Istanbul faces ecological ruin as candidates vow to build

The lead candidates for Istanbul mayor have been busy outlining bold proposals for major new building projects in the lead-up to Sunday’s local elections, but experts and activists fear unchecked construction in Turkey’s largest city and financial hub is a danger to its environment and people.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has painted the polls as a matter of national security, accusing opposition parties of being in league with terrorists. The normally fractious opposition, meanwhile, has come together to field joint candidates for mayor in cities across the country, hoping to dent Erdoğan’s prestige. The president’s focus on security though has stifled debate on local issues.

Erdoğan began his rise to power when he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, so losing control of the city would count as a major blow. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) has put up former prime minister Binali Yıldırım to run the municipality, but the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, could mount a strong challenge.

Istanbul, a province of some 18 million people, is struggling with the aftermath of a housing boom and infrastructure problems, while its few remaining green spaces are disappearing fast. There is also the threat of a major earthquake devastating the city where planning laws are often ignored.

Ersin Köymen, the Istanbul head of Turkey’s Chamber of Architects, said people thought of only construction jobs when discussing local government, while increasing living standards in urban areas, a major responsibility of municipalities, was ignored.

“Municipal councils, citizens’ councils, civil society organisations, and professional organisations should develop a joint working culture,” Köymen said. “What the urban population needs is availability of mass transport to every point in the city, access to health and education services, reaching recreational facilities, improved accessibility for disabled people, opportunities for the elderly, women, and children to benefit easily from urban services,” he said.

The head of the Istanbul’s Chamber of Construction Engineers, Nusret Suna, stressed the importance of participatory approaches that would allow residents and professional organisations to have a role in decision-making. “An urban constitution should be prepared. The short and long-term tasks should be included in it,” Suna said.

Suna said that Istanbul’s urban transformation projects, which sought to drive urban growth and boost the construction and real estate sectors, were mainly carried out in districts that promised huge profits from increased housing prices and overlooked the increased pressure on traffic as the populations in those districts increased by 30 to 40 percent.

“They establish residential areas without solving the transportation problem, without determining the main arterial roads. There should be transportation plans for the next 10, 20 years. I am sorry to say, but both candidates lack projects that will solve transport-traffic problems,” Suna said.

The urban transformation projects were presented to residents as a way to strengthen the residential stock against a major earthquake. But experts said local governments had ignored the warning and built on areas set aside as disaster assembly points.

Some 17,000 people were killed when a massive earthquake struck east of Istanbul, on the same faultline as the city, in 1999.

Suna said a coordination committee in Istanbul had identified 476 post-earthquake assembly areas and some 500 escape routes between 2000 and 2003. He said the municipality had been using some of those areas as parking lots.

“In a city whose population is about to reach 20 million, there are only 90 assembly areas. A 1,350-page earthquake master plan was prepared. The plan included recommendations on how to prepare the people psychologically for an earthquake and how to strengthen buildings. We loudly called on authorities to implement that plan, but nobody heard our voice,” Suna said.

As the head of the AKP, Erdoğan has developed several major projects for Istanbul like the new third airport and the giant Çamlıca mosque, which opened this month. But Erdoğan’s most ambitious dream for Istanbul is the construction of a 45-km long, 400-m wide canal that will link the Black and Aegean seas and run parallel to the Bosporus strait.

According to AKP officials, Kanal Istanbul will ease the pressure of marine traffic on the Bosporus, while environmentalists and urban planners emphasise on the destructive consequences of the project, which will leave some 8 million people trapped on an island in a city prone to earthquakes.

Köymen said Kanal Istanbul and the new mega airport threaten to destroy the forests in the northern part of the city. Köymen said that neither the final route of the canal, nor the plans on how the excavated land would be removed had been made public yet, adding that the new housing projects to be constructed around the canal would wipe out the remaining agricultural land.

“In summary, the gains and the destruction that would be the result of this canal to be established between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, as well as the ecological, economic and social dimensions of this destruction, should be discussed scientifically and technically,” he said. “This canal project will destroy ecosystems on the land and in the sea and force villagers living in nearby areas to migrate to other places.”

Ayşe Yıkıcı, an activist of the Northern Forests’ Defence, fears the pillaging of Istanbul’s last remaining green areas will continue. “Just recently, the municipal assembly approved plans to construct a giant movie studio in the northern forests,” Yıkıcı said, adding that, while as an initiative they cared about local governments, they were concerned about the plans of both lead candidates.

Yıkıcı said Istanbul’s new airport, set to open next month, should be closed and Kanal Istanbul, which has been delayed for three years, cancelled. “There are many stone quarries and mines in the northern forests. They continue production despite court orders. Recently, there is another project being discussed, a three-storey tunnel project. The municipal assembly approved this project and the members of the CHP did not vote against it,” Yıkıcı said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.