polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Contested Space, Contested Identity

by Max Holleran

Source: Max Holleran

In cities around the world, public space is an essential platform for voicing calls for change. Whether Madrid's Puerta del Sol, Athens's Syntagma Square, or Tahrir Square in Cairo, this space is the hippocampus of the nation: the first to experience unsettling tremors in the body politic.

One of the most fascinating things about the occupation of Istanbul's Gezi Park was that many of the issues were tied to the use of urban space to promote a contentious version of national identity. It was an expression of widespread frustration with an autocratic urban transformation that has raised questions over which heritage represents the nation in the 21st century.

Protesters react to tear gas on June 15. Source: Enca

Protesters were brutally suppressed after attempting to use Taksim Square as an agora to address urban and national concerns. Over the past decade of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's rule, the Turkish economy soared as Istanbul experienced increasing class segregation and an "Americanization" of the built environment in the form of gated communities and horrendous traffic jams.

Real estate development has been accompanied by wholesale demolition of historic neighborhoods and removal of Roma communities in Istanbul. The plan to place a rebuilt Ottoman military barracks and shopping mall in Gezi Park was a major spark for the protests. Another was construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus, named after an Ottoman sultan known for massacring people of the Alevi religious minority. The barracks and mall are fitting symbols of the AKP's urban transformation, in which Ottoman cultural heritage is used to build regional support for aggressive market-oriented development.

Source: France 24

Reconstructed Ottoman military barracks and mall planned for Gezi Park. Source: KH

The protests focused national attention on the AKP's increasingly oppressive desecularization of society. The party's deputy chairman recently denounced the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who brought an end to the Ottoman Caliphate and established the modern republic. While such jibes have been isolated and oblique, there have also been more-direct attacks on Atatürk's secular policies.

Turkish flag with a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Source: Kathimerini

Portraits of Turkey's great modernizer still adorn public buildings and private shops in Istanbul, and many of the Taksim protesters feel a connection between their efforts and those of the national patriarch. Flags with his photo have been used as symbols of what's at stake if Erdoğan is given a free hand at widespread reforms.

Members of the AKP suggest that, while acknowledging Ataturk's achievements, they believe his policies were pushed through too quickly and the country must now reclaim its soul. Many in Istanbul feel the same way about Erdoğan's urban transformation.

Max Holleran is a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at NYU.

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Conflict Over Natural Resources in Cities

by Georgia Silvera Seamans

When thinking of conflicts over natural resources, we tend to think of rural resources: oil in South Sudan, deforestation in Bolivia, dam building in the Brazilian Amazon, blood diamonds in Angola. In the United States, one might recall the Spotted Owl or, more recently, the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline campaign.

Natural resources permeate cities as well. They include street trees, parks, beaches, rivers and creeks. As Alex Schafran reminds us, it's important to remember the urban when thinking of the protests in Turkey. Likewise, we shouldn't forget the urban in conflicts over resources.

Protesters under the canopy of sycamore trees in Gezi Park. Source: Adam David Morton

Carl Pope, former chairman of the Sierra Club, argues that efforts to preserve the sycamores in Gezi Park illuminate regimes of access to and control over natural resources in Turkey. He adds that trees become "a tangible symbol of the common space which autocrats claim to serve, but actually destroy." Andy Revkin riffed on Carl's piece at Dot Earth, and Naomi Sachs riffed on Andy's at the Therapeutic Landscapes Network.

At local ecologist, I reviewed several local (NYC) conflicts over natural resources: Rudy Giuliani vs community gardens, the Sexton NYU 2031 Plan vs Greenwich Village, and Major League Soccer (MLS) vs Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, though the latter may soon be MLS vs the Bronx.

In a political ecology course I took at UC Berkeley, the professor asked us to consider how the "materiality of a resource" influences conflicts over its management. In cities, a spatial characteristic of many resources is boundedness. A park, for example, has definite material boundaries. If someone builds on it, they change the boundaries in significant ways. They diminish public access. They change the way benefits are derived, and by whom.

Privatization of public resources — from Istanbul to NYC — diverts their benefits to the few who can afford them. When this takes place undemocratically, it is an injustice to be fought with the collective strength of many.

Georgia Silvera Seamans is an urban forester and founder of local ecology. More of her writing can be found at local ecologist.

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Remembering the Urban in the Turkish Uprisings

by Alex Schafran

The occupation of Gezi may be over for the moment, but the ongoing impact of what has transpired and continues to transpire in Istanbul and other Turkish cities will be with us for some time. Amidst a hail of images of unrelenting police brutality and anti-democratic state action, there is a tendency for the urban issues that sparked the uprising to fade into the background. But, as Cihan Tuğal argues in his must-read piece for Jadaliyya, understanding both the urban roots of the revolt and the tendency to immediately forget them "sheds much light on what is happening in Turkey and why."

