The looming disaster of Erdoğan’s horizontal cities

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to unveil a new campaign for horizontal urbanisation this week, according to pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah.

This urban vision, which supports low-rise buildings over tall towers, is part of the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) supposedly eco-friendly manifesto for March 31 local elections. At this week’s event, the president is set to announce 50,000 new housing units to be built by the state-run housing agency, TOKI.

“We have told our own mayors: no vertical architecture but horizontal architecture,” he said in Ankara on World Urbanism Day in November. “We will develop a concept that would make cities more mingled with soil, enliven neighbourhood culture and keep relations between neighbours alive.”

Turkey’s president cares little about the environment, and even less about what is best for a city’s residents. Lest we forget, it was Erdoğan who as prime minister in 2013 responded harshly to the protests that sprang up against the planned destruction of Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul. He vowed to go ahead with plans to remove the park’s trees and build a shopping mall, initiating a crackdown that continues to this day. 

Erdoğan likes to argue that building horizontal is green and modern, when in reality it is the opposite: a throwback stance that is uninformed, self-serving and morally repugnant.

Twenty-first century urbanism is in large part about towers, mainly because it is inevitable. By 2050, 68 percent of humanity, or nearly 7 billion people, will live in cities, a sharp increase from today’s 4.2 billion.

Experts generally agree that such mass urbanisation will require denser, taller cities, which have a smaller footprint, reduce congestion, pollution, and fossil fuel use, and leave more natural space available for parks, recreation and farmland.

A case in point: much of the interest in vertical cities today comes from China, where too much horizontal urban expansion has caused debilitating pollution, congestion and environmental degradation.

Beijing, a sprawling city of some 20 million, often records air quality numbers far beyond the World Health Organisation’s “very unhealthy” range. Bike and scooter riders wear surgical masks for their commutes and children are often kept indoors due to the risk of cancer. Meanwhile, China's rapid urbanization has polluted millions of hectares of farmland. 

As a result, Chinese officials, architects and engineers have in recent years embraced innovations in vertical construction. The Chinese firm Broad Sustainable Building has devised an eco-friendly prefab construction method that enables the building of a 15-story luxury hotel in just six days.

In their book, “Vertical City: A Solution for Sustainable Living”, Kenneth King and Kellogg Wong describe their vision of “high-efficiency ultra-tall buildings occupying a relatively small car-free, pedestrian-friendly parcel of land.” And in 2016, the American firm Gensler won the inaugural American Architecture Award for its curved, 632-metre Shanghai Tower. This government building may be the closest the world has come to a vertical city: its 128 storeys include homes, shops, offices, galleries and cinemas, alongside gardens showcasing plants from across China.

Building horizontally, on the other hand, leads to sprawl, which reduces farmland yet necessitates more roads and bridges, more metro and commuter rail lines, more housing projects stretching to the horizon, and thus more megaprojects for Erdoğan’s beloved construction industry.

A massive building boom in Istanbul and across the country is widely seen as the locomotive for Turkey’s significant economic growth during the first 15 years of AKP rule. It has also been the source of much alleged corruption, including within TOKI.  

When he became prime minister in 2003, Erdoğan took control of TOKI, which had been little used since its creation in 1984. The agency developed $7 billion worth of land across 2,000 construction sites in 2012 alone, and in 2017 laid out a plan to build 425,000 housing units by 2023. TOKI, a public housing agency, often helps build massive luxury housing developments, like Istanbul’s Maslak 1453.

In 2004, Erdoğan tripled the land area of Istanbul from 690 square miles to more than 2,000, or just smaller than the U.S. state of Delaware. Within a decade he had announced a series of megaprojects planned for areas annexed in the expansion, including the new airport, the third Bosporus Bridge, and a shipping canal that would split the city’s European side in two. Property values in the area soared fourfold as construction boomed.

But now the party is over. “The construction sector in Turkey is sick, even on the verge of a coma,” Tahir Tellioğlu, chairman of the Building Contractors Confederation of Turkey, said last year, adding that 70 percent of private construction work had stopped or slowed down.

Meanwhile, one reason for Turkey’s sky-high food prices in recent months is reduced production. Under Erdoğan, more than 7.4 million acres of farmland, an area roughly the size of Belgium, have been taken out of cultivation, while the number of farmers has fallen by a quarter in the last 10 years.

These are the results of horizontal building. It says a lot about the latest thinking on horizontal cities, and Erdoğan’s knowledge of urbanism, that the website horizontalcities.com is not about building, but biking.  

Erdoğan’s horizontal cities campaign has nothing to do with building a better Turkey. It is about jumpstarting a deeply troubled economy, filling the coffers of his cronies, and adding more megaprojects to the drawing board. And it is leading Turkey down a dark road.

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