Urban planning, a battlefield of politics in Turkey

Teaser Image Caption
Taksim area of Istanbul

While Turkey is heading towards a constitutional referendum, that might change the nature of Turkish politics, the government has accelerated its urban planning policies.

In the crosshairs of said policies is the city of Istanbul, long the location of disputed urban planning and renewal. Two projects stand out: the urban transformation project on the Asian neighbourhood of Fikirtepe, and the plan to build a new mosque at Taksim Square.

Urban planning has long been an often neglected aspect in analyzing Turkish politics, even while it has impacted heavily on how Turkish decision makers organise electoral majorities.

Urban planning  has played a role in the emergence of political Islam as a significant actor in Turkey. Not only did current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gain public recognition as the successful mayor of Istanbul, it was his promise to the population of Istanbul, where 18,000 people had lost their lives in the 1999 earthquake, that necessary urban transformation would be undertaken to make the city safe for future disasters. In 2007, one million buildings were expected to be demolished in the initial phase of this transformation that would make Istanbul an earthquake prone city.

However critics have questioned this official discourse, citing examples of many of the urban transformation projects that did not target the most disaster prone areas, but those neighbourhoods, where the poorest segments of society – Kurdish IDPs, Roma or the socially marginalized – lived.

In 2011, Fikirtepe emerged as the first case of a transformation project in an urban area of mixed middle class settlements. The process was set up as a win-win game, whereby contractors would would provide the the property owners with newly built flats in exchange of the demolished old ones. But some property owners were not satisfied with what they were offered and a single house in the middle of the construction site became the symbol of a failed approach in Fikirtepe. A foreign investor, Stern Immobilien GmbH from Germany partner of the Turkish Vartaş Yapı for the construction of 3000 apartments withdrew after the coup attempt of 2016.

Now suddenly the project is on the agenda again. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım went to Fikirtepe last week to open, what the media labelled a whole new project now with government funding involved. İLBANK (the financial body under the Ministry of Environment and Urbanism) and the Istanbul Housing Master Plan Enterprise (developer agency under the Istanbul municipality) suddenly feature as key partners in the project.

Urban planning is also an aspect in the ongoing struggle for symbolic hegemony in Turkish society. The plan to build a mosque at Taksim Square is an indicator for that..  Taksim is not just any square in the city, but the heart of republican Istanbul and the symbolic centre of the secular elites. The plan has been on the agenda of Turkey’s Islamists since half a century, and of Mr Erdoğan since two decades. Different ideas were circulated for alternative locations around the square, yet public and political criticism held back the authorities realizing any of these plans.

After the shopping mall project in Gezi Park, adjacent to Taksim Square sparked massive protests in 2013, Taksim has acquired a symbolic importance for Erdoğan. A couple of days after the failed coup attempt last summer, Erdogan said“God willing, first we will build the historical barracks at Taksim, whether they like it or not [...] (and then) we will build the Taksim Mosque ...”

That this project is now back on the agenda, at a time, when the fundaments of the Turkish republic are set to change, is probably no coincidence.