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An Istanbul Utopia 2023: The Players

Do not Plan, Play Istanbul! Challenges the Urban Plan

Istanbul's citizens engage in the city's future ... by joining Play Istanbul!

Istanbul Utopia is the story, projected into the next decade, of an unprecedented heroic urban operation saving millions of lives from a disastrous earthquake through urban gaming. See details about evolutionary city game here.

The key players of the Istanbul's Urban Plan:

AK Party [AKP]

The AKP won a majority vote in the 2003 elections under the leadership of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was a break in Turkish politics: a moderate Islamist party rule the country as a one party regime, after decades of coalitions. The new government passed a silent law in the parliament that year which turned not only Istanbul’s but the whole country’s real estate market upside down: law number 2985. The new version of 2985 broadened the responsibilities, power and resources of Turkey’s laid back social housing administration, TOKI.


TOKI has ran full gear since 2003. It is not only liable for supporting social housing projects, but also for-profit real estate ventures. The housing administration advocates ‘gecekondu’ clearance on behalf of the public. This technically means that TOKI can lay claim to more than 40% of Istanbul’s urban land.

By 2005, TOKI is actively involved in slum clearence: Istanbul’s gecekondu neighborhoods Ayazma and Basibuyuk are demolished. In the case of Ayazma, 1400 families are relocated to TOKI homes in Bezirganbahce. Prof. Asuman Turkun reports that 700 of these families left Bezirganbahce due to unrealistic payment models and a mismatch between their lifestyles and the new environment. Today, these families rent homes in other peripheral gecekondu neighborhoods. A parallel series of events is witnessed in Basibuyuk. Here TOKI relocations have a direct impact on political elections; AKP loses. The local government is defeated by its housing policy.

TOKI exploits the development of empty land, an easy option which quickly sees them active in 81 cities in Turkey: 800 boroughs, 2131 construction sites and reaching a target of half a million homes in less than a decade. Given the slow pace of slum clearance combined with the unfavorable political bills for AKP’s account, the housing administration abandons the difficult task of urban transformation in earthquake-sensitive cities.

Has TOKI become Europe’s largest housing corporation? It may be, but without a doubt TOKI is the only housing corporation in the world whose director solely reports to the prime minister in person. This leaves the organization no reason or time to reconsider its acts or listen to any external critique.

Ongoing centralization is comparable to the time of the early republic. The Nationwide Housing Act by TOKI is not the only indicator of Ankara-centered power. There is also pressure from the capital to construct a 3rd Bosporus bridge in Istanbul. The prime minister, famous for his opposition to the third bridge during his Istanbul mayorship, changes his mind!

The Mayor

In 2004, the AKP candidate Dr. Kadir Topbas won the local elections in Istanbul. The new mayor has a PhD degree in architecture and established the IMP [Istanbul Metropolitan Planning and Design Center].


Over 300 young talented architects and urban designers under the supervision of well respected professors from Ankara and Istanbul are employed by the IMP, which is based in the National TV station’s basement in Taksim, a former parking garage. Nonstop, they autocad-click Istanbul’s future at their desks with no daylight. A perfect setting for a remake of the movie ‘Brazil’. Two years of idealist and intense work yielded Istanbul’s 1:100000 regional environment plan. This is a unique document in Istanbul planning history as the last comprehensive plan for the city dates back to 1937 Henri Prost plan commissioned by Ataturk.

In 2008, Topbas’s Istanbul Regional Environment Plan gets legalized after endless court cases. This plan, ironically, does not foresee any extra bridge in the north. The Plan indicates natural preservation zones in the north. A densification scheme of a linear metropolis along the Marmarail prevails. This east-west city scheme is depended on a new undersea rail tunnel under the Bosphorus strait as well as the modernization of suburban rail lines along the Sea of Marmara from Halkalı on the European side to Gebze on the Asian side. Topbas announces two new City Business Districts at the east and west entrances to the city. To emphasize the importance of new development hubs, the IMP invites foreign architects to participate in an international design contest. The winners are Zaha Hadid and Kengo Kuma on the Asian and European parts respectively. Work begins soon after on two new CBDs in the south. Simultaneously, we hear stories that foreign investors are speculating on land designated for the third bridge. Constructing an undersea tunnel for the southern developments while planning a bridge in the north: Is this bad coordination or part of a well-planned and silent but gigantic growth operation?

Ankara’s pressure for the construction of a third bridge in Istanbul is a step too far for the charismatic IMP director, Huseyin Kaptan. He not only feels offended by the third bridge as an affront to his professional work as an architect, but he also sees the suicidal sprawl sacrificing the last reserves of forests and drinking water. The friction causes him to resign. A period of decay awaits the idealist IMP.