A development on the Asian side of Istanbul. The national housing agency has been building en masse, often by erasing portions of longstanding neighborhoods.

No small part of the power of recent events comes from Istanbul itself — I know few who've spent time there and haven't been enamored. It is a magical place whose centrality from both a historical and contemporary perspective is without question. However, love for Istanbul is quickly tempered by rampant injustice and an authoritarian transformation that shames a glorious city. This transformation ignores basic quality-of-life issues that could positively impact the lives of millions.

Istanbul love (left) and Kanyon shopping center (right), which is one of the most symbolic of the new spaces of wealth in the city.

Central to the tragedy in recent events is that Prime Minister Erdoğan is partly right — urban transformation is critical to the nation's future, and Istanbul must be the center of that transformation. Sadly, the transformation he has in mind is precisely what isn't needed. It goes far beyond Taksim Square and the ecological time bomb known as Turkey's "third bridge." Istanbul's urban development binge calls to mind recent experience in Spain and the United States, where credit- and derivative-fueled building led directly to economic crises followed by political unrest. In Turkey, the primary difference is that the political has come first.

For many of us, the initial takeover of Gezi was a hopeful sign of what Pelin Tan called the "sound of the revival of urban Istanbul," a revival that instead has been transformed into what Mustafa Dikeç calls an "urban stasis." Yet as urban scholars and activists, we must not let the stasis deter us from reminding our fellow citizens of just how important the urban is to this situation, and that it is too quickly forgotten amidst broader issues of government, democracy and religion.

One of the challenges of an urban focus is that Gezi has exposed two separate but related schisms regarding the urban in contemporary society. One is the debate about development, about what gets built where, for whom and at what cost, about how systems are maintained or connected. This is the debate we need to be having, but one that Erdoğan would replace with another urban divide, one that is more pernicious but equally classic — the division of peoples into urban and non-urban. Erdoğan is attempting to rally his rural base with fiery language about urban elites, pinning his hopes on what he claims to be his majority.

The use of "urban" as a geography that divides people from each other has a long and ignominious history, whether dividing city from country or city from suburb. Listening to Erdoğan reminds me of a half-century of demagoguery that used the urban-suburban divide to sow racialized fear in Americans, creating a highly unsustainable and unequal urban system. But, as in the United States, the "urban" in Turkey is no longer what it was demographically, and many of the people being trampled by Erdoğan's urban regime are members of this previously "non-urban" base.

The challenge now is to push against use of the urban as a dividing concept and focus people's attention instead on development. The idea and possibility of urban development must be disentangled from the authoritarianism, inequality and ideology that cause many to question the value of investing in cities. All places need transformation to survive and thrive, just not the kind that Erdoğan and other powerful men and women have been selling around the world.

Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran.

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Terror Defused as Public Art

by Gabrielle Lipton

"Moloch! Moloch! ... monstrous bombs!" – Allen Ginsberg, "Howl"

On a plot of soil in Manhattan's Tompkins Square Park, a bomb sat in plain view. Four large tubes painted fire engine red stood wired to a digital timer that counted down from 99 minutes. It beeped, reset and started again, never harming anyone. It was fake.

#OccupyGezi Fights to Save Historic Istanbul Park

by Cristiana Strava

Source: #OccupyGezi

On May 28, protesters occupied a central green space in Istanbul to stop bulldozers from razing it to the ground. The demolition is part of a government redevelopment plan that includes construction of a new mall and luxury housing.

Local authorities sent riot police to disperse those gathered in Taksim Gezi Park, authorizing the use of water cannons and pepper spray. Newspapers reported that several protester tents were set on fire, which increased the resolve of those gathered in the park.

Source: Osman Orsal

According to unconfirmed reports from protesters on the ground, more than 10,000 people are now occupying the square. Several members of parliament have visited the site, calling on Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas to halt demolition plans and engage in open dialog with the protesters.

Source: Funda Erygit

Gezi Park is no larger than a traffic island, but in a city that suffers from congestion, rampant real estate speculation and lack of green space, many see its destruction as unchecked privatization. Protesters are decrying the lack of transparency about plans for the area's redevelopment, and see it as part of a growing trend that privileges global investors over local residents. They see the redevelopment of Gezi Park as the latest in a chain of urban development projects — such as Galataport and a third bridge across the Bosphorus — that threaten to displace working-class communities and degrade local environmental conditions.

Taksim Square and Gezi Park. Source: Louis Fishman

Activists are using Twitter to gather support. The hashtag #DirenGeziParki has been tweeted over 50,000 times in the past three days, and #OccupyGezi is being used to attract international attention. Photos from the occupation are appearing daily on the Occupy Gezi Tumblr site.

In an age of increasing privatization of public space, parks are important sites of resistance. From Zucotti to Gezi, people are enacting their right to the city, a right to participative and consultative urban development.

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