Aysegul Can, Doctoral Student in Town & Regional Planning, University of Sheffield. This article forms part of a series of blogs written for the World Day of Social Justice, February 20th 2015.
I have spent most of my time as an urbanist studying urban preservation and historic environment. For a long time, historic built environment and how it is preserved were very important to me and I did not pay much attention to the social dynamics that were operating in a historic neighbourhood. Then, I realised the relation between urban conservation, urban renewal projects and gentrification. This was around the time that, in Istanbul (Turkey), urban renewal and regeneration projects were popping up everywhere and turning almost every historic environment into a construction site.
This process is very much related to social justice in urban planning; in most cases, urban regeneration projects lead to state-led gentrification, which eventually results in majority or total displacement of the working class. As I discuss below, a process of demonisation (of the neighbourhood and its inhabitants) was used by the local and national governments to legitimise their plans, foster public support and smooth the implementation of the renewal project. This was an important aspect of the social injustice experienced by the people of Tarlabasi, and particularly the most vulnerable segments of the society.
Tarlabasi was one of the first neighbourhoods in Istanbul that had its name associated with such projects. This neighbourhood has been so important that, it is rumoured, an urban law was created just to be able to ‘regenerate’ this area. The district is inhabited by the most disadvantaged segments of the population, including Kurdish people from the southeast, Romanis, foreign immigrants, as well as a gay and transsexual community. In this district the people either work in the service sector, commonly in the tourist industry for low wages, or as street vendors selling food produced in small workshops in the district. According to law 5366 enacted in 2005 (rumoured to have been created initially specifically for Tarlabasi), and which enables regeneration in historic areas, some parts of Tarlabasi were declared as “urban renewal” areas and it was intended to convert the buildings into hotels, shopping spaces and residences. This initial stimulus was expected to trigger a complete physical change and gentrification in the area.
Source: Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality
Tarlabasi as seen from the map above is located on the historical peninsula of Istanbul and very close to the Bosphorus. It is also closely located to the touristic entertainment centre of Istanbul (Istiklal Street). In the picture on the left bottom corner, Tarlabasi renewal area is shown. Tarlabasi renewal area consists of nine blocks and 278 lots. In the renewal area, all the buildings in the project area are being demolished, even though 70% of the housing stock is made up of listed buildings, and their original facades will be built again. The interior of the buildings will change completely to fit the needs of the new users. Courtyards will be created by decreasing the depth of the buildings. To provide a ‘safe’ environment for the new users, access to the buildings will be located towards the interior courtyards (Dincer et al., 2008).
There are several forms of social injustice that the residents of Tarlabasi have been experiencing. Firstly, the negotiation process for them to sell their property to the construction company was unfair and intimidating. The municipality pressured the owners to sell their property for prices that is below market value (under threat of expropriation) and when the residents wanted to defend their right to negotiate, they were provided with urgent acquisition verdicts. One of the owner-occupiers in Tarlabasi stated that:
“The relevant firm and the municipality used urgent acquisition as a threat during all the negotiation meetings. For that reason, it was not actually a negotiation process to begin with. They told us: ‘we already have the urgent acquisition verdict. If you do not sell your property to us, we can just use it.”
A second form of injustice was evident during the eviction process which the state handled in a very cruel fashion by ignoring the rights of tenants, who were under the greatest threat of displacement. Interviews with the residents of Tarlabasi clearly showed their resentment towards the project and their reaction against the social injustice they experienced:
“We were living in the project area. One day we received a notification saying that they are gonna demolish all these buildings and we have to leave in a week. We barely found another flat close to the neighbourhood, but I do not know what we could have done if we hadn’t found this place.”
Thirdly, as a result of the process of urban renewal, the residents of Tarlabasi were publicly demonised and treated unfairly by the other agencies of the state. Law enforcement agencies, local government and legal agencies that are supposed to protect and serve the public, did everything they could to intimidate and terrorise the inhabitants. Garbage bins were not collected, police calls were not answered and police patrols of the neighbourhood continued on a frequent basis, not to assure public safety but to arrest anyone and everyone that they might slightly be ‘suspicious’ of. Regarding this matter, one resident stated that:
“I was in jail for 16 months for a crime that I did not commit. After these 16 months I was found innocent but no one can give me back the time I spent inside, and all this happened just because one police officer thought that I did something wrong. They do not care about people who live here, they just take it for granted that we are all criminals.”
The state use these unjust arrests and the way that neighbourhood was run-down to justify their project of renewal, even though this situation was partly created by them.
Source: The documentary by Jónsi & Alex – Happiness / The people of Tarlabasi
Lastly, how the legal system treated these inhabitants when they wanted to defend their ‘right to stay’ has been unjust as well. There have been many lawsuits opened by associations, NGOs and owner-occupiers; however, most of these lawsuits ended in favour of the renewal project. The law court did not show sufficient interest in the unjust conduct of the construction company and the state. This situation left many people in Tarlabasi feeling desperate and resentful toward the local and national government.
However, in 2014, the Council of State decided the acquisition process has not been in the best interest of the public and cancelled the acquisitions practised by the municipality throughout the project. This was the only fair decision made by an agency of the state since the start of the project in 2005, nonetheless, it is too little too late and it is still not clear how this decision will affect the fate of the project and people who were damaged because of it.
Clearly, social justice was not the first thing in the minds of people who prepared and implemented this renewal project. The project aims to convert the area completely for use of the richest segments of the population and tourists to achieve the highest returns, and this is the top priority of the construction company, which does not want to compromise on these terms. Under these conditions, the inhabitants of the district, having been exposed to unjust treatment and pressure, chose to or were forced to leave the neighbourhood one way or another. I think it is safe to say that, this renewal project and the way it has been handled showed the ugliest side of state-led gentrification with its huge lack of social justice. This injustice left many residents crippled financially and emotionally.