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…
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
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)
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…