Ekumenopolis – Istanbul and the Making of the ‘Global City’

By Vishnu Prasad, IFMR Finance Foundation

Ekumenopolis, directed by İmre Azem is a hard-hitting Turkish documentary that reveals how the rapid growth of the city of Istanbul is engendering two polarizing visions for the future of the city. On the one hand, the Turkish state is intent on making Istanbul a global city; the cultural, artistic, economic and financial node of the region. This forms part of the larger vision of the ekumenopolis, a global network of urban areas that is expected to coalesce into a single, contiguous city-planet. On the other, the ordinary citizens of Istanbul, the migrants who come to the city seeking a better future, the quasi-visible proletariat who lubricate the city’s burgeoning service sector find themselves increasingly excluded from this vision. They want a future that they can claim a stake to- one that protects their right to the city and that they can shape themselves. This echoes of the conflict in most developing world mega-cities, including Indian cities such as Mumbai and Delhi which aspire to be global cities but at the same time struggle to provide the most basic services to large swathes of their populations.

The documentary explores spaces where the two fundamentally divergent visions clash- the urban renewal projects that disenfranchises original residents by resettling them to the periphery of the city, the proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus that could potentially precipitate the city’s impending environmental crisis and historic neighbourhoods that increasingly make way for gated communities, golf courses, shopping malls and speculative investments in land.

“Everybody deserves to live in a house with a swimming pool”

In many ways, the modern history of Istanbul’s meteoric rise starts post World War II. Armed with funds from the Marshall Plan, French urban planner Henry Prost devised a master plan, à la Haussmann that replaced a city prioritising tramways and public transport with wide boulevards that were meant to be automobile friendly. At the same time, the decline of agriculture in rural areas brought in cheap labour into the city that serviced the construction boom. The housing needs of this wave of migrants were met by permitting the building of ‘gecekondus’ or squatter homes that mushroomed throughout the city. A second wave of urbanization came in the 1980s under the regime of Turgut Ozal, whose neo-liberal policies quickly made urban land a tool for capital accumulation. Gecekondus that had come up on the highway leading to the first bridge across the Bosphorus were relocated to the peripheries of the city under the Turkish Mass Housing Corporation’s (TOKI) ‘urban renewal’ plans. The informal labourers that inhabited the gecekondus, whose livelihoods depended on easy access to the central industrial and business districts, found themselves marooned on isolated pockets of land, cut off from a city that could be accessed only by cars.

These developments share a strong resonance with the growth of Indian cities which have seen increased rural to urban migration over the past few decades leading to the development of large slums1. These slums, in many cases, occupy prime city land and have therefore been subject to periodic demolition drives accompanied by relocation of slum households to settlements in city peripheries. This approach was based on the central government’s Slum Clearance and Improvement Scheme passed in 1956, post which many state governments passed Slum Clearance Acts modelled on this scheme. States set up Slum Clearance Boards that were responsible for the eviction and relocation of slums. For instance, a recent study2 estimates that between 1990 and 2007, there were 218 instances of slum evictions in Delhi, displacing close to 65,000 households. The study also finds that the four primary uses of land reclaimed through eviction drives are vacant land, road and related infrastructure, parks and playgrounds, and government infrastructure. Close to a quarter of all reclaimed land remains vacant. Evicted families are mostly relocated to the edges of designated urban areas, leading to increasing peripheralization of the poor. More recently there has been a growing realisation of the deleterious impacts of slum clearance, such as the large-scale disruption of livelihoods and the destruction of social and economic networks.

The documentary shows how households driven to the outskirts of the city fall rapidly into poverty, forcing them to pull children out of schools and work on minimum wage, even as they await the apartments promised under TOKI’s social housing scheme. Most families return to their former neighbourhoods, looking for their old jobs in order to survive. Meanwhile, many of the former gecekondus are being converted into high rise apartments or hyper-luxurious gated communities, replete with shopping malls and golf courses. Their real estate advertisements promise the viewer a seductive escape to the ekumenopolis; a land where everybody deserves to live in a house with a swimming pool. In a poignant scene towards the closing moments of the film, a labourer working on a construction site that overlooks his former home tells the viewer how much he deplores having to make a living by building over the ruins of his former home, exposing the iniquities of the global city.