In 2010, urbanism politics in the Turkish capital renders a completely different city game; The urban transformation law is passed in parliament. This practically extends the capacities of the mayors in Istanbul and Ankara. By-passing local municipalities, the greater municipality mayors have the power to declare urban transformation zones and commission projects. Not only do powers shift from local to city municipalities, but this law is yet another example of central interference by the Ankara government in granting such authority to two metropolitan mayors of the AK Party.

2011. National elections are held in Turkey. During the election campaign, Erdogan announces grand urban projects, which he calls ‘crazy projects’. It is hoped that this would demonstrate the might of the Turks to the rest of the world. These projects include a man-made canal between the Black and Marmara seas, third and fourth bridges over the Bosporus, a bid for Istanbul to host the 2020 Olympics, and the establishment of new towns along the Black Sea for 2 million new inhabitants. Such speculative announcements attract foreign parties even before a public debate can be initiated in the city by the locals. The University of Michigan creates a proposal for the new towns along the Black sea, while the International Architecture Biennial Rotterdam investigates urbanization in Arnavutkoy. The AK Party’s urban madness results in a third successive victory in the national elections, and Ankara declares the creation of a new Ministry of Urbanism and Environment. The new minister is the old director of TOKI, Erdogan Bayraktar. A law is decreed increasing the competence of the ministry and by-passing the city governments. Thus the Turkey Municipality is formed. Meanwhile, there is foreign expansion on the horizon for TOKI. Hugo Chavez invites the housing corporation to Venezuela to cater for 2 million homes. Further, TOKI gets ready to branch in the middle east for mass housing provision in Arab Spring nations.

‘Can the crazy grand plans seducing the Turkish voters really help order Istanbul’s complexity? What will happen when the Black Sea new towns are realized? TUIK [Turkish Statistics Institute] has been publishing reports on steady diminishing migration to the metropolis. Will these new towns be Istanbul’s ghost new towns, examples of which are to be seen in China? Sacrificing its clean air and water in the north, will Istanbul become an unhealthy urban maze much like Mexico City? Will the growing inequalities and distances between social groups turn Istanbul’s streets into the crime gutters of Sao Paolo? As the world runs out of oil, will the mobility of the metropolis still depend on transport by private car, or will the newly built expensive Bosporus highway bridge become a white elephant?

++ Let us now travel to 2023, and meet the key players the ISTANBUL UTOPIA evolutionary city game.

Do not Plan, Play Istanbul! The Istanbul Game

Istanbul Players

Istanbul’s heroes were the usual suspects of urban development: Foreign investors, newly renovated and reinforced ministry [Ministry of Urbanism and Environment], TOKI, IMP, local municipalities, popularized developers such as Ali Agaoglu as well as self-builders. They contributed to Istanbul’s transformation in unusual ways and joined forces with unusual suspects. These unusual suspects were the ‘Local Architects Movement’, ‘Chamber of Residents’ and ‘Public Matters’ were missing agents in Istanbul’s development in the 20th century. This new blood helped the city to change for good.

Here I need to emphasize the position of the ‘Local Architects Movement’. Well educated and talented architects and urbanists have traditionally been excluded from Istanbul’s city production process. The new architects’ movement acted in a less elitist way, and collaborated well with other parties, such as self-builders. At the turn of the new century self-builders were losing power to the rise of TOKI and its contractors. This group represented countless home owners, small scale developers and cooperatives. Altogether they inhabited 70% of Istanbul’s urban land surface in 2010. Their demographic growth between 1980 and 2010 had been around 7,5 million. This translates to 100.000 homes per year, built by the user, or through a small scale contractor. TOKI, on the other hand, had been building on average 50.000 homes per year since 2003. Thus self-builders were twice as fast as the nation’s centrally run housing corporation. To acknowledge self-builders’ potential in urban transformation Chambers of Residents were formed to enable collaboration with official organizations.

Chamber of Residents [CoR]

CoR is a loose network of inhabitants. The aim of CoR is achieving site-specific renewal and providing open access to ongoing transformation. This is more than simply a traditional collective community or a resistance movement, this is an online database of residents. CoR datasets provide information about the ownership [renter-buyer] and whether a home owner wants to self-renovate or hire a contractor. There are 500 CoRs in the metropolis. Small scale developers who hold shares in the area and possible future inhabitants also register at CoR. Such a database is critical for an effective urban transformation as the land ownership patterns of Istanbul are quite complex. Not everyone in the chamber is willing to adopt a hands-on approach to the renewal, some of the residents prefer to leave the neighborhood in transition. Some of them want to stay in their district and would rather hire a contractor, while others participate actively in the reconstruction.

