means, environmental groups are currently reconsidering their strategies how to react to the challenges. Since these approaches have been less successful so far, creating international attention might be another very decisive field of action. Expectations were high that environmental infringements as well as democratic and juridical concerns would be addressed in the wake of the EU accession talks. In the current political situation, however, the accession talks have become a symbolic issue, and environmental concerns are certainly not on top of the agenda. Nevertheless, it was one of the outcomes of the Brussels meeting that the EU and international partners would still have the tools to influence the Turkish reform agenda in a positive way.

Another way of exerting international influence is through the control of investments and funding. Many European banks invest considerably in megaprojects in Turkey, although the environmental effects run counter to EU climate and environmental aims. Local banks involved in the projects receive their funds from major international banks like the World Bank or development banks. It could be one option to approach financiers of these questionable projects in order to limit environmental effects like deforestation. There is a strong need for a bank watch in order to better monitor the capital flows. While this discussion comes too late for the third bridge, even for the airport the Turkish government had problems to find foreign investors since the project seemed too risky. According to economists, finding foreign investors will also be the crux of projects like Kanal Istanbul.

 It is obvious that deforestation in the Northern Bosphorus region as well as other environmental issues in Turkey cannot be considered without reference to more fundamental problems in the country. This includes the deterioration of the rule of law as well as democratic deficits and the lack of consultation mechanisms. In this situation, civil society responses have so far shown limited results to counter environmental degradation. At the same time, the long-term effects of deforestation in the region will be adverse for residents and nature. Against this background, activists and civil society have to find new ways how to target the drivers of deforestation such as urban sprawl and large-scale construction projects.


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