Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Istanbul riots: trading green for blue

Riots, looting and public unrest are not the usual subjects of this blog but the on-going serious disturbances in Istanbul have caught my attention and I can’t get them out of my mind. The disturbances two nights ago were in the district of Beşiktaş where I used to work and spend much of my time, dodging traffic jams, safely wandering through the narrow dusty streets as I walked home to my flat overlooking the busy Bosphorus, eating in my favourite fish restaurant by the market (they put my photo up on the wall with many other regulars; great ploy to keep customers) or my sumptuous $2 lunches of bamya, nohut and pilaf. I bought the table on which I write most of my blogs on the street that is now occupied by protesters. Turkey is full of lovely generous people and Istanbul, with around 15 million people, is its most cosmopolitan and overcrowded city. Whenever the arrivals hall of Ataturk Airport discharges me into its hubbub, I feel a curious sense of homecoming.

When I left Istanbul fifteen years ago, I would never have guessed these riots could happen. My interest is not casual though. As the senior UN officer in Istanbul, I kept the ‘red folder’ with phone numbers of all UN personnel, had received my ‘how to spot a car bomb’ training and could have told everyone to pack their bags in an emergency. This was so unlikely that I found the thought of calling the World Bank office and telling them to pack, positively amusing. I hung out with the international correspondents and a major topic of conversation was (and is) the high risk of a devastating earthquake or a ship blowing up in the middle of the city. We did have the odd bombing or two, nothing major, at least until the dreadful incident when Al Qaida hit the British Consulate, killing the consul. But by and large, Istanbul has always remained the quintessential meeting place of East and West, mysterious and enigmatic; tolerant and forgiving, a neutral safe ground. So what has changed?
I don’t want to talk about the politics, especially as Turkey has a legitimate and democratically elected government. This is not an ‘Arab spring’; if people want to remove the government they can vote for somebody else when the time comes. It is a protest turned violent; a juxtaposition of many causes and frustrations made sour by the stench of tear gas and growing authoritarianism. It may change popular psyche for many years, just as the Toxteth Riots changed Liverpool for ever and the word ‘Lambeth’ is now associated with ‘riot’ and not with ‘palace’. No; what triggered this blog was the central issue of preservation of green spaces in a city that has almost lost its parks and open public spaces. This, the protesters claim, is one of the key reasons for the dispute.

Not that we are talking about beautifully manicured lawns yielding to bulldozers; Gezi Park next to Taksim Square is a scruffy place surrounded by cacophonous traffic jams, but for many it is deeply symbolic and the government wants to change the symbol with a major new development, and more to follow.

There is a huge psychological significance of green and blue spaces. I have watched families, probably immigrants from Anatolia, setting up picnics on the grass of roadside verges – even roundabouts – with traffic roaring past. Coastal cities are particularly vulnerable to ‘green squeeze’; ironically because people are attracted to the seashore and trade off the ‘green’ for the ‘blue’ as property prices begin to soar. If everything is left to the market, ‘blue’ will probably always win – and you can’t drop your picnic mat on ‘blue’. How then, do we keep a balance?

This is an issue that is vexing many colleagues concerned with the wider aspects of environmental health. Istanbul is almost a worst case scenario. According to a 2009 study of green spaces in over 300 EU cities (Fuller and Gaston, 2009), there is a huge range of green space per capita from 3 sq m (Cadiz) to 300sq m (Liege), depending how compact the city is. New green spaces tend to be created as cities expand in area. But a recent study in Istanbul (Aksoy, 2012) showed that green spaces have reduced as the city expands, from 3.39 sq m at the core to 0.88 sq m in the new ‘outer ring’. The overall 1.1 sq m is the worst in Europe by far. My flat, peering over a busy ferry terminal to the blue Bosphorus, gave some relief from the angst of concrete but most people aren’t so lucky. In Istanbul, ‘blue’ is for the rich, not for the poor; the most elegant houses are by the sea. And yet, recent studies have shown that ‘the positive effects of coastal proximity may be greater amongst more socio-economically deprived communities’ (because of stress reduction) (Wheeler et al., 2012) but these benefits are unattainable when property prices rise sharply towards the coast. Hardly surprising that passion has risen, particularly when green space has, in effect, been traded off for coastal development and for services. Imagine the floor space of the average family house or flat. That is the same as the green space available to 100 people in Istanbul today.

The solution to this conundrum has to be wise management. There are principles to this such as those embodied in Integrated Coastal Zone Management but even these require better ways of valuation that encompass values associated with social and cultural capital as well as the short term trade-offs of a financial kind. We haven’t mastered these ourselves so we cannot expect it of others. The default position has to be governance based on a more precautionary approach where we simply regard parks, terrestrial or marine, as sacrosanct in recognition of the need to protect the intangible psychological interests of current and future generations.

  • Y Aksoy (2012) An evaluation of distribution and quantity of parks in Instanbul. Urban Development.
  • RA Fuller and KJ Gaston (2009) The scaling of green space coverage in European cities. Biol Lett 5(3) 352-353
  • BW Wheeler, M White W Stahl-Timmins and MH Depledge (2012) Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing? Health & Place 18(5): 1198–1201

1 comment:

  1. It is also worth having a listen to Pop-up Ideas broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 23 July 2013 where David Kilcullen discusses the "time-bomb" of rapidly growing coastal megacities.