Istanbul: a nightmare future?

A TOKI development near Van. TOKI, Turkey’s mass housing administration, looms large as the villain of Ekümenopolis, a documentary about urban development in Istanbul.

Last night I watched Ekümenopolis, a recent documentary about urban development in Istanbul, directed by Imre Azem. I highly recommend it. Here’s a trailer:

It focuses on the greed and shortsightedness of those planning – or failing to plan – for the city’s future, and the devastating toll of urban ‘regeneration’ schemes on poorer communities.

Slickly paced with stunning photography, music and animations, it manages a complex exploration of these issues while at the same time being deeply engaging.

The film’s name is drawn from the concept of the Ecumenopolis, coined in the 1960s by Greek city planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who envisioned a future in which, if urbanization and population trends continued, the world’s megalopolises would eventually fuse into one global city.

Sitting in the centre of Istanbul, it’s easy to forget about the forests of identical skyscrapers proliferating in all directions, but in breathtaking helicopter shots (particularly in the final sequence), Ekümenopolis makes this dystopian future seem frighteningly close.

The current planning regime, the film suggests, will result in atomized communities driven into poverty, a glut of unliveable housing that serves only to line the pockets of the construction industry, and environmental devastation. Quite similar to the present, actually.

The film effectively juxtaposes the grim reality in neighbourhoods like Ayazma and Sulukule, where residents have been forced from their homes, with oddly creepy TV adverts for new housing projects that will replace them.

A particularly memorable moment comes during an interview with development tycoon Ali Agaoglu. He claims that only 15 of the 1,000 families evicted from Ayazma are unsatisfied with the deal they got, in which they were paid around 24,000TL for their homes and were then moved to a new neighbourhood miles from the centre of the city where they were given apartments in exchange for a 15,000TL down payment and then 400TL monthly mortgage payments.

Asked about the situation in the new neighbourhood, Bezirganbahce, Agaoglu didn’t even know where the interviewer was talking about. Meanwhile in Bezirganbahce the evictees, unable to make their payments, were facing homelessness and financial ruin.

A couple of searing interviews stand out, such as a tirade by one Sulukule resident, Cafer Gitmez, on the scandalous deal being forced on them: to move to Tasoluk, a purpose-built neighbourhood miles out of town (and now virtually abandoned).

“God help us. And God help those who’ve gone there. Of course they’re excited at first: poor people are being given housing. But they won’t be able to buy those houses in 150 years! It’s true. 30 kilometres there and 30 back, 60 in total to get to work in Taksim or Dolapdere- or anywhere else… I earn between 20 and 30TL. I take the subway there and then, behold, back to my house! Sorry, but should I eat the walls? I’ll pay for two months at most and then the government will say: “Fine, now get out.” 400TL for rent and 400 to live on: 800TL. When am I ever going to earn that?”

I’ve written about Turkey’s urban regeneration schemes before here. For excellent coverage of this issue read the blog Tarlabasi Istanbul, by Jonathan Lewis and Constanze Letsch. This post is particularly good.

It’s sad that the earthquake in Van is only likely to embolden TOKI and the government in pursuing housing policies that may have potentially devastating social consequences.

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