Cities Travel

Istanbul Inspirations

Written by Sven Eberlein

Just about two months ago today I landed in Istanbul for a “work and play” week that would include discussing new visions for cities in the age of climate change at the Ecocity World Summit while simultaneously wandering and cycling through this storied corner of human civilization.

As could be expected, there was as much to learn outside the convention center as there was inside. All the problems and contradictions as well as the beauty and ingenuity inherent in our human settlements could not have been better represented than by the sights and scenes manifesting all around us. So while my left brain was tickled to no end, the information gleaned from workshops and presentations sank in much deeper once my feet hit the street, thanks to the many…

Istanbul Inspirations

Where East meets West

Istanbul, perhaps as old as 8000 years, is a city of contrasts, where Europe meets Asia, east meets west, old meets new…

Senses set to overflow

Istanbul is a place for the senses, though it doesn’t necessarily “make” sense. Like many old-world cities it is a confluence of flavors, a kaleidoscope of eras past yet not forgotten. Once you’re in it you can’t help but turn on your god-given inner GPS.

I was seduced by deep texture everywhere

and guided by sights and smells too colorful to describe

Which brings me to…


In a league of its own. Very diverse. A Mediterranean climate allows plants and animals to flourish, and a long culinary tradition has kept the food supply local. I was only able to scratch the surface of this eater’s paradise, and I’m hungry just thinking about it….

Okay, have a seat!

For meat lovers, there’s köfte, döner, and fresh fish everywhere.

Eggplant, green peppers, onions, garlic, lentils, beans, and tomatoes are staples for veggie lovers.

not to forget, cheese and bread!

Chestnuts on every “corn”er

I really needed to have what these guys were having!

OMG! The best lunch sandwich ever! It’s called Üç Parça. Yum!

Istanbul is pretty much completely off the chart as far as rational interpretation goes. It’s like a solid stew where all the different ingredients have just been simmering together for long enough that they don’t have to compete against each other anymore.

There’s spicy and well…spicy

there’s bazaar and bizarre

timeless and contemporary

introspection and expression

It all just melts into one

Megacity Istanbul

Just like its food and culture, the urban landscape of Istanbul is a constantly changing amalgam of period styles and settlements. Blending Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods, present-day Istanbul, or what used to be Constantinople, has expanded northwards towards the neighborhoods of Beyoglu, Beşiktaş, Şişli, Nişantaşı, and beyond. In fact, I stayed in Beyoglu, and from an ecocity perspective it had all the important elements of quality high density living.

A lively pedestrian zone on Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue)

Public transportation

A vibrant nightlife scene

The challenges of population growth

According to Professor Ahmet Samsunlu, former public works and settlement minister of Turkey, Istanbul had a population of 1 million in 1950. Today the city has 15-18 million residents, an exact count impossible due to urban sprawl that has created an Istanbul larger in area than the state of Rhode Island and more populous than all of Greece or Belgium. Samsunlu estimates that each year this megacity adds an additional half million people, mostly rural residents seeking jobs in the city. As a result of this rapid growth a significant portion of the city’s outskirts consist of gecekondus, meaning ‘built overnight’ and referring to illegally constructed squatter buildings that comprise entire neighborhoods and run rampant outside the historic center. Samsunlu estimates that squatters now make up 60% of Istanbul and pointed out the difficulties in environmentally sound urban planning in the face of such uncontrolled growth.

I did not visit any gecekondus during my stay, but even in the city center the contrasts between the ancient walkable city running up against modern day realities were striking:

trying to fit cars into places that weren’t built for cars…

keeping them out versus letting them in…

One rainy day I made the mistake of taking a cab to cover 1 mile from my guest house near Taksim Square to Cevahir Convention Center.

Stuck in traffic…

The cabbie ended up going on the beltway all around the city. An hour and 10 miles later we got to the conference.

For those who argue that it can’t be done without cars, well, they did it like this for the first 7900 years of their city’s existence…

But there are some positive trends. Dr. Samsunlu pointed out that people are swimming in the Golden Horn again, something that would have been unthinkable not too long ago. Environmental action is very much on the radar, as climate change may redraw Turkey’s coastal map. A report presented to a parliamentary commission by the Electrical Power Resources Survey and Development Administration (EIEI) predicts that by 2030 global warming may have caused an up to 18-centimeter rise in sea levels in Turkey. It was great then to see not only officials and planners talk about the need for change at the lectern, but citizens taking matters into the streets.

