Istanbul and The Socially Sustainable City

Many cities have invested to become more desirable places to visit, live in, and invest in. Civic boosterism is one the main tools in the shed of municipalities trying to compete over global capital. Around the world physical redevelopment, event hosting, and city marketing are embraced to achieve the economical and social goals of the city. It is all based on the theory that once capital is accumulated it will benefit all residents of a city (Harvey, 1989). But some researchers figure reality appears to be different. Urban entrepreneurialism seems to lead to marginalisation of the city’s residents. It only focuses on the consumption role of the city and less on the residential function. This path of policy leads in different extents to disparity and also friction (Eisinger, 2000).

In this paper it will be explored what it takes to make a city more socially sustainable, providing both for wealth distribution in favour of its citizens as well as a strong economical position. Is it possible to surpass the friction that comes with opening up to the visitor class? Or more holistic: what does it take to make physical redevelopment in cities more socially and economically sustainable?

Sustainability is about a balance between environment, people and economics. In this research the environmental factor is left out because the role of environmentalism in planning is very different from the social aspect. Though, in practice the three pillars can not be seen as exclusive.

The goal of this research is to find a socially more agreeable alternative to the negative effects of top-down large scale gentrification. Hopefully this paper can aid policy makers in achieving to create and sustain a socially balanced city.
Over the course of this research the following subjects shall be discussed: The shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism, socio-economic disparity as a result of flagship regeneration, the misconceptions of holistic sustainable development, challenges in collaborative planning, and answers to these challenges.

The aforementioned social friction, as a result of large scale top-down planning, has appeared all around the globe, but recently has become very evident and tenacious in Istanbul, Turkey. Planned redevelopment of the Taksim Square has led to an outburst of resentment against the top-down policies of the Turkish national government led by premier Erdogan (The Economist, 2013) (picture 1). Throughout this research the occurrences in Istanbul shall be used as an image.

Winners and losers

In 1989 Harvey wrote on the shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism – also known as civic boosterism. He argues that due to global neoliberalisation cities have to compete over international capital. The implication of this is a new attitude in governing cities. Governments no longer put focus on wealth distribution but now shift towards wealth accumulation. The underlying argument for this is that the accumulated wealth will then spread out and benefit the whole population of a municipality. This spill-over effect is put forward by Dair and Williams (2004) as follows:

“Many see economical growth as necessary to sustainability as it provides the financial resources for technical advancement required to solve environmental problems [and social disparities]”

The implications of this, according to Harvey, are more:

1. public-private partnerships,
2. public risk bearing, and
3. a focus on place instead of territory.

In other words, governments undertake projects with public assets to make a profit. These projects are undertaken with businesses but to make these partnerships attractive the risks are carried by the public. While for the public public-private partnership should cut costs. The direct focus of the projects are on specific places and not to the benefit of the whole region. But again, it is claimed that a water-bed effect is to follow the accomplishments (Harvey, 1989). Harvey describes the following common strategies to achieve the described goals:

1. exploitation of regional advantages,
2. improving spatial division of consumption,
3. struggle over key control points, and
4. redistribution through government functions.

The first strategy means that a region focuses on the resources that are special to that place. Harvey uses the oil boom in 1970s Texas as an example. Second is improving the spatial division of consumption. According to Harvey this implies that the city concentrates on an ever broadening basis for mass consumption. Third is the struggle of key control points, which entails that a city tries to attract finance and ancillary businesses. Last is the strategy to relocate government functions to peripheral regions (Harvey, 1989).

According to Doucet (2009) the second pillar of Harvey’s strategies raised a lot of interest during the 80s and 90s. Many cities argued that they should reposition themselves in the global market by (re)developing commercial space. This led to a boom in iconic spaces that are often named flagship projects.These flagships were meant as catalysts for a wider influx of wealth (as described earlier by Harvey). Throughout Europe and the USA this led to a rush in building convention centres, themed tourist malls and aquariums. Doucet argues that still this policy is strongly embedded in governmental policy. Luxury apartments, warehouse conversions, museums and iconic architecture are built to create wealth, attract affluent residents, produce tourist destinations, and, overall, pursue profit (Doucet, 2009).

In Turkey similar neoliberal policies can be seen, so-called mega projects have been started by the increasingly authoritarian national government to instigate international competition. Along with political stability these investments have brought Turkey and mainly Istanbul a huge growth in wealth. Overall the Turkish economy has grown about nine percent annually and as a result the average per capita income has trebled over the last decade (The Economist, 2013).

Over time flagship projects have been scrutinised heavily for not achieving all their goals. Eisinger (2000) argues that the main problem is that these projects are not for residents but for the so called visitor class. His argument is mainly based on stadiums, convention centres and festival malls (places of consumption). He states these flagship projects cost great amounts of public resources which is invested with a huge risk factor. This process draws away liquidity from real public tasks – housing, security, education and health. He also questions whether flagship regeneration would lead to more socio-economic opportunities for local residents. Eisinger argues that this argument is untrue as the building sector only benefits for a short term and after this the provided employment opportunities consist of low paid service jobs without a chance of socio-economic advancement – cleaners, food service, commercial sales (Doucet, 2009). Most of the revenue is not acquired by the public but by private businesses and so Eisinger (2000) raises the question whether the flagship projects he researched are actually public affairs to begin with.

