Istanbul, a city under construction that revolts


Collection Passerelle

A pontic city, the only city built at the crossroads of two continents, a political center of the centuries, a crossroads of Christian and Muslim religions, a thousand-year-old city, a megalopolis, a European cultural capital, etc. The uniqueness of Istanbul is the result of various historical, economic and social factors. Its historicity and vastness are part and parcel of its characteristics that make it an exceptional city.

However, we do not seek to underline its singularity but we will insert it in the international context of the «  neoliberalization of space »1. Then we will look at the citizen mobilizations against the influence of neoliberal logics on the scale of the city of Istanbul. Finally, we will explain what is the IMECE «  Society Urbanism Movement  », a civil association that fights against the neoliberal urban policy in Istanbul.

Istanbul is not the capital of the country but it is the major city of Turkey on the economic, industrial, educational and cultural level. It is difficult to summarize in a few pages, the urban structures of this megalopolis, regrouping more than ten million inhabitants of diverse origins. But it is not at all a foreign story, not at all exotic or oriental. Even if it had its own unique geopolitical and cultural dynamics, Istanbul has, like metropolises all over the world, become a purchasable and saleable material, a place where capital flows are realized. Istanbul’s urban structures are transforming daily with a relentless rhythm, adapting to the successive innovation cycles of the neoliberal economic system.

The economic changes that have been taking place in Turkey since the 1950s, and especially the decisions of January 24, 1980, prepared in collaboration with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, are aimed at integrating the Turkish economy into the world economy. The 1980s, marked by the coup d’état of September 12, 1980, which destroyed the people and social movements and built a climate favorable to neoliberalism, were a real turning point for the country. In the following years, the process continued with programs of economic and institutional reforms, prepared in collaboration with the IMF. The European Union, for its part, has played an anchoring role for the Turkish economy, in order to consolidate its «  reforms2 ".

In the space of about fifty years, the conquest of Istanbul by capital has been accomplished. Today «  Turkey is now established on the international scene as an emerging economy of great vitality, member of the G20 and ranked 15th world economy3  » but at what price and who paid this price ?

The city under construction

This transition of the Turkish economy to a resolutely neoliberal model has had a strong impact on society as a whole, as well as on the urban territory, especially in Istanbul4. This influence is mainly embodied in the development of a competitive logic. Suburbanization and exclusion are the direct consequences. The orientations of municipal planning since the 1990s, through the projects and trends of urban development in Istanbul, are evidence of the urban transformation, still in progress, led by the political power.

Since coming to power in 2002, the AJP has promoted the consolidation of authoritarian, clientelist and speculative practices. This party has built its hegemony through its neoliberal spatial policies. The new urban management model gave it the possibility to transform the main functions of the city, to create the urban rent and to distribute it arbitrarily to give birth to a new conservative bourgeoisie. This new dominant bourgeoisie in Istanbul has accentuated the phenomenon of land speculation, which has consequences for urban planning.

The beginning of the 2000s was marked by a clear increase in the number of demolition operations in Istanbul. It was also the beginning of urban mobilizations against demolitions. The public authorities had to legitimize their ambitions to maximize urban rent. Law no. 5366 on «  regeneration, protection and renewal of degraded cultural and historical real estate5  » formalized the central role of the Municipality of Greater Istanbul and TOKI (Public Housing Administration) in the implementation of urban renewal projects. This has led to the destruction of old residential districts which have progressively developed on «  public  » land, the gecekondu6, which the public authorities are selling to Turkish or foreign investors or on which they are building new housing mainly intended for a wealthy clientele. Indeed, the Urban Transformation Law follows several laws passed by the AKP between 2002 and 2005 which had clearly increased the powers and attributions of the municipalities as well as that of TOKI in terms of land management, restoration of the old urban fabric and urban planning facilitating demolition procedures and accelerating the privatization of land in Istanbul7.

The phenomenon gecekondu could be considered as one of the negative effects of urban neoliberalism. The appearance of this form of urban housing is systematically considered to be the direct consequence of the rural exodus, resulting from industrialization and the decline of agriculture. The urban development strategies implemented since the 1950s have at the same time favored the development of illegal housing. The gecekondu populations are the most affected by the effect of deindustrialization and urban transformation. They are forced to see their homes gradually replaced by luxury projects, implemented by a private sector dominated by large holding companies and influential international firms8. Illegal housing is then destroyed to make way for gated and secure residential neighborhoods that cater to the newly enriched and affluent social strata. Real estate developers and TOKI are responding to the new selection criteria for high-income households.

It should be noted that TOKI is a national public company, responsible for the construction of popular housing, which instrumentalizes public power to serve the interests of the new bourgeoisie. The consequence is an undeniable urban fragmentation, as well as a process of gentrification and gentrification.

