Urban Age, Istanbul 27.11.09

Written by 

words Justin McGuirk

For the last five years the Urban Age conference, a sort of mobile think tank, has been roving the world leaving a trail of staggering statistics. Its topic is one of the greatest challenges facing mankind in the 21st century: the rapid urbanisation of the planet’s population. By the end of this century it is estimated that 75 percent of us will be living in cities. The question the Urban Age asks is, what kind of cities?

The conference was founded by Ricky Burdett, the London School of Economics professor and the curator of the 2006 Venice architecture biennale – remember all those wall panels and polystyrene population density models? Hopping from one megalopolis to another – last year São Paulo, the year before Mumbai – this year the Urban Age landed in Istanbul, the only city in Europe (or with one foot in Europe, let’s say) ballooning at a comparable rate to the instant cities of Asia or South America. Istanbul’s official population is 12.5 million (the unofficial one is nudging 15 million) and it’s doubling every decade. This crossroads – the sociologist Richard Sennett called it a “hinge city” – is both a trans-regional powerhouse in the making and a test bed for the kinds of social, infrastructural and environmental problems that come with such speedy and often unplanned growth.

Dreamily removed from those conditions, in a gorgeous spot on the Bosporus shore between a Sinan mosque and the suspension bridge that connects Europe with Asia, an intellectual hothouse of university professors and theorists mingled with a political cadre of mayors, ex-mayors and policy makers. One of the impressive things about Urban Age is its aim to connect the world’s foremost thinkers on cities with the people who have the power to put their ideas into effect. Last year in São Paulo the governor resolved to turn several suggestions made during the conference into policies. Would Istanbul’s politicians and planners be as open minded?

The early signs were not promising. Turkey’s deputy prime minister and Istanbul’s mayor showed up for a photo op at the opening party but passed on the actual conference. The mayor of Beyoglu Municipality (Istanbul’s European quarter) did attend the first morning but used the occasion to show a cheesy promo video and invite the audience to invest in his portfolio of local developments (pumping up his personal bonus package). Still, with two days of debate and discussion to come, who knew what results they might yield.

image The razed neighbourhood of Sulukule

One interesting question was whether or not Istanbul is a success story. Certainly it is a rare case in that it has managed to multiply itself several times over and absorb vast numbers of migrants without producing slums of the kind that occurred in, say, Mumbai or São Paulo. At the same time, the city is polarising fast. The municipality is selling land off to developers (a relatively new phenomenon in Turkey, where land has always been state owned) and forcing the urban poor out to the peripheries. Urbanist Saskia Sassen was quick to point out that Istanbul seems set on the very same “neo-liberal project” that she argues has been so devastating in the West.

This was only the first sign of a left-leaning political undercurrent running through the two days. Enrique Peñalosa, the ex-mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who transformed the city’s transport systems and public realm, argued passionately that public good has to prevail over private interests. “We can’t have economic equality but we can have equality of quality of life,” he said.

Alejandro Zaera Polo of Foreign Office Architects picked up this theme in one of the conference’s most entertaining presentations. He argued that political ideology has been replaced by a more effective market characteristic: cheapness. So long Che Guevara, hello Easyjet. His point was that in the same way that the “no frills” airlines declassed the aeroplane cabin, so the proliferation of no frills identikit housing is democratising access to the city. It was a provocative point because obviously no one likes the standardised towers being thrown up around the edge of Istanbul or any number of cities in China or across the world. An earlier speaker, journalist Suketu Mehta, pointed out that they all look like they were designed by the same mad architect.

image Rundown streetscape of Tarlabasi

Interesting though all this extemporising was, the question is whether any of it would help solve the problems facing Istanbul. The exploding population, the traffic, the commodification of the land, the social upheaval that comes with forcibly uprooting whole neighbourhoods in the name of regeneration. It was instructive to hear what Istanbul’s own planning officials made of it all. The director of the Metropolitan Planning and Urban Design Centre gave a long presentation that was notable for the absence of any kind of vision, clarity or direction. Afterwards, under questioning, he pretty much threw his hands up in despair and admitted that he didn’t know what to do about the problem of moving the poor off valuable land near the city centre. The municipality’s moves so far have been blunt to say the least. At Sulukule, it razed to the ground an entire neighbourhood of wooden houses inhabited by the Roma so that it can be upgraded with upper middle class condominiums. In the ethnically diverse neighbourhood of Tarlabasi, near the central hub of Taksim Square, similar enforced regeneration is on the cards.

“People have just been treated like city furniture, moved from here to there, and it’s not acceptable,” said the head of a local community association. “The government pays peanuts for my house, moves me out and sells it on for a fortune. They’re only interested in having rich people here.” It was a relief to hear someone finally speak out. There were very few voices of dissent at the conference. This was partly out of the kind of diplomacy that comes with a conference pitched at the level of politicians and respected academics, but also because many of the illustrious speakers are flown in to share their experiences of their own cities and, understandably, know very little about this one.

What works in London might not be best in Istanbul. For instance, the former mayor of Washington DC, Austin Williams, made no bones about the fact that if a mayor wants to get things done he has to assert his authority to force it through. And he was backed up by Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, whose research was used by ex-mayor Ken Livingstone to do just that. However, that wasn’t necessarily the best message to send in Istanbul, where mayors tend to favour developments that come with a little cream to be skimmed off the top. Here, it’s the checks and balances that need to be asserted. The point was made supremely well by Harvard law professor Gerald Frug. In the quote of the conference, he said, “What about corruption? That’s another example of a public-private partnership.” He was responding to the increased privatisation of the city and arguing that the private sector has too much influence – much more than the citizens. Isn’t privatisation, he asked, just a way of avoiding democratic accountability?

Richard Sennett rounded off the conference with a similar point. The topic was how to retrofit Istanbul. Now, apparently no one likes the term “retrofitting”, but Sennett mounted a sort of defence for it, arguing that often it is better than drastic urban surgery because the latter is always performed in the interests of, and often by, big business. He cited the case of New York’s Times Square and, given the way historical neighbourhoods are being erased in Istanbul, the point applied equally well here. “[That surgery] often assumes that because decay has occurred we need a change of population,” he said. “Whereas those citizens are capable of regenerating the area themselves.”

Intellectually, the conference was certainly stimulating. Its impact on Istanbul was probably minimal, but then it’s up to the host city to take what it can from the occasion. The Urban Age does rather leave itself open to the accusation that it is a coterie of the same people travelling the world saying the same things. However, it has a healthy future. With a recent £5 million endowment from Deutsche Bank, it has now been institutionalised into the Urban Age school at the LSE – and these days a dedicated school of urbanism is a valuable place indeed.

Next year the conference is in Chicago. No doubt there is good work to be done in the home of the US president (whom the organisers are praying will show up in person) but you can’t help thinking that, with all of the world’s fastest growing cities located in the southern economies, Burdett should be taking his merry band to Africa.

All pictures Justin McGuirk

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