In the 1990s, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the mayor of Istanbul, he once suggested that democracy is a train that takes you to your destination—where you then get off the train. If he hadn’t already, Erdogan disembarked at Istanbul’s Gezi Park this May. The ongoing crisis is the unexpected consequence of his government’s order to demolish one of the few green spaces left in central Istanbul in order to build a shopping mall modeled after an Ottoman military barracks. What started as an issue of urban planning turned into something else. On May 28, when Erdogan ordered police to turn tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons on peaceful park protesters who objected to the scheme, Turkey caught fire. Whereas Turkey’s neighbors launched the Arab Spring protests with the goal of taking down dictators, the Turkish crisis was sparked by a plan for taking down trees.
Istanbul is sequined with 114 malls like the one slotted for Taksim Square, with almost three dozen more slated for completion before 2015. The city’s traditional 15th-century skyline is now dotted by cranes and rising towers. One pro-Erdogan newspaper columnist dubbed these megaprojects as çilgin, meaning “bold” in the extreme. But as the word also connotes “delirious” or “insane,” it has been adopted by his critics, too. Some examples of Erdogan’s çilgin plans: a third bridge over the Bosphorus that would decimate much of the remaining forest north of Istanbul; a 30-mile freighter shipping canal running parallel to the Bosphorus; the demolition and reconstruction of one million buildings.
Drawing a contrast to the urban-planning turbulence in Taksim is the quiet launch in Kadiköy of a new planning venture that could serve as a different model for progress in Istanbul. Tasarim Atölyesi Kadiköy (Kadiköy Design Studio) or TAK is a design-driven nonprofit focused on improving the district of Kadiköy, the populous cultural epicenter of Istanbul’s Asian side. TAK’s goal is to boost the quality of life for Kadiköy inhabitants by increasing the public’s participation in shaping their district and by offering developers and the city alternatives to poor planning.
The group was founded by Kadiköy Municipality, the ÇEKÜL Foundation for the Promotion and Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, and a private urban-planning office, Kentsel Strateji—but TAK remains autonomous of all three. Run by an architect, an urban planner, and a strategic design manager, the organization does not produce work for the city as a design office, per se. “You may call TAK an incubator,” says Sila Akalp, strategic design manager.
TAK connects the municipality and developers with designers, following a model set by a strategic design management agency called Destek (“Support”) that helps Istanbul residents work on concepts for the regeneration of their own neighborhoods. TAK, like Destek, employs a network of volunteers—including urban planners, architects, sociologists, economists, and law experts—who work to prove to Kadiköy officials that there are alternatives to malls.
“The aim is to bring the public, private, and civil sectors together to produce innovative, applicable approaches that are more democratic and socially responsible,” Akalp says.
TAK does this by being many things to many people: a cinema and café for locals, a workshop and incubator for professionals, a library, and a think tank. Currently, a map of Kadiköy carpets the floor of a skylit atrium in TAK’s offices.
That map indicates problem sites. There’s the beautiful, but highly trafficked Caddebostan waterfront and promenade, which is one of the areas that is under the scrutiny of architects who responded to an open call for TAK’s 3x3 Strategic Design Program. This program focuses on restructuring the urban fabric at three scales—block, neighborhood, and city. They began working on solutions to the waterfront site in early May. A committee of jurors will present the best designs to officials in September.
From the start, architects, planners, and politicians across Istanbul criticized the government’s Gezi Park scheme—but the government stood its ground. “It would have been much better if every municipality had a unit like TAK, where major projects can be discussed and represented before being applied,” Akalp says. “The protests are the result of a lack of transparency, participation, and knowledge. The municipalities need experts and advisors.”
TAK’s founding members have already received invitations from around the city—and country—to create TAKs in other areas. They are trying to make a template, Akalp says, that other municipalities could use to appeal top-down development plans. However, she says, TAK’s neutrality “must be maintained in every case, otherwise it could easily turn into just another municipal project office.”
Long-time Reclaim Istanbul blogger and development and planning expert, Yasar Adanali, urges caution. The bridge between designers and the public provided by entities such as TAK is important, he says, “but I do not believe in customized design solutions.” Adanali prefers an even more direct mode of communication between the developers and the street. “Design comes after, or in parallel with, the social mobilization, organization, and solidarity of communities,” he says. “If you reverse the process, you risk weakening local struggles instead of reinforcing local participation, democracy, and empowerment.”
Adanali might argue that Taksim Square and Gezi Park have finally become the shared public spaces they were, in fact, designed to be. Fans of the city’s three biggest football teams have enjoyed a détente there and found common ground with the LGBT community; the working class is standing beside the middle class, behind barricades; older people have joined students, Muslims beside secularists, Kurds with Armenians. Mothers came out en masse one night to form a human chain around the park.
“The common denominator for all these groups is the feeling of overwhelming government pressure on individuals’ and various groups’ living spaces. Their opinions, their neighborhoods, their living rooms, their ideas, their public plazas are squeezed by this power mechanism,” Adanali says. “People just want a little breathing space.”
In a city organizing for the right to democratic expression, TAK may be a sign that democracy has put down roots that can’t be pulled up or paved over. It is the first entity of any Turkish municipality established to address the needs of residents—and listen to them assess their own needs—at street level through design. Whether it might have prevented a standoff at Gezi Park is impossible to say. What it plans next is much more mundane, but no less important: hosting architectural scavenger hunts for local kids, promoting open calls, dealing with problem areas in the neighborhood—all things that will allow TAK to insert itself organically into the real life of a real neighborhood.
“The first year will be a learning period for both parties ,” Akalp says. “It is very important to be open to any ideas that will nurture this relationship, so we will keep our doors open and our radars on.”