“Can you build a hotel in Central Park, New York?”

Azem also sheds light on the environmental disaster that awaits the city. Sandwiched between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, Istanbul’s development was largely restricted to the southern parts of the city. The building of the second bridge over the Bosphorus shifted the axis of development northward and led to large scale deforestation to accommodate the construction that the new roads brought with it. The fastest growing districts of Istanbul in the past three decades have been areas that are closest to the second bridge. The proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus remains a bone of contention between the state and civil society as it threatens to decimate what remains of the northern forests. Critics of the bridge argue that it is a continuation of the automobile-centric planning that will destroy the city’s last remaining breathing spaces; a plan as preposterous as building a hotel in Central Park, New York. They call for a revision of Istanbul’s planning paradigm that has seen car ownership increase ten-fold in two decades, leading to a 15% drop in use of public transportation. The resultant carbon emissions from road transport have increased 37% in a decade.

A city of close to 15 million residents, environmentalists fear that Istanbul has already exceeded its natural ecological limit. For instance, Istanbul faced a series of flash floods in 2009 that left 31 people dead and low-lying areas completely inundated. Much of the destruction was said to be a result of unbridled construction along the river bed. The documentary brings to the fore the class dimension of this ecological crisis- the wealthy live who live in luxury condominiums built on forest land, jog around artificial lakes serviced by groundwater and grow plants on their balconies are considered ‘green’ while the poor living in gecekondus and shanty towns are polluting, too dirty to belong to the lofty vision of the global city and therefore marginalized to its fringes.

The European and Asian parts of Istanbul separated by the Bosphorus Strait and wedged between the Sea of Marmara to the south and the Black Sea to the North. The two bridges over the Bosphorus are also visible.

The clash between the two divergent visions arguably reached boiling point during the Taksim Square protests earlier this year. The government wanted to convert Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in the city and the adjoining military barracks into a shopping mall and luxury residences. The documentary, filmed two years prior to the protests, contextualises and offers the best examination yet of the root causes of the protests.

Orhan Pamuk, writing on the protests in the New York Times says, “I’ve been living in Istanbul for sixty years, and I cannot imagine that there is a single inhabitant of this city who does not have at least one memory connected to Taksim Square. In the nineteen-thirties, the old artillery barracks, which the government now wants to convert into a shopping mall, contained a small football stadium that hosted official matches. The famous club Taksim Gazino, which was the center of Istanbul night life in the nineteen-forties and fifties, stood on a corner of Gezi Park.” This perhaps best captures the inherent conflict in Istanbul’s rapid transformation– a city that wants to build its dreams over the memories of its residents.

There is an astonishing uniformity in the forces that underpin the growth of the world’s mega-cities. As David Harvey, noted social theorist, argues in his book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, the growing polarization in the distribution of wealth and power is being indelibly etched into the spatial forms of cities. The wealthy are increasingly looking to separate themselves from the reality of their urban environment through the formation of fortified fragments or self-sufficient micro-states, while the poor- as Ekumenopolis shows- struggle constantly to establish the legitimacy of their urban existence in the wake of slum demolitions and renewal plans. There is an urgent need to reclaim the collective right to the city and shape our urban future in a manner that is equitable and sustainable.

Watch the trailer of the documentary here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEzqu_z9fRo
The entire documentary can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maEcPKBXV0M

1 – It is estimated that close to 55% of the urban population in Mumbai, 33% in Kolkata and 20% in Delhi and Chennai live in slums. Source: Slum Census of India, 2001
2 – Gautham Bhan and Swati Shivanand. (Un) Settling the City-Analysing Displacement in Delhi from 1990 to 2007. Vol XLVIII no 13, Review of Urban Affairs. Economic and Political Weekly. March 2013