This does not only affect illegal housing, most of the middle class population is also affected by the transformation and commodification of the urban territory. The increase in land prices is just one of the consequences of the ambition of urban rent. To maximize urban rent, local and national public authorities are pursuing the idea of making Istanbul a center of finance, logistics, culture and tourism in the Eurasian region. To this end, a third bridge over the Bosphorus, the decentralization of public services (education, health), and a second financial center in the Asian part of the city will be built in Istanbul. The major consequence of such projects lies in the risk of exacerbated urban sprawl, which has not only social but also ecological and cultural consequences. As for urban public spaces, urban transformation poses a serious threat to the city’s water sources and forests.

The Istanbul of the future is a sterile, luxurious city, devoid of cultural and political contradictions, «  cleaned  » of the underprivileged by a large hotel or a theme park. The Turkish political power often cites Dubai as a good urban model for Istanbul9. These pharaonic projects prove the irrational, totalitarian and spectacular attitude of the public power towards the urban space, such as «  the Istanbul Canal  » announced in April 2011 as «  the crazy project  » of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. This is a threat to the historical and cultural richness of the city which is also the property of all humanity.

The disadvantaged living conditions of the gecekondu and earthquake risks are used as a pretext for the urban transformation. By « pretexts  » we mean the fact that since 2003, the majority of TOKI’s projects are for the wealthy social classes. These constructions are carried out on slum land, forcing the inhabitants to leave the place. None of the housing projects carried out on the gecekondu land in downtown Istanbul provide for on-site relocation. The municipality of Istanbul and TOKI have obtained the right to rebuild all the informal housing damaged by the earthquake but only the high value neighborhoods have been rehabilitated10. As for the populations of the gecekondu, they no longer have the right to live in this financial and cultural capital. The principles of the free market left no room for the social foundations of urban planning. Istanbul is becoming the capital of economic, social and spatial inequalities.

Urban social movements

Today, many individuals and organizations are mobilizing to fight the consequences of neoliberal urban projects. The urban opposition that has gradually emerged since the mid-2000s denounces the social and economic consequences of these neoliberal projects. They oppose the transformation projects through political work to make them visible and mobilize to prevent them. Two main forms of mobilization against the Urban Transformation Projects (UTP) in Istanbul can be observed: local resistance movements and social movements.

The local resistance movements within the gecekondu have a certain homogeneity of population and a strong identification with the neighborhood. At first, the demands of the inhabitants, relayed by the neighborhood associations and local political movements, concern obtaining new social rights. The protests were against the demolitions and rehousing implied by the PTU. The associations demanded public services and the right to housing11.

To see the birth of an all-embracing discourse critical of urban policy, it was necessary to wait for the radicalization of urban transformations and, consequently, the birth of urban social movements. IMECE, «  Society Urbanism Movement "}}, is one of the first and most active; it is an association that fights against urban renewal operations and more broadly against the neoliberal urban policy carried out by the Municipality of Istanbul, the AKP and TOKI.

IMECE was born in 2006 as a small group of friends from different professions, the majority of whom are urban planners. However, it started by issuing an invitation to participate with the slogan: «  You, you are an urban planner !  » to claim the right to the city for all citizens and criticize the professionalization of urban planning. In the meantime, IMECE has become an interdisciplinary and more homogeneous group.

The 16 «  principles  » that IMECE’s members collectively drafted after several weekly meetings during the first months aimed to define the movement’s political objectives and means of action. IMECE proposed a struggle that unites the urban problem with class struggles in an anti-capitalist vision. It defines its struggle as a struggle against neoliberalism in the city and for the fundamental social rights of urban populations, in particular the right to housing and work. The objective is to contribute to the politicization and networking of local mobilizations in order to conceive a « counter-hegemonic » and revolutionary project capable of overturning the existing urban and political order.

The first important action of IMECE was the organization of a platform to defend a school for the blind (Resitpasa Körler Okulu) threatened with eviction. This was also the first victory, the school was saved thanks to the successive demonstrations. Since its birth, the movement has been located in the urban transformation districts (Gülensu-Gülsuyu, Sulukule, Ayazma, Tozkoparan, Basıbüyük, etc.). Instead of turning resolutely to elected politicians, the media, and international organizations, IMECE prefers to impulse a local dynamic if there is already a local mobilization. If this is not the case, IMECE cannot « force » a local mobilization to begin. This is the lesson learned with Sulukule, a historic neighborhood violently « taken over » by the public authorities and destroyed in 2010, despite an international mobilization of NGOs. Instead of turning to the media, elected politicians, and international organizations, it is necessary to start with a local dynamic in order to find the founding force of a mobilization.

