The Legacies of Topbaş and Gökçek: Destruction, Corruption, and Anti-Environmentalism


As a result of the ongoing internal purges of Turkey’s ruling AK Party (AKP), its long-standing mayors of Istanbul and Ankara have bid their offices farewell, leaving in their wake a trail of corruption, environmental destruction, and frayed social and cultural fabric in two exhausted, soulless cities.

Melih Gökçek served as mayor of Turkey’s capital for nearly a quarter of a century, while Kadir Topbaş presided for 13 years over Istanbul, a megacity with a population of 13 million. Their activities were frequently subject to criticism during their time in office, and when they were swept away by the winds of change within the AKP, they left behind two unrecognisable cities with erased identities.

During the Topbaş years, permission was given for many projects that damaged the historical and cultural character of Istanbul. Each day the city became more paved over, and public spaces and green areas were put up for rent to private investors. Public gathering spaces to be used after earth quakes were opened up to construction, and despite the objections of urban advocates and experts, the city’s northern forests were razed to build a third bridge and a third airport. Working-class neighbourhoods were transformed by gentrification projects, and the entire city became a giant construction site. Today, the city’s postcard silhouette is marred by skyscrapers, and Beyoğlu’s cosmopolitan face has been abandoned.

According to northern forest advocate Efe Baysal, Topbaş’s 13-year term can be understood as merely a decadent period in an ongoing process of demolition which began in the 1980s with the city’s then major Bedrettin Dalan, and continued into the 1990s when the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ran Istanbul municipality.

The city faced most damage during the Topbaş years, Baysal said. “Istanbul’s top-down development projects were directed by decisions from Ankara,” he said. “At the height of the AKP’s rule, construction and an economy based on renting out public lands became Istanbul’s driving force.” Baysal said the city’s historic and cultural heritage is now showing signs of disappearing as a result.

Under the AKP government, as Istanbul’s four corners were filling up with high-rises, it was Topbaş who gave out privileged construction permits. The districts of Maslak, Şişli, Mecidiyeköy, and Zeytinburnu became a paradise for skyscrapers while the Ataşehir, Fikirtepe, and Ümraniye areas also saw their share of this vertical reconstruction. Topbaş himself became the driving force behind these projects, and there was an emphasis on major projects that relied on renting public lands to private investors. As neighbourhoods were changed for the sake of urban transformation, the Sulukule, Tarlabaşı, Ayazma, and Fikirtepe areas in particular were being sold off to private capital.

Istanbul is recognised by the U.N.’s cultural arm UNESCO as a place of cultural heritage and universal value, but it has faced years of assault on its history, which is now vanishing. Protected areas were damaged during the construction of the Golden Horn Metro Bridge and the Marmaray sub-Bosphorus underground line, and parts of the historical peninsula were filled in to build a place for rallies in Yenikapı. After an announcement that the historic Haydarpaşa Station – once the gateway to Asia on the Berlin to Baghdad railway– would no longer be used as a station, a fire broke out in the building 2010 and it has been left to crumble.

Throughout the Topbaş years, Istanbul’s green areas were plundered. Despite signing the 2009 “Constitution of Istanbul”, declaring that development in Istanbul’s north was unsuitable, and the Istanbul Master Plan, designed to protect the northern forest ecosystem, Topbaş did not comply with either.

As for the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, from the time he took office in 1994, until the time the AKP came into power in 2002, 169 inquiries and investigations were opened into his activities. Appearing on a television programme with then-Istanbul mayor Erdoğan in 1995, Gökçek said: “My people brought me to the mayor’s office, and my people will take me out of it.” Twenty-two years later, on Erdoğan’s orders, he left Ankara a tremendous wreck. After public land was sold off “parcel by parcel”, its historic texture blighted, and its forested areas massacred on the pretext of traffic control, Ankara today is a concrete city without memory or identity.

Despite resolutions to preserve the city, which hosts priceless buildings from the early years of the republic, Ankara’s architectural memory was largely wiped out during the Gökçek period. Buildings that symbolised Ankara such as İller Bank, the Etibank Building, and the Maltepe Gasworks were demolished, and legal processes are ongoing about the republic’s first mass housing project in the historic Saraçoğlu district. The neighbourhood where the ministries are located was evacuated by force in 2014.

However, it was the Atatürk Orman Çiftliği (AOÇ) that saw the most damage. The AOÇ was founded in 1925 as a city farm and green space after the reclamation of 2,000 hectares of barren wetland, and over the years it was expanded to 5,200 hectares. Under Gökçek, the AOÇ became the main locus of public land sold to private investors.

Once a city that nurtured the country’s intellectual and artistic pursuits, Ankara has become desolate during the Gökçek years. Many state-owned theatres have been shut down. The New Stage in Sakarya was demolished, and the opera theatre housed inside the Art and Statue Museum was closed in 2014. Today, the theatre may only be used for ceremonies.

There is nothing but wind blowing in the place where the Derya, Mithatpaşa, Megapol, Ankapol, and Batı cinemas once stood, surrounding the city centre since the 1990s and showing dozens of movies every day. Movie lovers are now forced into shopping malls, and Ankara has the highest per capita square meterage of shopping malls in Turkey.

Before Gökçek, it was possible for intellectuals and workers to partake in art, theatre, and music together. However, Gökçek gradually pushed workers out of the city centre. As Ankara Chamber of City Planners President Emre Sevim pointed out, “before this, students, intellectuals, and workers all used to be in one place. Gökçek did away with all that.”

In the face of all this destruction, a mayor’s resignation does not relieve him of responsibility.

Urban advocates and experts stress that if this destructive mentality continues under future administrations, life in the cities will get harder, and if those responsible for the destruction are not held accountable, resignation is no solution at all.

Last week, the Ankara Chamber of Architects announced it was pressing charges against Gökçek for abuse of his power. “There is no leaving without taking responsibility,” it said.