February 27th, 2015

This is Part I of a two-part interview with Cihan Uzunçarşılı Baysal on the state of development-induced displacement in Istanbul. Part II focuses on civil society responses and strategies for resistance.

IMAGE CREDIT: Nejla Osseiran- Istanbul Urban Movements tent at the Gezi Park protests

DRAN: Istanbul has undergone a substantial urban transformation over the past two decades. The legal framework of urban development projects has come under much criticism by scholars, activists, planners and the United Nations. Can you explain the evolution and shortcomings of laws used for the implementation of urban transformation projects?

Cihan Uzunçarşılı Baysal (CB): In 2005 the government enacted two urban renewal laws allowing for ambitious urban regeneration projects citywide, in historic sites as well as in informal neighborhoods. Through the Municipality Law 5393, municipalities were vested with the right to implement urban transformation projects in gecekondu areas. Literally meaning “built overnight,” gecekondu refers to Turkey’s informal housing settlements constructed without permits. In practice, however, the Municipality law has encompassed not just [intervention in] gecekondu areas, but in social housing sites and formal neighborhoods with legal title deeds as well.

However, because this legal tool could not be employed in historical sites and cultural heritage areas due to restrictions stemming from preservation laws, the government needed another instrument to start renewal projects in these areas; thus, some months later, the Preservation by Renovation Law (Law 5366) was enacted.

More recently, the 2011 earthquake disaster in Turkey has provided new justification for the central authority to intervene in almost any urban space with the exception of foreign embassies and consulates. Through the 2012 Law On Transformation of Areas under Disaster Risk (Law 6306) power to launch transformation projects in risk-designated areas was concentrated in the hands of TOKI [the Mass Housing Administration] and the Ministry of Environment and Urban Affairs.

Since then, 152 areas comprising 392,000 housing units and impacting 1.1 million people have been declared as “prone to earthquake risk” by the Council of Ministers. Currently, 172 areas are being investigated by the Ministry, and these are also expected to be declared risk areas. Forty of these (almost 25%) are in Istanbul, comprising 1,106.25 hectares of land, but likely more.

Together, these legal instruments have opened a new era for urban intervention, including evictions, and regeneration projects in Istanbul.

DRAN: What is the current state of forced evictions due to the urban development projects in Istanbul?

CB: In 2007, Istanbul Municipality’s Deputy Secretary General notified that preparations for urban transformation projects were continuing at full speed and 1 million gecekondus of the city’s 1.5 million needed to be replaced by new [units]. According to the UN Habitat Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) Mission, “8 to 10 million poor and middle class residents of Istanbul living in these 1 million buildings are facing and will be facing [displacement] in the near future if nothing is done to reverse the current trend and the current practices.” After the enactment of the Disaster Law, AGFE’s projection may become true! The ambiguity present in the letter of the law, together with the lack of legal certainty (no exact definition of what is meant by a disaster risk area or a hazardous building) and lack of accountability mechanisms, provide the central government with immense decision making power with regard to the process of the demolition of neighborhoods and buildings and the determination of what projects will be implemented in these demolished and evicted neighborhoods. The areas designated as disaster risk areas are actually areas where land rents and profits are high, not those prone to risk.

Overall, these major laws and regulations together with other legal instruments are responsible for commodification of urban land, making it harder for low and middle income groups to be able to live and work in the city. Hence, it will not be an exaggeration to state that most of the population will be expelled to the fringes. If the current pace of socio-spatial segregation continues as it is today, we will be facing an apartheid city in the long run.

DRAN: The Turkish government’s massive infrastructure projects raise serious environmental concerns. The so-called mega-projects include Northern Marmara Motorway with the new bridge across the Bosphorus StraitThird Airport and Istanbul Canal project. What are the potential impacts of these projects in terms of forced eviction and displacement?

CB: These projects will have direct and indirect impacts that are already visible. The direct consequences are forced evictions and displacement of communities located in the vicinity of these projects. At the request of TOKI, the Council of Ministers carried out an emergency expropriation of six villages from two districts that are located in the area of the Third Airport project in January 2014. According to the law, emergency expropriation is a legal tool only to be used in a state of emergency such as war, civil strife, natural disaster, etc., yet the government has unlawfully utilized it on grounds that there is common good in the project! Villagers have filed cases against the decision.

Taking into consideration national and international economic conditions, the Istanbul Canal project may remain a dream of Erdogan; but, if it is implemented, millions may be affected since it will cross through three districts – Kücükcekmece, Basaksehir and Arnavutkoy – stretching from the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea.

On the other hand, indirect impacts of these projects are just as serious. Land prices have soared in areas around these projects just based on rumors. Low income communities in informal housing in Kücükcekmece and Basaksehir districts are under threat of forced evictions, and developers have started collecting land in the area. [The neighborhood of] Guvercintepe has already been announced as a risk-prone area by the government and [expropriated] under the Disaster Law.

Besides this, construction companies have started what may be called “supplementary projects,” such as luxury housing, five star hotels, malls, private city parks etc., in the area of influence of these mega-projects; all of which engender gentrification. To add to all this, the banks of the Bosphorous will also be directly and indirectly affected. Villages on the Northern Sea districts together with informal settlements overlooking the Bosphorous, and looking more like villas in spacious gardens, may confront evictions in the long run due to regeneration projects.

Cihan Uzunçarşılı Baysal is a leading housing rights activist in Turkey and spokesperson of Urban Movements-Istanbul. She was assigned by UN-Habitat as local expert of their Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) and participated in the AGFE Istanbul Mission in 2009.