TOKI Ambulatory Forces [TAF]

Leaving its central organization behind, TOKI went local. The organization started collaborating with CoRs. There are 50 TOKI Ambulatory Force bases in the city. Each mobile TAF office works with 10 CoRs in their region. As our quick calculation showed earlier, CoRs can build twice as fast as TOKI but they lack the equipment that TOKI acquired at the turn of century. TAF supports CoRs with construction knowledge, machinery and provision of construction materials. TAF has mobile offices and moves from one construction location to the other. TAF holds local meetings, compiles and renews databases. Besides the resident databases, TAF has reports and transformation plans prepared by the ‘Local Architects Movement’ [read more below]. These documents provide advice based on the earthquake and flood sensitivity of the ground, percentages of green and public space, transport lines, urban density, archaeological findings, monument preservation and social demography.

Public Matters [PM]

‘Public Matters’ is a joint venture of the central and local governments for creating and protecting the public interest. Parallel to TAFs, Istanbul has 50 PMs. Their budget comes from local taxes and from the new Ministry of Urbanism. PMs advise local governments on the provision of local public transport, sustainable garbage collection, public squares, parks and streets, and facilities such as schools, health, culture and sport centers. PMs advise IMP and the ministry on higher scale infrastructure such as Marmarail hubs, water and metrobus lines, highway and regional roads going through CoRs and management of earthquake-sensitive zones. CoRs report to PMs on hot transformation spots and hold regular meetings with them.

Local Architects Movement [LAM]

This movement was formed by a passionate army of professionals: architects, urbanists, sociologists, anthropologists and traffic engineers. LAMs act locally, but are connected to IMP, the city’s pre-existing planning and knowledge center. They provide the transformation plans and write reports to support TAF actions. This loose network of various professionals form project teams based on the needs of a given CoR. They often travel together with TAF to all 50 CoRs in their city district. They monitor urban dynamics. They run social network websites, make local movies and photos for the zones they serve. There are 10 of these teams in Istanbul; each LAM has 5 TAFS and 50 CoRs to work with. LAM members either live or work in one of their CoR zones. While LAM is voluntary work, volunteers are paid by TAF for certain jobs, for example updating transformation scenarios. In addition to their profession, LAMs receive special training for effective communication. This education on interface design helps LAMs to bring diverse parties with conflicting interest together and create urban scenarios with collective intelligence.

Contractor’s Club [CC]

Just like CoR, a CC is an online public database, but this time for developers and contractors operating at various scales. Their commission protocols are run through a website, where contractors place their offers online. The criteria are set jointly by CoRs and PMs, and the selection is made in this open digital platform. CC members have responsibility for public space projects. This could include investing in bicycle lanes in a neighborhood or greening a public square. CCs highlight an Istanbul reality; the financial risk-takers are still ranked higher than the well-educated elite in society. Thus it is not the LAM members, but some of these contractors who achieve a star status, often exploiting their position with media advertisement, personal interviews and more.

Foreign Investors Club [FIC]

If a foreign investor is interested in any of the Istanbul districts, they first contact ditricts CoRs. The local involvement is also a way to conduct market research for FICs. Obviously they earn a better understanding of the context. The final approval of their proposal needs CoR’s votes besides PMs. Just like CC members, FICs have to invest in social or cultural projects equal to 20% of their commercial venture.

Yapyaşa sessions

In Yapyaşa sessions, the resident organization, CoR, typically represents the necessary database of residents’ wish-lists and dynamic land ownership patterns. CoR datasets are frequented by architects, LAM, and Public Matters. Professionals base their decisions on the collaboration with CoRs. This way they can form city visions on local and regional levels. The implementation of these plans are undertaken by TAFs and CoRs. They take over to model possible local production methods. CCs and FICs constantly inform TAF and CoRs on the availability of investments and construction plans. This urban process is a cycle. It runs non-stop and this ongoing repetitive algorithm ensures an evolutionary city that re-evaluates its needs and goals constantly.

In 2023, mad totalitarian master-plans no longer distract Istanbul’s citizens.

Istanbul has become a city with smart urban agents.

These agents stopped planning the city.

They now Play the City!

Now the megapolis enjoys its nature. Istanbul borders remain protected. Dangerous housing stock is renewed.

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