IMECE is also active in Istanbul platforms (e.g. against the construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorus or against the privatization of public schools and hospitals in Istanbul) and in national anti-capitalist mobilizations. The group started to work in other cities like Izmir and Ankara. Today IMECE builds links between urban struggles and rural, environmental, anti-militarist, feminist, LGBT and immigrant movements.

IMECE is today an important network with almost 1,000 people registered on the internet group where a lot of information on urban politics circulates every day. On the ground, IMECE is a group of activists of about 35 people who participate in weekly meetings and various political actions and who are also members of other social movements. All decisions are made by the participants of the meetings, the decision mechanisms are always horizontal, anti-hierarchical.

IMECE’s modes of action are diverse : investigation, publication, circulation of information on the UTPs and the various aspects of urban policy, information meetings with citizens, organization of seminars, film screenings, mobilization of political and media networks, creation of opportunities for meetings between different movements, unions, political parties, professional organizations and inhabitants of neighborhoods affected by the UTPs, and cultural productions such as documentary films12.

Conclusion: A city under construction

The development of the private sector and the desire to make Istanbul a global financial metropolis have led to a transformation of the city. The urban transformation underway in Istanbul since the 1990s, dominated by a purely competitive logic, has caused suburbanization and exclusion. Since the 2000s, Istanbul has been the object of a rapid, violent and financially motivated urban transformation. The social aspect is currently absent in urban policies. But as in the whole world, in Istanbul too the struggle against the effects of neo-liberalism and for the right to the city continues to gain strength and is becoming more international thanks to the meetings and actions of activists, professionals, researchers, and citizens.

1 J. Peck and A. Tickell, Neoliberalizing Space, Antipode, n°34, 2002.

2 Marie Fonteneau, The place of neoliberal economics in the disruption of urban housing structures in Istanbul - Study of the gecekondu phenomenon, Dissertation, Institute of Political Studies, Aix-Marseille University, 2012. View the dissertation on the Political Science website

3 L.-M. Bureau, L. Deger, S. Rumel, Turkey - South Africa : reflection of the new South-South cooperation ? IRIS, 2011.

[#note) 4] Also known as the Urban Transformation Law. It was passed on June 16, 2005 by the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

5 Clémence Petit, Urban Transformation, Collective Mobilizations and Politicization Processes-the Case of the Urban Renewal Project of Basıbüyük (Istanbul), Master’s thesis, under the supervision of Marine de Lassalle, June 2009.

6 Marie Fonteneau, Ibid.

7 Jean-François Perouse, «  Istanbul, entre Paris et Dubaï : mise en conformité «  internationale ", nettoyage et résistances ", in Villes internationales : entre tensions et réactions des habitants, Isabelle Berry-Chikhaoui, Agnès Deboulet, Laurence Roulleau-Berger, éd. La découverte, coll Recherches, Paris, 2007.

8 Marie Fonteneau, Ibid.

9 Jean-François Perouse, Ibid.

10 The 1999 earthquake killed 17,480 people.

11 Clémence Petit, «  Militant engagement and politicization of mobilizations within urban oppositions in Istanbul ", EchoGeo, issue 16, 2011, posted online July 04, 2011, accessed July 04, 2012, URL Link

12 A documentary film about the city of Istanbul, entitled Ekümenopolis


Berry-Chikhaoui Isabelle, Deboulet Agnès, Roulleau-Berger Laurence, Jean-François Pérouse, International cities : between tensions and reactions of the inhabitants, La Découverte, collection, Recherches, Paris, 2007.

Bureau L.-M., Deger L., Rumel S., Turkey - South Africa : reflection of the new South-South cooperation ? IRIS, 2011.

Fonteneau Marie, La place de l’économie néolibérale dans le bouleversement des structures de l’habitat urbain a Istanbul-Etude du phénomène gecekondu, Dissertation, Institut d’Etude Politique, Aix-Marseille Université, 2012.

Kurtulus, Hatuce, Istanbul’da Kentsel Ayrısma (A. Türküm ile birlikte) Der H. Kurtulus. Bagam Yay, Istanbul, 2005.

Peck J. and Tickell A. «  Neoliberalizing Space ", Antipode, n°34, 2002.

Petit Clémence, «  Engagement militant et politisation des mobilisations au sein des oppositions urbaines à Istanbul ", Revue EchoGéo, numéro 16-2011.

Petit Clémence, Urban transformation, collective mobilizations and politicization processes-the case of the urban renewal project of Basıbüyük (Istanbul), Master 2 research thesis «  European Politics ", Research Director : Marine de Lassalle, 2009.

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