Why Istanbul is a Success for Some, 'Urban Plunder' for Others

February 4, 2015


In the past decade, Istanbul has undergone an immense political and economic transformation, making it “an ideal site to study the contradictory forces that come together to produce urban spaces,” says Duke University Turkish Studies professor Erdag Göknar.

Göknar is principal investigator of a year-long Rethinking Global Cities project at Duke, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that is investigating the complex, hybrid and contested cultural and human geographies of the following world cities — Bangkok, Beijing, Bogota, Cairo, Cape Town, Dubai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Mumbai, Tokyo and Vienna — in the context of national and global politics. (The centerpiece of this project is a conference this week, with the Febuary 5 keynote on “Virtual Uprisings: Tahrir Square” by Nezar Al Sayyad, Professor of Architecture, Design, Urban Planning & Urban History, UC Berkeley.)

As part of this project, Göknar invited Sibel Bozdoğan — a lecturer in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and Professor and Chair of the Department of Architecture at Kadir Has University in Turkey — to speak at Duke this past December.

Bozdoğan’s research, at the intersection of Turkish politics and urban renewal, examines the ways in which ideology shapes and is shaped by urban form and analyzes the tensions between state power and city space. Her work spans cross-cultural histories of modern architecture and urbanism in Europe, America, the Mediterranean and the Middle East with a specialization on Turkey.

On December 4 she addressed a Duke lecture hall packed with architecture, design, Turkish studies and Middle East scholars on the timely, if controversial, topic — “Urban Development as Politics of Performance: Istanbul’s Transformation under the AKP.”

Urban Plunder or Urban Renewal?

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power in the Turkish national government since 2002. The party’s founder and long time leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul (1994-98), was Turkey’s Prime Minister from 2003-2014, and has been Turkey’s President since summer 2014.

While Bozdoğan characterized Istanbul as a megacity and an “aspiring global city” that predates the AKP (witness President Halil Turgut Özal’s early 90s export oriented neoliberal economic development strategy), she stressed that what’s significant about the past decade or so of development is “the magnitude and the scale of this (AKP) push toward making Istanbul a global city and marketing it as a global city.”

“The AKP has brought unprecedented synergy and political will to transform the city (of Istanbul),” said Bozdoğan. “The picture is ambivalent at best. For some it’s a success story. For others it is an urban plunder basically.”

ErdoganHardhatErdoğan has a “master builder persona,” explained Bozdoğan, in a country that, according to journalist Yigal Schleifer, “has turned into a ‘constructocracy,’ with a domestic economy driven by the construction sector and ruled by a government that seems to believe that every new big construction project only gives it more legitimacy and prestige.”

Beginning about 2004, under AKP leadership, the greater metropolitan area of Istanbul underwent a significant geographical expansion and there was an aggressive government push to attract global capital, investments, finance, services and tourists.