Sustainability in Turkish cities: dream or reality?

Turkey is not particularly famous for its sustainable, green policies. According to the latest EU progress report, the country hasn’t made many steps forward when it comes to the environment. There are several actors and organisations that support and promote sustainability in Turkey though. Last weekend, the Green Thought Association and the Heinrich  Böll Foundation organised a conference about the green economy in Turkey. It especially focused on the local and urban dimensions of a greener, more sustainable future.

Comparing the green policies of the German city of Hamburg to those of Turkish cities, is like trying to uncover the many differences between white and black. However, this is how the conference started.

Hamburg is the European Green Capital of 2011 and Dirka Griesshaber, working for the city’s green capital project team, explained how they had been able to secure this title. The city is actively involved in stimulating energy efficiency, promoting renewable energy, building CO2 neutral homes, creating bio-energy, supporting e-mobilitiy etc.

In Turkey, these kinds of policies and practices still seem very far away. In Istanbul for example, even recycling hasn’t been implemented properly yet. The city still allows dirty and polluting buses  and trucks into its territory. It’s even planning to build a new highway for which 1 million trees will need to be cut.

Why is there such a gap between the local realities of Turkish cities and Hamburg?

Local interests vs. national decisions
One of the main obstacles to sustainable development in Turkish cities seems to be the fact that the central government is still much more powerful than local governments. Ankara makes the final decisions, even when these decisions have a major and potentially negative local impact. Haluk Gerçek, professor of transportation at Istanbul Technical University gives a recent example: “Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality spent 5 years creating a detailed development plan for the city, involving many different actors and experts. However, after it was completed, Turkey’s central government came up with several projects that were outside the scope of this plan, such as the third bridge and the Eurasia car tunnel between Harem and Kumkapı.” The effects of these individuals projects will alter the land use plans of Istanbul completely and might have a detrimental effect on life in the city. Haluk Gerçek therefore wonders: “Why can’t we stop these kinds of projects as local governments? Why can’t we stop these projects that are completely imposed by the central government?”

Resident participation
Ikbal Polat, working for Nilüfer municipality in Bursa, points at another obstacle to sustainble development in Turkish cities. “In Turkey, the main actors take planning decisions based on their own interests. Local inhabitants are not involved in decision-making at all.” She illustrates this by pointing at a major project: the Gebze-Izmir highway. “This highway impacts on 17 cities, but none of them have had any influence on its development. This example shows that the planning process in Turkey is often closed; there is no democratic consensus on plans. If we want to have sustainable cities, this needs to be changed first. People need to be engaged in the planning process and be enable to defend their own rights and interests!”

Global actors
There was a time when Turkish people were relatively engaged, especially in local housing issues.  90% of the population used to be involved in housing related activities. This can be explained by the high rate of homeownership in Turkey. Turks used to all be real estate developers, creating their own houses. However, after 2003, globally operating mega companies became the main actors in involved in real estate. The Turkish real estate sector is now the 2nd largest in the world. According to architect Orhan Esen, this might be a threat, but it could also be an opportunity. “Can’t we develop new policies and enter political dialogue with these companies? Can’t we co-create greener and more social cities together?” he wonders.

A more holistic view of development
What seems to be lacking in Turkey, is a more holistic view of development and progress. Usually, development is fully expressed in economic terms: capital flow, job creation and economic growth. However, issues such as nature, (local) well-being and sustainability are often ignored. This leads to one-sided policies that do not necessarily benefit the Turkish population at all. Because the Turkish public is largely excluded of the decision-making process, even when it comes to local projects that have a major impact on their personal lives, they rarely get the change to voice their opinion. Officials don’t hear them, and just go ahead with whatever plans they feel should be realised.

This means the critical voices of Turkey – which do exist in large numbers – have a great responsibility. They need to continue to speak up and voice their opinions and demands. They could easily start to feel discouraged, disillusioned or powerless, but they are probably the ones holding the key to a more sustainable future for their country.

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