Doucet (2009) discusses the case of Baltimore and sees more negative effects of flagship projects beside those for the public’s finances. He puts forward that flagship regeneration creates islands of wealth, meaning that the regenerated space is a wealthy centre with adjacent low income neighbourhoods. As the city tries to stay competitive the constant investment in the centre creates even stronger polarisation and puts a heavier constraint on local finances. For the excluded residents successful flagship regeneration might also mean displacement. Doucet argues that if a successful flagship project attracts high wealth residents this starts gentrification in adjacent neighbourhoods. The local population subsequently gets pushed out by the rising land value. (Doucet, 2009). This process shows overlap with Harvey’s focus on places instead of regions and evidently could result in social friction.

For over three decades the Turkish government has been redeveloping neighbourhoods to change the economic, and as a result social, structure of Istanbul. On a neighbourhood scale gentrification is induced. According to Kuyucu and Ünsal (2010) these mega projects lead to displacement of the locals and disproportionate divisions of profits. The displaced people are not cared for thereafter. There is no projects concerned with building social housing for the displaced. Premier Endogan wants to reinvent the image of the city before the 100 year celebration of the Turkish Republic. The latest projects include up-scale apartments, shopping malls, a third airport, and a third bridge over the Bosporus. Sceptics fear for a water shortage because green zones are substituted by new neighbourhoods to accommodate population growth. (NRC, 2012). As a result of undemocratic restricting strategies the public goes protesting. The public is done with being overruled and displaced and take their anger to the streets before development takes place. In the neighbourhood of Basibuyuk this process has created protests which have been struck down by state police in 2008. And in 2013 the plans to redevelop the Taksim Square have caused rioting. The plans involve a mosque on the place of a park and a shopping centre (picture 2). City planner Atlar comments that the city must become modern and pious, like Dubai. This happens to discontent of a large minority who regard Taksim square as the place for free speech, protest and secularism. So the conflict is also a conflict of ideologies and (sub-)cultures (NRC, 2012). The resulting national protests work very counter-productive to the economical position of Turkey and in consequence to the envisioned competitive attractiveness of Turkey for global capital. For example, in the election race for the 2020 Olympics that will be held on the 7th of September Istanbul lost its position as charts leader to Tokyo (NRC, 2013). In effect, the top-down policies actually harm competitiveness because of subsequent social friction.

A new hope
Doucet (2009) has proposed an alternative to the top-down redevelopment methods that are described above. One major shift in contemporary urban regeneration is the use of local community input and participation. A focus back to the (deprived) community means a real change in urban governance (Doucet, 2009).

Miles and Paddison (2005) agree that a shift is needed. They plead against culture-led urban regeneration (this policy is in line with the earlier described civic boosterism where  the consumption of culture is used as a source of prosperity). The discourse builds upon Richard Florida’s creative class theory (2002): cultural input can realise socio-economic output, because creative industries empower locals and attract post-modern urban economies. The problem with flagship regeneration according to Miles and Paddison was actually that it is just too holistic. They claim that it puts a lot of strain on culture to use it as a top-down intervention method. According to Miles and Paddison culture cannot be expected to achieve goals but should be allowed to be flexible and situational. In their writing they acclaim the recent shift in the UK: away from landmark projects conducted by corporations that are only accountable to economical shareholders and the government, towards locally oriented redevelopment to achieve more sustainable communities. (Miles & Paddison, 2005).

In the 1990s, with New Labour in the seat of power, the redevelopment agenda changed in the UK. The government spoke of an urban renaissance, as a reaction to two decades of neoliberal policy. The renaissance stands for the rebirth of the marginalised city areas. Raco (2007) defines the New Labour policy by the hand of four points:

1. high quality of design,
2. environmental responsibility,
3. social well-being, and
4. effective and accountable local governance.

The goals of this new policy were actually quite similar to the neoliberal policies: to create physically and socially attractive spaces. Though the focus moved towards the deprived neighbourhoods, the interventions were still state led. Over the 2000s this policy was further enhanced. New Labour made a change towards a new vision based on engaged citizens’ communities instead of dependency – communitarianism. The goal of the policy is creating sustainable communities. This discourse revolved around a relational citizenship. This means that citizenship is more than coming from a place; it is about the the actual role that an individual has in the community and the meaning of the community for the individual. In urban planning this implicates that communities are engaged in developing the built environment through co-production with involved actors (Raco, 2007). It might seem that community involvement takes away most of the problems that came with the top-down method of the late 20th century. But there are some initial misconceptions that should be resolved to make the sustainable communities actually sustainable.

The ambiguity of sustainability

In their 2007 writing Evans and Jones start their scrutiny on community involved planning by bringing forth the ambiguity of sustainability. They argue that downscaling the involved government and collaborative planning are not enough to guarantee sustainable development. Sustainability is about people, planet, and profit. In other words, it is about social, economical, and environmental balance. Evans and Jones argue that collaborative planning does not achieve these goals by definition. They critique community involved planning on three points:

1. compromises in negotiations enables the economic agenda,
2. growth overrules sustainability, and
3. partial interpretation of sustainability enables tensions and delays policy.

