Istanbul Becoming Global. Photo: Yaşar Adanalı
New York is a truly “global city” and Istanbul is rapidly becoming one as numerous figures indicate. Istanbul is one of the twenty most visited cities in the world, ranked ninth in terms of international meetings organized there and first for both real estate investment and development in Europe. Both of these metropolises are two of the few nodal hubs that knit the global economy together.
Global cities are the utmost spatial manifestation of the contemporary political economy: freely flowing money, goods, art, ideas, and people accumulating in select urban environments. Take, for instance, the IDEAS CITY conference where we discussed the future of our urban condition—organized by the New Museum, New York, and held in Istanbul in conjunction with two prestigious global events, the Istanbul Design Biennial and the Audi Urban Future Initiative.
Global cities are not short of contradictions though. New York and Istanbul are among the top five cities in the world with the highest number of billionaires. They are also among the highest in their respective nations in terms of social inequalities. There is a fine line between free flow and free fall of capitalism—as stated by the famous economist Joseph Stiglitz—and, as we have observed over the last few years around the globe, we are bridging another fine line between urban crises and urban revolts. As in the past, urban development today goes hand in hand with capital accumulation. The question “Whose city is it?” is an old, legitimate one and the answer would radically differ in the eye of the beholder, echoing the chants of the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. These were the sort of sentiments and thoughts in my mind while I was preparing for, observing, and taking part in IDEAS CITY: Istanbul.
I couldn’t stop myself comparatively analyzing these two cities during the conference, starting with Amanda M. Burden’s keynote address. In New York, the modernist face of capitalism—symbolized by the persona of Robert Moses and his practice of large-scale urban demolition/redevelopment—has been replaced, at least discursively, with the human face of Jane Jacobs and a “postmodernist” approach to urban planning, with such strategies as street reclamations, urban acupunctures, eco-living, etc. Indeed, this must be a relief for many New Yorkers. Nevertheless, reflecting on Suketu Mehta’s presentation on immigrants in contemporary New York—that even linked to Rupali Gupte’s “informal” Mumbai and my beloved Istanbul—I realized we should never stop asking the question “Whose city is it?” if we want to imagine a radically different future, not just for a few but for all.
Istanbul still represents a “wild west” opportunity—an unexplored urban frontier for the capitalist city to consolidate itself. Hence, we have “room” for repeating Robert Moses’s mistakes, destroying the kind of urban life and form that was promoted by Jane Jacobs, and then trying to cure those mistakes, yet again in Jacobs’s style.
After my presentation, I had an interesting discussion with a participant from New York. He said that the scale of projects dominating urban discourse in Istanbul and the intensity of urban political debate is striking compared to his own city. One of the hottest urban issues in New York at the moment is the LowLine Project, transforming an abandoned trolley terminal into an underground park. In Istanbul, the hottest issues are megaprojects, officially labeled as “mad” projects, which include: opening up a canal (similar to the Suez or Panama) between the Black Sea and Marmara, nearly thirty miles long, 460 feet wide, and eighty feet deep, and providing an alternative route to the Bosphorus; building two new cities; filling the seashore to create a demonstration/concert area for over a million people; building a cross-continental underground metro-tunnel; and demolishing and rebuilding one million buildings. The scale of urban transformation in Istanbul could only be paralleled by similar madness, such as proposing to build a new city right on Central Park. Well, has anyone thought of a new development there yet?