If there is any city used to change, it is Istanbul, with its history of 8,500 years.
Empires have come and gone on its soil; states have risen and collapsed, but experts say that is all insignificant next to what's coming, as the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) planned mega projects -- including a brand new strait that will create an island in the middle of the city -- will alter the face of İstanbul completely.
The projects that will change -- or irrevocably damage, according to some -- İstanbul are collectively called the Northern Marmara Highway projects. They include Kanal İstanbul -- a new waterway connecting the Marmara to the Black Sea through the European part of the city west of the Bosporus -- a third airport that will be built atop the city's only remaining and extensive forestland, and the building of a third bridge over the Bosporus. New residential complexes, office buildings and congress centers are also planned. The projects will bring İstanbul's population to more than 20 million people, according to some estimates.
The planned projects are also against the city's Environmental Plan, which envisions the city expanding from East to West. The Northern Marmara projects will completely change earlier projections for the city. Officials say the projects will be environmentally focused and nature will not be forsaken to satisfy contractors, but most city residents and environmentalists have their doubts. Wildlife in the north will be destroyed, and a higher population of people in the area is bound to be a burden, environmentalists say.
While there are still discussions about the exact route of the Kanal İstanbul waterway, construction of the Northern Marmara Highway and the third bridge (named the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge) are currently under way. Operations are still taking place at quarries in the area where the new airport will be built.
Experts point to problems
Urban planning experts and architects say the projects can indeed have disastrous results. Ahmet Vefik Alp, an architect who has produced a large number of mega projects, said: “I am not against the projects; I am just saying they should be built in the right place. For example, İstanbul will undergo desertification and the third bridge is a fiasco. If this project could work in a way to keep transit traffic out of the city, maybe it could have been acceptable. But when bidding, the contractors wanted a minimum number of vehicles that would go across the bridge to be guaranteed. Since a bridge built solely for transit is unlikely to be used by a large number of vehicles, they decided to extend the project with connecting roads to the city.”
He said the master plan for İstanbul initially envisioned the new airport in Silivri. “And why was it moved up north? Why?” he queried. “Any sane urban planner will know that expanding the city toward the north is a nightmare. It is actually the death of the city. Building a barracks in Gezi Park or any other thing is extremely minor compared to the destruction of expanding the city northward.”
Korhan Gümüş, another architect, says if the projects are carried out without public discussion, street unrest such as was seen during the Gezi protests is possible. “There have been experts that say building the third bridge and its roads will do no good for the city,” he said. “Mayor Kadir Topbaş was also against it. But the prime minister's decisions, made from a helicopter flying above, overruled the city's master plan. We have seen that the local administration cannot carry out its duties. Talks with civil society organizations and groups protecting the public good should have taken place, but that didn't happen.”
A professor from İstanbul University's department of forestry, Kadir Erdin, expressed his concern about the projects: “Every city gains value with its environment. A construction movement targeting the northern forests will mean those places will be destroyed.” He said it was impossible to protect green land as long as there are manmade projects in the area. “There is no way to bring any of it back. Now they are trying to build overpasses for the animals, but these are not permanent solutions,” he added.
Kanal İstanbul: a new waterway
Kanal İstanbul is undoubtedly the most talked-about project. For one thing, the exact route along which the watercourse will be built has still not been disclosed, causing much anxiety and, at the same time, excitement in the real estate market. It is expected to start at Yeniköy up north, and then flow through the areas of Baklalı, Tayakadın and the Sazlıdere Dam and then end at Lake Küçükçekmece. Villages along this route are already getting used to life with real estate agents around. Property offices are a common sight not only in the districts but also inside the villages. Everyone around the villages knows the details of Kanal İstanbul, they follow the press closely and even cut up and save clips from newspapers. But not everybody is excited. For example, the Tosun Köy village, built 600 years ago, is worried that a shrine to Tosun Baba, a revered figure, might be destroyed in the projects.