From people marching down Istiklal Caddesi demanding climate action…

to Murat Suyabatmaz and the Turkish Bicycle Association taking to the streets

it’s a steep climb but the greenroots are popping through the pavement…

A beacon of paradoxes, it only makes sense that Istanbul would embody the challenges as well as the solutions for a sustainable existence of humanity on planet Earth. While its current rate of population growth poses tremendous challenges to sustainable city planning, its embrace of religious and ethnic multiculturalism also shows how rich and well-functioning dense urban living can be. And despite all the problems of congestion and pollution, much of the infrastructure to support a more livable city is already there, having proven itself to be well-functioning for much of Istanbul’s history.

Or as Murat Suyabatmaz of Bisikletliler, the Turkish Bicycle Association, said to me in an interview:

We used to eat nutritious black bread that was baked fresh and locally every morning. Then, about 30 years ago, everyone started to buy and eat cheap white bread. We’re just now realizing that the black bread is not only much healthier but tastes better, and people are willing to spend a little extra money again to eat right. The bicycle is like black bread, it’s making a comeback in Turkey for the same reason: It’s good for everyone.

I’ll leave you with a few more Istanbul Inspirations…

About the author

Sven Eberlein

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  • I am drifting without a virtual home for awhile i think …. so i am happy to see your posting promoted here. Beautiful work, Sven. What is the difference between what you post here and what you post on that other beautiful space? Your work should be EVERYWHERE. In my old age, I am becoming more and more convinced of the need to take up photography. Both of us are so immersed in the merging of the two. Only with you, the pictures are authentically yours or some wonderful talented connection. I spend hours searching for just the perfect match for the words or the mood or the evocation…

    Thanks for sharing this with GR and my hope is that more members of the community will spread their wings out and explore your marvelous creations.

    • This is my own blog, so I get to go crazy as much and often as I like around here ;-). Perhaps that could be a way for you to find a new home too, Deborah, it’s a fun way to collect all your stories and thoughts and put them out there.

      As far as photography, I’ve found that the pictures get stronger the more I look at the not so obvious, the spaces between. Definitely something I learned from Deb too, you know, there’s so many different angles from which you can photograph a person, and sometimes it’s the feet that turn out the most interesting. Having a camera that takes good pics and you’re comfortable with really helps. In my case I just got this cheap Panasonic Lumix point and shoot, but it has a Leica lens which is just incredibly sharp, no matter what I shoot. I guess sometimes the simple stuff works the best. As far as where I post, a lot of my stuff works both here and on kos, but some of the more soulful reflections don’t make it over there and some of the nitty gritty politics don’t make it here. This one was crossposted on daily kos, it works on both sites.

  • Sven — what a wonderful travelogue in a very current sort of way. I love all of it, but am especially enthralled by the food photos. They are spectacular — had to be shot by a food lover. And now I will feast my eyes and read it all ove again! Thanks!

    • Zelda, I thought you would enjoy the food photos. The only thing I regret is that I couldn’t be there longer to delve a little more deeply into these culinary delights. Everything just looked and tasted like it had evolved to perfection after so many centuries of cooking and fine-tuning the dishes.

  • You are right to regret you couldnt stay more in Istanbul. In fact in Turkey. You cant imagine how big variety Turkish cousin has. Also if you come again, you should make a boat tour on bosphorus. And see the lovely waterside wooden houses, kiosks and palaces.. And take new photos as beatiful as the ones above…Thank you

    • Yes, Sibel, my stay was much too short to truly capture the great diversity of food and people in Turkey, but I got a good taste. I hope to be back soon to see much more of your beautiful country.

  • Your pictures are beautiful, Sven, as are your descriptions and the unspoken questions generated by the reading. I truly enjoy getting to see the beautiful places you bring back home with you.

  • Wonderful pictures and great commentary. I notice, in the photos at least, that the city streets look cleaner than SF or Oakland. Was that the case? And yes, all those gorgeous pics of the food are making me hungry too! Thank you for sharing this.

    • well, it really depended on where you went, but general it was really clean, though some of the smaller back alleys near the the bazaar were pretty gritty. One thing that you might appreciate Therese were the amount of street cats that were hanging out. I’m not sure if they were stray cats or if they actually belonged to someone but they were pretty cute and acted as if they owned the place 😉

  • I am so glad you love my country and city… I was expecting to see a picture of Maiden’s Tower as I scrolled down the page but I didn’t. I hope, you had seen it at least from a distance. Next time you should arrange a dinner or lunch in the restaurant in it.. It is just magnificent…thank you…

    • Hi Ozlem, I did walk by the Maiden’s Tower but didn’t take a picture. I’ll take your advice and have dinner there next time. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to be in your beautiful city again soon.