Pop Goes Istanbul

One of the world's great cities is growing too big for its britches.


View photos of the dark side of Istanbul.

ISTANBUL — Istanbul famously straddles two continents, but pity the working stiff who commutes to Europe in the morning and home to Asia at night. The journey along the feeder roads funneling into the city’s Bosphorus Bridge is a bumper-to-bumper ordeal.

Once onto the bridge itself, the view is suddenly extraordinary. To the south, across the water, is the skyline forged by the rulers of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. To the north are the summer palaces and the stately waterfront homes of Turkey’s elite. But beneath the picturesque vistas lies a city growing dangerously out of control.

In many ways, Istanbul is thriving. A joint study by the Brookings Institution and the London School of Economics named it the world’s best-performing city, in terms of income and employment growth, over the past year. Meanwhile, Istanbul came out on top of an informal survey of the cities that New York Times readers most want to visit.

A provincial backwater that reinvented itself in 330 A.D. as the New Rome, Istanbul now serves as Turkey’s own New York. It produces well over a quarter of the country’s GDP, its businesses generate 60 percent of Turkey’s trade, and its citizens and businesses pay 40 percent of the country’s taxes. Districts covered with mulberry orchards little more than two decades ago have now sprouted bank towers and high-rise corporate headquarters. In the gardens of the Istanbul Stock Exchange, the statue of a vast marble bull is poised in a perpetual charge.

But even while Istanbul is already on the way to becoming the commercial capital of a region well beyond Turkey’s frontiers, the city’s ambitions know no end. Recessions in Europe and rebellions in North Africa have only strengthened the conviction that the tide is drifting Turkey’s way — that, if it plays its cards right, Istanbul can become the new London or Hong Kong.

Yet the city’s confidence may turn out to be its curse. Relentless urban expansion threatens to lay siege to the former imperial capital and scrub away its natural beauty.

Istanbul is a city under construction. From the faux-Ottoman housing estate on the Thracian approach to the city — with its own mock Bosphorus canal — to the $2.5 billion conversion of a government office block into a sprawling office complex at the entrance to the first Bosphorus bridge, the feeding frenzy over Istanbul’s relentless expansion has also transformed the city’s politics.

Istanbul has always been a magnet for the Turkish countryside. And as it has become ever more closely integrated into a global economy, the pickings have become all the richer. "The incorporation of Istanbul into the international real estate market has changed all the rules," says Ilhan Tekeli, emeritus professor of the City and Regional Planning Department at the Middle East Technical University.

For some, those rules were there to be broken. Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, now leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), made his name in national politics in 2008 when he charged the deputy head of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) with accepting $1 million to arrange for the rezoning for commercial use a piece of land on the western approach to Istanbul. The site, which had been purchased for $3.5 million, was sold one year later for $13 million to the Turkish arm of a British supermarket giant.

At the heart of Istanbul’s transformation is not just the surge in land values, but in population. In 1945, the city had less than a million inhabitants; by the end of the Cold War that figure had risen to some 6.5 million. In the past 20 years, the population doubled to 13 million.

New urban settlements have eroded the boundaries of areas earmarked for water reservoirs, and gnawed away at forestry and green spaces. Istanbul is not only a meeting point of continents, but of Black Sea and Mediterranean climate systems. The result is a unique micro-environment that sustains some 2,000 species of plant life — 500 varieties more than in all of Britain, according to Andrew Byfield, co-author of Important Plant Areas of Turkey.

And as Istanbul grows, it is also growing warmer. NASA satellites reveal thermal pockets where the city has expanded that are up to 1.4 degrees Celsius warmer than 25 years ago — a result of urban settlements replacing ancient landscapes. Istanbul’s new prosperity ensures that its carbon emissions will increase at a far greater pace in the years to come, putting its special ecosystem in jeopardy.

It’s not just the flora that is in danger. At some time, the city will reach a limit for people, too. "Beyond 16 million, there is no future for Istanbul; there is no future for anyone," says Ibrahim Bas, head of Istanbul’s planning department.

At the current growth rate, this gives Istanbul less than a decade to sort itself out. Figures released at the end of January reveal that the city grew 2.6 percent in 2010, the equivalent of adding the population of Tampa, Florida, to the metropolis.

This means that Istanbul is a city desperately in need of a vision for sustainable development. But commercial pressures are constantly interfering with urban planners’ best-laid schemes.

And piecemeal efforts to solve one crisis have only made others grow far worse. Take the attempts to unlock the city’s endless traffic jam. Two bridges currently span the Bosphorus Strait, carrying commuters from the more residential Asian side of the city to work in Europe, and then back home at night. The first bridge, which opened in 1973, became an instant symbol of Turkish modernization and a metaphor for the city as a bridge between cultures, peoples, and civilizations. However, it soon acquired a less flattering reputation in urban planning literature for generating massive urban sprawl, which the authorities could not even pretend to control.

In 1986, Istanbul began work on a second Bosphorus bridge to deal with the problems created by the first. This bridge was meant to be a thoroughfare for intercity traffic, allowing long-distance drivers to bypass Istanbul altogether.

That simply didn’t happen. Even before the inaugural ribbon was cut, there was a vast speculative land grab on both sides of the bridge. The greenery that was meant to be spared by creating a way to bypass the city was soon covered with high-rise blocks. A pledge that there would be no on- or off-ramps for at least 25 kilometers on either side of the new bridge to discourage commuters was instantly broken. Twenty-five years later, a negligible percentage of the traffic across the second bridge is made up of intercity travelers.

The pace of urbanization along the route of the second bridge has outpaced even the furious growth elsewhere in Istanbul. Sultanbeyli, a remote settlement of 4,000 before the bridge was opened, now has a population of 300,000.

To its credit, Istanbul’s municipal government is trying to reduce the city’s addiction to private transportation. If it is ever to reduce the commute across its two bridges, which now averages an astonishing 72 minutes, the focus has to be on moving people — not their cars. A dedicated bus route that uses the first bridge opened in 2007 and was soon carrying 600,000 passengers a day. An undersea rail tunnel that will link Europe and Asia may finally open in 2013.

But Istanbul has also reached for the same failed tricks that got it into trouble in the first place. Turkey’s transportation department is now convinced that what the city needs most is a third bridge, constructed on the northern edge of the city at the still verdant mouth of the Black Sea. It has announced its intention to take out a tender for the project within the next few weeks. The price tag being bandied for the new bridge project is $6 billion — funds that could be better spent buying the city a 100-kilometer metro system.

The argument again being used in favor of a third bridge is that it would serve as a ring road around Istanbul. However, this line of reasoning has not convinced everyone. "It would be like driving a highway through a rain forest," said Byfield.

Members of Istanbul’s professional chambers of planners, architects, and environmentalists mounted a legal challenge to the project at the end of January. They argued that the plan would not only mean power-sawing a path through 2.5 million trees, but that the environmental impact on the city has yet to be calculated.

These objections have so far fallen on deaf ears. The Turkish parliament passed an omnibus bill in mid-February that included a proviso allowing the highways department to move forward with the project, bypassing the planning authorities.

The irony of this is that the construction of yet another bridge will bring little comfort for Istanbul commuters. For that, "you would need a fourth bridge and then a fifth," confessed Bas, Istanbul’s chief planner.

No one can stop the city from expanding. The question is whether it can grow according to a plan and without making the lives of its citizens miserable. Failure to do so will frustrate its efforts to become an international economic hub and spell disaster for its environment.

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