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close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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close this folderHabitat
View the documentLivable cities and rural rights
View the documentTowards a global concept of urban development - an interview with Daby Diagne
View the documentHabitat II: taking stock
View the document'A house to call my own'
View the documentMegacities
View the documentLagos under stress
View the documentA Eurocrat in Istanbul
View the documentThe exploding city
View the documentAdequate housing in the EU: rights and realities
View the documentCities of the Third World
View the documentWhen conservation is at odds with the local population
View the documentA new 'eco-centre' in West Africa: Two Presidents amid the dust
View the documentThe RDP challenge
View the documentTargeting South Africa's poor
View the document'Guardians of Eden'

The exploding city

by Stephane Yerasimos

Istanbul. Ten million inhabitants - with double that number expected in 20 years time. Financial irregularities, a chaotic house-building sector, a lack of infrastructure and rampant speculation. One needed to look no further than the host city to find the key issues facing the Habitat Conference.

Istanbul is a city steeped in history. It is also one of the Third World's biggest conurbations. Over the last 16 centuries, it has been the capital of two great empires - the Byzantine and the Ottoman - resulting in a rich legacy of monuments and a historic centre on a par with that of Rome. From the Middle Ages to the beginning of the modern era, it was regarded as Europe's largest city. On the eve of the Second World War, it had a population of one million, but that figure has now multiplied tenfold. Almost half of its ten million inhabitants are living on a knife edge, and many are in 'illegal' housing.

The first big transformation of the city came in the middle of the 19th century when the Ottoman authorities opted for westernisation and embarked on an extensive management programme. By the time the Empire collapsed in 1922, much of the ancient fabric - and traditional housing - of the city had already been lost. Under the new republic, the capital was transferred to Ankara, and the authorities stepped up their efforts at modernisation. In 1937, Ataturk gave Frenchman Henri Prost, a city planner who had helped preserve the old centres of a number of Moroccan towns, the job of devising major public works in the heart of the old city. The infrastructure was also updated and taken together, these works (which were completed during the 1950s) transformed the old walled city and its ancient suburbs (Galata and Uskudar) into a modern aggLomtion, interspersed with ancient monuments.

Mass immigration

Unlike the colonial powers who attempted to preserve the traditional character of old city centres around the Mediterranean rim and in the rest of the Islamic world, the desire of successive Turkish governments to modernise the country resulted in the disappearance of most of Istanbul's ancient fabric, and the city no longer has a compact area of old districts.

The transformation of the city centre was matched, after the Second World War, by an explosion of building on the outskirts - a phenomenon characteristic of Third World countries. Improved sanitation and hygiene standards led to a natural population increase of between 2.5% and 3% per year. Meanwhile, the modernisation of agricultural practices caused a mass rural exodus. Marginalised in both economic and social terms. the people who flooded into Istanbul soon over whelmed the resident population. Today, the bulk of the people living in the city have rural origins.

The new residents began by occupying the edges of the old quarters and taking over the open spaces which remained after the ravages of an earlier fire. They then began to settle in ever-increasing circles around Istanbul, establishing the first gecekondu districts (groups of huts constructed overnight). These have been incorrectly described as shanty towns. In fact, most buildings are permanent structures and they rapidly develop into multi-storey dwellings. Most of the land on which these illegal buildings have sprung up was originally privately owned. But the elected multi-party government in power at the time was quick to spot the electoral possibilities in these areas. Each district was a reservoir of potential voters and, on the eve of each election, the parties in power would distribute property titles to the illegal occupants. They, in turn hastened to consolidate and increase their assets. This explains the emergence of increasingly densely populated districts without infrastructure during the 1950s and early 1960s

Industrialisation, and the arrival in the city of people who used to be rural landowners (driven out by the new market economy) later created a demand for housing which the normal market was unable to meet. This has given rise to a new phenomenon of urban marginalisation, involving the illegal division of land into plots. The system involves the purchase of agricultural properties by developers and speculative builders. These are divided into small plots and resold, quite legally, to purchasers - who then build unauthorised structures in contravention of the normal planning rules. Often, benefiting from political alliances, the developers take control of these districts and 'convert' the votes of the people living there into cash, in return for urban investments. This enables them to consolidate their power and increase the value of their remaining stock of plots.

An uncontrolled population increase

Finally, a third phenomenon, linked to the growth of a middle class, began to occur in the mid-1980s, when building cooperatives came into being. Their predecessors were the corporate associations which grouped together public officials (beginning with the army and the police). These developed into ad-hoc associations enabling a group of developers to tap people's savings, thereby dispensing with the need for loans in a country where chronic inflation makes credit prohibitive. Several thousands of dwellings are often constructed at the same time, in the form of tightly packed, multiple-occupancy blocks. The requirements of multi-storey construction mean that these buildings are of acceptable quality, but the related infrastructures are sorely lacking. Entire districts are built 'in the wilds' without any infrastructural investment by the developers or local authorities.

The city is continuing to expand, without reference to any development plan. The fifteen or so major urban schemes drawn up since the 1950s have all remained in desk drawers and the only significant construction work has been on roads (notably bridges and ring roads). These generate further uncontrolled population increases on the outskirts of the city.

Although the natural rate of demographic growth is slowly declining - it has just dropped to under 2% per year - the most recent census (in 1990) reveals that Turkey now has more people living in its cities than in its rural areas. Yet the statistics also show that half of the country's people are still involved in agriculture. Given the continuing natural growth, and the fact that in semi-industrialised countries, the rural population tends to settle at around a third or even just a quarter of the total, we can assume that the drift to towns and cities will continue for the next 30 or 40 years. This trend will affect all Turkish towns and cities, be they large, small or medium-sized. But Greater Istanbul, where the majority of the country's economic and social activity is concentrated, is set to experience a doubling of its population within the next twenty-five years.

Dilemma for urban planners

The problem caused by demographic changes is exacerbated by economic constraints. For a number of years now, Turkey has suffered a high (albeit stable) inflation rate of about 70% per year. This situation discourages investment in industry, and makes people take refuge in ownership of land that they can build on. Land has thus become the target of speculation by people in all social classes. Against this background, it is virtually impossible to regulate the use of land - something which must be at the heart of any urban-development programme. An alternative is to discuss the possibility of developing a social consensus involving a more liberal approach to property speculation, recgnising that land is a source of revenue at all levels. This might entail releasing central and local authorities from any responsibility to provide services or other infrastructural investment.

In the present circumstances, however, any scheme to redevelop Istanbul effectively would seem doomed to failure. The only intervention which might succeed would be at the 'cleaning-up' stage - coming in after the construction of the dwellings under the conditions described above. It is only once the new inhabitants' dream of having a roof over their heads is realised that they come face to face with the harsh daily realities of living in a self-built city of nearly ten million people. They may then be prepared to make some sacrifices in order to improve their living conditions. The moment when harsh reality replaces emotion, is the only time the urban planner has the slightest chance of being listened to.