Text by Selva Gürdoğan and Gregers Tang Thomsen, Superpool
Istanbul is a city in transition. With half-forgotten traditions, borrowed experiences, cutting-edge developments, fading and emerging practices, it is a mixture about to crystallize. With competing internal and external interests, Istanbul’s potential for equitable social, technological, and urban change hangs in the balance.
The city’s rolling hills and Bosphorus strait are both its most iconic features and its most pronounced physical challenges. The hills pose a problem that rail transportation cannot easily negotiate. And Bosphorus crossings are the cause of major bottlenecks in commuter traffic. With some fifteen million people occupying a metropolitan area spanning 115 kilometers from east to west and density reaching up to 68,000 people per square kilometer, mobility is an issue.
In an attempt to improve mobility in the city, the public authorities continue to plan and build large-scale infrastructure projects, from express tunnels cut under the hills, rail and motorway tunnels under the Bosphorus, and new bridges over the strait to many kilometers of light rail.
Istanbul, however, is essentially an unplanned city, both spatially and institutionally, a condition that provides room for private initiatives. The form and function of the city are shaped, in part, by its unique entrepreneurial culture. Small- to medium-size enterprises (SMEs), including many family-owned businesses, exist in many sectors. In the historic center of Istanbul, for example, small-scale manufacturing and contracting remain vibrant.
SMEs exist in the transportation sector, too. From shared taxis and minibuses to privately owned buses that serve on public routes and small, independently operated boats that cross the Golden Horn or Bosphorus, a range of ownership models and services exist in the city. To envision new models that incorporate emergent technologies will be critical for the future of mobility in Istanbul.
Land, too, has been developed by small-scale businesses. Nearly 90 percent of the city has been built since the 1950s due to the rapid growth of its population. What started as low-rise squatter areas called gecekondu neighborhoods have been replaced by haphazard apartment buildings, and these in turn are now awaiting a third wave of rebuilding due to their location in high-risk earthquake zones. This twenty-year rebuilding cycle suggests that the city will look entirely different in 2030.
Current changes are also fueled by a growing interest from local and international developers in the city as an emerging market. The increasing pressures applied by new requirements for earthquake-resistant construction and market-driven developments suggest that conversations about Istanbul’s future are at a critical juncture. Will the city that grew fifteenfold in the past one hundred years become a better habitat with the expected changes of the next twenty years?
In a video project we produced about the Istanbul 2020 Olympics, artist Memed Erdener inquires, “I wonder what the storekeepers think about the Olympics? What about the transvestites, anarchists, lumpen proletariat? Those who cannot find what they are looking for in life, the losers, the miserable, the pathetic, the psychopaths, of course the ugly and especially the poor, what do they think about the Olympics?” His remarks remind us that there are many constituencies in the city, and they should all be part of the discussion about Istanbul’s future.
Faced with the task to rebuild homes for millions of residents in the earthquake zones, how will the city actually do this? Our concern is in nurturing Istanbul’s vibrant neighborhood communities during the city’s next phase of construction. Current redevelopment processes are market-driven and residents do not have control over the future of their environments. Our interest is in being attentive to the micro scale of the person and the family. In this regard, emerging technologies create a potential for a more democratic urban experience.