With the first point Evans and Jones claim that on every level of government there is an ambivalent attitude to constantly reinterpret projects’ aim towards an economic discourse. Because the definition of sustainability is very idealistic it can be interpreted to enable the economic agenda. In line with this argument is the second point of Evans and Jones’ plea. In situations where multiple solutions are competing there is a strong bias towards those that produce visible economic growth instead of those that provide sustainable value. The third argument is against the way that community planning can be delayed by non-relevant and old tensions being revived. All the above situations are in favour of more powerful actors. Evans and Jones point out that in these situations economical actors can actually hijack the planning process to get their favoured solutions executed. If so, they argue, local empowerment gives power to the wrong stakeholders and therefore undermines the new system actually creating mistrust (Evans & Jones, 2007). And this implies that the policy still leads to an unsustainable social environment.

Evans and Jones remain quite vague on the process of hijacking. Luckily, Atkinson (1998) is more thorough on this topic. He uses three arguments to show how the organisation of community involved planning can actually empower the most powerful economic actors instead of the marginalised residents of in a neighbourhood. His critique is based on the Involving Communities in Urban and Rural Regeneration: A Guide for Practitioners, a guide for governments by the UK’s Department of Environment (1995). His three main points are:

1. organising structures are subject to power relationships,
2. external competition recreates hierarchical roles, and
3. community representatives lack the resources to compete equally.

In his first point Atkinson argues that more powerful actors are usually involved much earlier in the planning process. This implicates that these actors can choose when to address the public. In other words, the community only gets involved where the powerful actors think this is necessary. This could be at the implementation stage of the project, thus rendering any critique too late because everything is already set in to motion. In this argument also fits the notion that there almost never is a single community. A neighbourhood is composed of multiple communities with different interests. And so there could be a selection of stakeholders by government and financial actors (again an indicator of power). The second point implies that powerful actors can make the community believe that because of external competition some measures are just necessary, putting social challenges in the back-seat. Atkinson’s third point is that community representatives lack the resources to bring their own interests to the table. Even if the community has equal representation, these actors lack the resources (knowledge, financial power) to really get their opinions heard. Atkinson says that some governments try to overcome this lack of power by training the involved representatives. But Atkinson questions the meaning and implications of these trainings. He thinks that some of these trainings are only meant to get the community on board of the economic discourse. By, what he calls, the mode of rationality, a discourse that shows that all problems are to be challenged by economic growth. Of course, on the other hand, training could also serve to develop confidence, skills and knowledge to empower the representatives (Atkinson, 1998).

Evans and Jones (2007) propose a solution to the above discussed problems. They argue that the holistic, idealistic approach of sustainable development should be abandoned. According to them it is all about recognising that sustainability is an ambiguous term that leads to discussion. And therefore sustainability is an unclear goal and should be approached pragmatically. Stakeholders should be very clear about their frame of reference and what they argue to be desirable. These context specific notions should be discussed through high engagement from all parties in a dialogic model. Evans and Jones mean that intensive exchange should lead to sustainable, innovative and creative places that are highly desirable (Evans & Jones, 2007).

It is of course premature to claim that well executed community involvement could prevent the social unrest that occurred in Turkey. But actually one of the main critiques on the development plans of the Taksim Square is that the public was not involved at all (NRC, 2013). Many reporters conclude that the Turkish democracy is still maturing. One of the arguments that they bring forth is that the main protesters shunned away from violence (picture 3). Also, the secular minded protesters have cast off their dependency of the army which, historically, preformed a coup d’etat in such occasions. Thirdly, Erdogan has apologised for the violent behaviour of the police. And recently the government has partially given in to the protesters to change the plans of the restructuring. Instead of a mall there shall be a modern arts museum (The Economist, 2013, 3). Istanbul wants to be a competitive city and so equitable community involved planning as described above can be a resort to avoid future unrest. It remains the question whether the national government can be self-critical to trust their development plans to more locally oriented authorities and residents. One of the protesters, Meryam Goksu, reacts:

“[It is not that we do not want the new shopping mall or the new bridge over the Bosporus]… But ask us for once what we think of it … Listen to the opposition.” (NRC, 2013)

In conclusion, what can be done by governments to make their physical redevelopment projects more socially and economically sustainable? This research has shown that over time a more democratic alternative is being developed to introduce local residents in to the planning procedure. But involving the community is not a guarantee for sustainability. Because of the ambiguity that idealistic plans have this may lead to empowerment of the wrong actors; once again putting emphasis on economic discourse instead of also including the social challenges of a neighbourhood. Governments should give attention to equal empowerment. This can be done by training the community representatives and also by having an extensive dialogue with all parties on an equitable level. The benefit of extensive exchanges is that it can also lead to more innovative and creative solutions for problems. And being innovative and creative are two ideals for many cities that want to attract attention in the global arena.

Peter Oosterloo (2013)


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