Istanbul: Notes on the Eternal City’s Urban Problems and Ideas

I had the pleasure to visit to Istanbul last week. This was just a leisure trip to explore the city (and have a break from work), but when roaming the streets I quickly noted that there’s no way I can keep myself from reflecting on what I’m seeing and hearing. I also had the privilege to meet with two local university students and explore different faces of the city together with them. Based on our wonderful talks and my observations, I decided to write a special feature on Istanbul that on the one hand highlights pressing issues in the city’s planning scene and on the other displays ideas other cities could learn and benefit from. This piece is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of Istanbul’s urban planning and policies by any means, but a collection of different aspects a Finnish urbanist encountered and found interesting during five days in the city.

Istanbul – The New York of the East

If I needed to capture Istanbul’s general atmosphere, I’d have to go with twinning it with New York City. On the surface, these two cities may seem worlds apart, but they actually have a lot in common. The famous saying “there’s no place like New York City” is equally fit for Istanbul as it is for the Big Apple.

Istanbul’s streets are vibrant. This is the Taksim end of İstiklâl Caddesi, one of Istanbul’s main shopping streets.

For starters, Istanbul is huge. The Turkish Statistical Institute has counted the city to have 14.4 million inhabitants, but I was told on several occasions that 16 million would be more truthful. In either case, the city is big. Its neighborhoods are dense and packed with life, and its streets are energetic and always lively – Istanbul is a city that never sleeps.

Just like NYC, Istanbul is also multicultural and cosmopolitan. A characteristic that has been present for much over a thousand years. Istanbul has served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, but more importantly, the city has been located in an intersection of flows of people and ideas. Istanbul is a magnet for people seeking to make their dreams come true.

Both cities are also iconic and familiar to us from popular culture and/or history books. Even if James Bond has been to Istanbul on three occasions against just once to NYC, Istanbul is obviously much stronger on the history book front. Just its location between continents on the Bosphorus and role as a cultural bridge between Europe and the Middle East throughout ages are beyond epic. Not to mention Istanbul’s selection of famous religious landmarks and places of grand architecture such as the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.

Moreover, both cities are important cultural capitals, centers of trade and unrivaled economic powerhouses. One distinct mutual feature is that both cities have significant fashion industry clusters. Turkey is an important cotton producer and this isn’t nowadays limited to just manufacturing, but there’s also increasingly more focus on design and cultivating local brands.

Urban Problems to Tackle

A major issue degrading Istanbul’s livability is definitely the city’s traffic and its partner in crime, car-oriented urban planning. TomTom’s annual Traffic Index identifies Istanbul as the worst congested city in the world. Cars are literally everywhere from the small back streets to the wide urban arterials that cut through the city. Don’t expect to find an abundance of traffic lights or crosswalks for pedestrians. Sidewalks are also usually very narrow or non-existent. Cycling infrastructure is completely unheard of.

Walking about in the city means part zigzagging between parked cars, the tiny sidewalk, and the driving lane, part dodging cars when in need to cross the street. The more the traffic on a given street, the better an idea it is to tag along with a local street-crosser. He or she knows what they’re doing. In substitute to our orderly traffic systems here in the North, special codes of conduct between drivers and pedestrians seem to orchestrate traffic in Istanbul. Various hand motions, establishing eye contact, and types of honks structure the city’s mobility.

A great thing is that the city is actually actively trying to do something to solve the traffic jams by developing its public transport system. Istanbul’s main modes for transportation are buses, a bus rapid transit system, the metro, trams (both modern and historic), ferries, and a horde of minibuses and vans. In addition, there’s a cool funicular ride. Delightfully, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has ambitious plans for extending its metro network to a 641km-long system by 2023. In the year 2004, the city had an urban rail network of just 45 km.

This is crucially important not only because of the congestion problems, but at least equally importantly for the economic vitality of the city. Istanbul is facing a serious urbanization problem. The city’s annual population growth rate is 3.45%, which translates as an increase of roughly half a million inhabitants each year. Many new arrivals are low-skilled and don’t have the opportunity to choose where they live. Without a quick and expansive transportation system the ones who are most disadvantaged won’t have access to jobs simply because distances grow too big.

Other arrivals come with crushed dreams. Altogether 1.7 million refugees of the Syrian civil war have fled to Turkey and Istanbul is home to at least 300 000 of them. The poorest of the refugees live on the streets and their income is dependent on begging. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see families with children coping at street corners all around the city.

Massive urban growth also comes with greed. When there’s an endless flow of incomers needing housing and jobs, there’s big business. A major problem affecting Istanbul is a culture of non-participatory and corrupt urban planning. If there is official planning involved in the first place before the construction cranes arise, that is. The most notorious example of this is the dispute over Gezi Park at Taksim square in 2013. Although also influenced with other political tensions, the key reason massive protests sparked off in Istanbul was the authoritarian plan to demolish Gezi Park in favor of new construction.

Istanbul’s skyline is evolving all the time with new skyscrapers. There are construction cranes to every direction around the historic core.

Another important reason Gezi park’s fate led to protests is that Istanbul has very few green areas. If you look at the city from any of the many panorama spots, many of the larger green areas you’ll see are actually not parks but cemeteries. My friend told me that “if they were parks and not cemeteries, they’d already be developed into apartments and offices”. It’s obviously difficult to add new parks in an already existing and dense urban fabric, but one potential solution is to transform the city’s waterfronts into park-like people-places. At the moment a great deal of the waterfront, especially around the Golden Horn, is underperforming. In many places the shoreline seems to be closed to the public and is occupied by obsolete harbor infrastructure. It might be worthwhile examining if these areas could be transformed into leafy public open spaces.