Yeniköy, which will be at the north of Kanal İstanbul, is on the Black Sea coast. The residents of this village are not necessarily turned off by the idea of the third airport -- which environmentalists say spells disaster -- but they are not keen about Kanal İstanbul. Rumors that the watercourse will pass through the village and their homes will be expropriated make them uneasy.
Muammer Demircan is 63. He says the villagers are children of migrants from Thessaloniki who made this place their home after coming here during the years of the population exchange. He says, “We have people who grow animals; we have farmers. Many people here are retired. We hope that we will not be victims of the projects, but if they gather us tomorrow and put us into a 10-story apartment building, we are dead.” He said he will grab a Turkish flag and march in protest if his village ends up being expropriated.
Another resident, Yusuf Dayılar, a shepherd, is of the same opinion: “This is a very old village; it was a Greek village. We came here from Thessaloniki and the ones here left to go there. We have animal farms and work in agriculture; we grow peas and beans. If they build a waterway here and destroy our village, the beautiful natural habitat here will be lost. This place is famous for its watermelons and grapes. We have tourism potential; a lot of people come here in the summer.”
A view of the site of the planned airport to the north of İstanbul.
‘More bread to sell'
Not everyone is worried that the project will destroy Yeniköy. The owner of his village bakery, Biltan Dayılar says: “Mine is the only bakery here. I make bread for the entire village. I sell 2,000 loaves a day. If the canal is opened here, there will be more people and I will make more bread.”
Şerife Budak, 87, is worried, though. “I want the airport, but I am against the canal. It will destroy our village. I am worried that they will drive us out.” Seventy-six-year-old Bayram Öçivi says he couldn't care less. “I don't think I'll live to see the canal. I don't have land here anyway."
The Baklalı village is another location that might be along the route of Kanal İstanbul. Ersin Gülemek, 55, a resident there, jokingly said, “We keep changing the route of the waterway to our liking.” He says the village is famous for its delicious okra. “I am a local here. I am worried that our homes and land will be expropriated.” He said the village is one of the oldest Ottoman villages in the area and Ottoman Sultan Yıldırım Beyazıt supposedly used this village as a stop while on hunts. “What makes us really nervous is that we are never informed of anything. We will be like fish out of water if this place is expropriated. I honestly can't get a decent night's sleep. We have land. We used to worry about the price of meat or milk. For the past six months, the airport and the canal are all we talk about.”
Gülemek says real estate agents visit their village frequently and try to talk to people who are even on their deathbeds. Another resident, Suat Başkaya came to the village from Malatya. “I had to leave Malatya because they expropriated my house there when they were building the Keban Dam. I really don't know what to do now,” he said.
Villagers plan to sue
Like the residents of the other villages, most residents of Dursunköy, another potential victim of expropriation, are more concerned about the financial hardship the projects might bring upon then. Erdinç Demirel, a welding master, says: “I have no land here, I just have one house. But if our village is going to be destroyed, we should be given enough time. Everything is hearsay. We will leave, but we do want the state to show us a place to move if they tell us to leave. If the state wants to pay less than what [our property] is worth during expropriation, I will go to court. It will slow down the building of the waterway significantly.”
The villagers are also not fans of urbanization. Another resident says he can't imagine luxury villas and pollution near their village. “We can't leave our village, and I don't think I can live in the city,” he said.
Villages by the bridge
Villages around where the third bridge will let out on both sides of the Bosporus are also concerned. Garipçe is a coastal village, with a history dating back to the 16th century. It is a fisherman's village and boasts some Ottoman-era buildings. Poyrazköy, another victim of the bridge, is a 400-household residential area that is home to a Genoese castle. Both villages are visited frequently for their historic and natural beauty, but they are uneasy these days. A villager who asked to be unnamed said: “Most of us here are men of the sea. We are people who have been abroad. We have seen projects in the US, Germany and Greece. We need the bridge and the highways, but in foreign countries they also protect nature when they carry out such projects. We want İstanbul to have its new roads, but also have its forests. We want projects that don't victimize locals. This is what we want; we want the state to protect the region from illegal construction.”