Resident participation: benefit or threat?

Go to any international conference on urban development and resident participation will probably be on the agenda. In the past years, the involvement of local people in urban regeneration projects has become a hot topic debated by policy makers, practitioners and academics alike. Some cities – like Amsterdam – already have long-standing traditions when it comes to resident participation. Others – like Istanbul – have only recently witnessed a growing involvement of citizens.

An international exchange project organized by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) and Arkitera, brought together Dutch and Turkish urban professionals to discuss the obstacles to resident participation in Istanbul and Amsterdam. During the presentations of the Turkish experts, it soon became clear that in Istanbul, the involvement of residents in urban regeneration projects is mainly encouraged by NGOs and civil initiatives. The decision-makers in urban regenerations projects, such as the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the city’s district municipalities or state institutions like TOKI (the housing development administration of Turkey) devote much less time and attention to what local inhabitants actually have to say about their plans. Why is that the case?

According to Murat Cemal Yalçıntan, an academic and urban planner involved in many neighborhood-based initiatives, Istanbul is ashamed of its citizens. Locals are often ignored in urban regeneration projects, even when they are the ones most severely affected, he said. However, he also clearly pointed out that local residents have organized themselves, independent from the municipality or developer involved. Using examples of many local initiatives such as SOS Istanbul, Solidarity Studio and the Sulukule Platform he showed that local residents have  been mobilized to discuss and/or oppose municipal development plans for their area. Still, municipalities in Istanbul see these kind of activities more as a threat than something that could benefit them.

Erdoğan Yıldız, a local neighborhood representative of Gülensu – Gülsuyu explained how the district municipality of Maltepe felt very threatened by the fact that his neighborhood organized itself to discuss the municipality’s redevelopment plans for the area. Locals collected 7000 petitions against the plan and came up with an alternative design for the neighborhood. Yıldız claimed it was obvious why the municipality of Maltepe wasn’t happy with their involvement though. He believed that “as long as politics have priority over law and legislation in Istanbul, local residents will not have any place in regeneration processes.”

Most people present at the NAI/Arkitera debate shared the opinion that it is wrong and unethical to ignore the opinion of a neighborhood in urban regeneration projects.  When the head of the real estate department of TOKI, Ali Seydi Karaoğlu, got the floor he was faced with strong criticism. People for example asked him why TOKI did not consult with the neighborhoods they worked in. In Karaoğlu’s opinion though, “TOKI is not the one that should be the main contact with the neighborhood. That should be the district municipality,” he said. At the same time, Karaoğlu did admit that TOKI could still improve its activities and still had many lessons to learn.

Later that day, Hein de Haan, a Dutch architect and activist working in Amsterdam told about his 35 year long experience with resident participation in his city.  His stories about social housing being designed with the help of local inhabitants still appeared to be far from the Istanbul reality. Amsterdam wasn’t  ideal either though. Apart from highlighting Amsterdam’s successes, de Haan also expressed his concern about the fact that resident participation has decreased in Amsterdam since  1980s. As the municipality transferred its power to private developers and privatized housing corporations, the willingness to involve locals in urban regeneration projects also decreased.

With Istanbul being a city that is predominantly regenerated and developed by private developers, the fate of officially instituted resident participation therefore does not look very hopeful. Nonetheless people like Erdoğan Yıldız indicated they will continue their activities – they have had their successes, and seem convinced to have more.

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