Another outcome of the greedy non-participatory planning approach is that new development doesn’t seem match with how the inhabitants would like to see the city developed. One example is the Golden Horn Metro Bridge which opened for traffic about a year ago. The cable-stayed bridge has a very modern design that doesn’t really fit into the historic context of the area. My friend’s opinion pretty much says it all: “I hate it”. He also couldn’t understand the apparent need to physically transform Istanbul into New York through constructing a forest of skyscrapers on the fringes of the historic core: “Istanbul is a historic city like Rome. It’s not Dubai. The historic atmosphere needs to be protected”.

The Golden Horn Metro Bridge (in the background). Curiously, there’s a metro station right in the middle of the bridge. Handy. The photo is taken from Topkapi Palace,

Istanbul Inspiration

In addition to the pressing urban problems that need solving, I luckily also came across some ideas that cities in Finland and around the world could get inspired from.

Multiculturalism is a contemporary item on many urban policy lists. Sadly, especially here in Finland it gets way too often placed in the ‘problems’ section of those lists. Istanbul is a great example of a city made up of different languages, ethnicities, religions, traditions, as well as diverse social and economic backgrounds. This has been a defining element of the city for thousands of years and reminds that cultural diversity in urban areas is not a modern invention nor is it an obstacle on the path towards becoming a world-class city. It’s quite the opposite.

Palm Sunday mass in the Church of St. George, led by Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

Nowadays we also like to discuss about the sharing economy and its possibilities. In Istanbul I noted that the idea of sharing doesn’t need to be limited to the perspective of consumers but can also take miniature-sized forms on the service-producer side. On a break from exploring, I was introduced to a tasty local beverage called Boza. This is a very thick drink that’s often served with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas. Interestingly, before going to the Boza joint we went to a tiny shop just opposite to it to buy a bag of roasted chickpeas. Also everyone else entering the Boza shop did the same. It’s cool how the other establishment specializes in making and serving Boza, the other one roasts the chickpeas.

In Üsküdar on the Asian side of Istanbul, we sat down in a small park to enjoy the view over the Bosphorus. Eventually we got to enjoy the moment with a refreshing cup of Turkish coffee. This was possible because the coffee shop next door had decided to expand their services to the park. If you wanted to order something, they’d bring a small portable table to your park bench. Very convenient for the thirsty park visitor. And also for the park itself – it’s a low-cost way to make sure someone takes care of the park.

Streetfood can be found everywhere in the city. This guy is selling roasted chestnuts and boiled & grilled corn.

Similarly, the city’s vibrant streets and public spaces offer an endless flow of clientele for various street food vendors. In addition to tasty snacks, these guys provide extra eyes on the street (although there really is no shortage of eyes on Istanbul’s streets) and their carts provide a gathering place you may want to have parked in front of your business. According to my friend, the fundamental ingredient that enables these kinds of collaborations between entrepreneurs and on the public-private nexus is “respect for each other”.

Istanbul’s built environment also presented some take-home ideas. One of them is that paint can be a simple but enormously powerful tool for neighborhood revitalization and beautification. Some parts of Istanbul, like the age-old Balat neighborhood, are full of run-down buildings or are just generally lacking details that get your spirits high. To make their surroundings more lovable, locals have dipped their brushes and painted doors, stairs, and walls with bright colors.

Adding density is an issue that troubles many planners and decision-makers in Finland. After decades of not mixing anything with something else in our city-building culture, we are now careful to go forward with mixing functions even though there’s pressure and demand to do so. In Istanbul, mixing different functions is pretty much the norm. And I don’t mean just on the neighborhood level but also very much on the block and building level. Whatever the combination between apartments, offices, retail, manufacturing and public uses in a building, I’m sure they have multiple examples of how to deal with it. Furthermore, one of the main shopping streets, İstiklâl Caddesi, is all retail during the day but transforms into a nightlife destination for the night shift. A practical symbiosis to keep the area alive for 24 hours.

Lastly, I have a suggestion I believe Istanbul could greatly benefit from: please hear out what your youth has to say about the city’s urban policies. The average age in Istanbul is below 25. Following rapid economic growth and urbanization, I’m quite confident there’s an unimaginably wide generation gap between those in power now and those who have grown in the age of the internet and intensified globalization. In order for Istanbul to come up with solutions to its pressing urban problems, the youth must be recognized as drivers of positive change. To my experience, today’s students are well aware of what’s happening elsewhere in the world and are constantly questioning the sustainability of the city’s governance.

Use that to your advantage, Istanbul!


4 responses to “Istanbul: Notes on the Eternal City’s Urban Problems and Ideas”

  1. Salam Armanazi Avatar
    Salam Armanazi

    Thank you for you effort. According to TomTom index Istanbul is the 7th most congested city.

  2. istanbulda gezilecek yerler Avatar
    istanbulda gezilecek yerler

    Istanbul is a wonderful city. Nice photos.

  3. […] Istanbul is located in the north-west of Turkey, which is a city of historic and cultural significance with remained traces of the Roman capital (BBC, 2020). From the Holy Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque (Ayasofya-i Kebir Cami-i Şerifi), the Grand Bazaar (Büyük Çarşı), to the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı), Istanbul seems to be a mysterious city with irresistible charm. The rich cultures, socio-economic dynamics, and the beautiful coastlines enable Istanbul to be featured in the greatest films or literature masterpieces such as the 007 or Ahmet Hamdi Tanipar’s A Mind at Peace… Indeed, Robert De Niro’s famous saying “there’s no place like New York City” may as well be adapted for Istanbul, as it resembles with the Big Apple in multiple ways (Hämäläinen, 2015). […]

  4. Peer Kristijan Avatar

    Istanbul is very ugly and I am very disappointed

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