Can city planning help prevent wars?
The city streets are a part of a complex network we interact with daily, yet most of us give little thought to how it shapes our lives. We probably should do, given that more than half of humanity now lives in urban environments, making these landscapes an intrinsic part of our everyday experiences. They go beyond serving functions of homes, shopping or work, touching upon the depths of modern life, to the point where the physical makeup of a city can even start or end wars.
None of this is a revelation for Istanbul-based architects Elif and Can Sucuoğlu. Since studying at the Southern California Institute of Architecture a decade ago, the husband and wife team has attempted to advance the conversation around the use of public space through a range of initiatives. They’ve placed simple cardboard boxes and backgammon game amenities in New York’s East Village in a bid to take back the concept of sidewalk space, and have served as design consultants on public transport systems elsewhere in the United States.
Back in their native Turkey, they have put this experience to real use in a city that desperately needs some effective answers to huge urban questions. They are the people behind a new app to help tourists and locals navigate Istanbul’s maze-like Grand Bazaar, and an open-source mapping project in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya where locals are encouraged to place pins on maps indicating the best swimming, eating spots and building design ideas.
Portable docks in Izmur, Turkey
Today the pair run an architecture and design company in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş neighbourhood. From here they battle both traditional Turkish attitudes to architecture and a government that is turning urban green spaces over for commercial projects or grandiose neo-Ottoman symbols.
“Though it was difficult to get people to buy into the idea that they needed architectural and design help, when we started in 2011, it was a very exciting time in Istanbul and Turkey,” says Can. “There was a lot of investment in construction, and people had hopes of doing different things. Turks abroad were coming home with the expectation that something new was happening for the first time in our lifetimes. But that feeling isn’t really there anymore.”
It was here in Istanbul that the war for the streets made international headlines. When a 2013 anti-government protest against the urban development of Gezi Park drew millions into the streets, the Sucuoğlus were at the heart of the struggle.
Yet, as large as the protests appeared on television screens, the progressives who made up the Gezi protesters are a small minority. The architects explain how Turkish attitudes to city space, and especially the waterfronts, have more broadly been shaped by two main historical trends: over the centuries, millions of migrants came to the major cities from central Anatolia and thus had no relationship with, or expectation from, the water that surrounds Turkey’s major urban centres. (Istanbul, Izmir, Antalya and other urban centres are located along the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.)
The redevelopment of Taksim Square in 2016
Secondly, as cars flooded Turkey’s cities during the 1950s, their historic and hilly layouts meant that the best areas to build roads were along the coasts. This meant blocking off public access to the water, one of their best public assets, and turning the seafront into something to look at, but no more.
It was this gap — figurative and real — that the Sucuoğlus sought to bridge. They designed and constructed innovative floating modular docks to enable city dwellers to interact with the sea in Izmir, one of Turkey’s more progressive cities. “We thought it could be useful to look at a new way of interacting with the water,” says Can.
At four metres-squared and protected from the salty sea water by teak oil, the individual wooden docks can be assembled and moved around with minimal fuss. And it is this versatility that led it to second place in The Guardian newspaper’s World Cities Day challenge two years ago, with the dock lauded for its use of otherwise underused city space.
However, getting local authorities to definitively back such projects has proved to be difficult. Attempts to bring the docks to Istanbul, a city home to a crush of 15 million people but surrounded by three major waterways, have been frustrated by the conservative thinking of Istanbul’s urban planners and municipalities. “Whatever I try to do, the docks are falling through the Turkish bureaucratic cracks,” says Can.
Though Elif Sucuoğlu wanted to be an architect since childhood, she and Can are not your typical activist architects. Instead they’re the kind of people who visited Kabul in 2012 for “tourism reasons,” but also to see first-hand how the massive concrete blast walls erected to protect foreign military and international development staff destroyed locals’ access to their city and contributed to the insecurity and violence that has plagued Afghanistan over the past decade.
Elif and Can Sucuoğlu
“Kabul was once primarily a walkable city. Now it’s different,” says Elif. “The walls and barriers, the changing of the cityscape to accommodate cars — especially armoured ones — has disrupted the connections,” says Elif. “The people who have money are those who control the city planning. And they are the ones who want to move quickly through the city, so they get to decide.”
In the years following the 2001 invasion to eradicate the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden, the Afghan authorities’ failure to address traffic and access issues in Kabul became a source of anger among residents of the city. The US embassy had closed off entire streets around its complex, denying locals access to their families, neighbours, markets, and displacing street vendors, which all added to general anti-Western sentiment among residents.
By 2006, under pressure from politicians of all stripes, then-president Hamid Karzai ordered the interior ministry to remove dozens of checkpoints across the city. He gave foreign governments and NGOs one week to clear out their barriers. The move had far-reaching consequences. One example, which Elif smiles at, is that foreign dignitaries who funded the restoration of the historic Gardens of Babur were, for security reasons, not allowed to visit the finished site.
“Development seemed to be done with the main objective of protection. It was interesting to see who people are afraid of and who they are trying to be protected from,” Elif says. “What you realise is how much everyone is secluded from life in the city with the T-walls separating the so-called Green Zone from the rest of the city. There were two layers to the city.”
Their experiences in the Afghan capital moved them to co-author a recently published article, Peace-building through Architecture, which stemmed from the Kabul visit. The paper, which they presented at a conference in Atlanta last summer, argues that the way cities are reconstructed, and consequentially used by communities, can actually contribute to peace-making — or indeed foster conflict. “If you’re only allowing people with cars access to the city you’re limiting the rest’s ability to do business, to socialise,” says Can.
He goes much further on this point, saying that physical barriers manifest through bad street layout, traffic mapping that caters to cars rather than communities, can prompt isolation that reinforce fears of the ‘other’. He says this arguably prolonged devastating violence in Beirut, Baghdad and elsewhere across the Middle East in recent decades. “Even touching shoulders with someone when walking or simply saying ‘hello’ reduces fear,” says Can. “You share the space and you share a life. To re-establish this common space after a conflict is very important. It should be one of the main points of peace-building.”
Aleppo and Beyond
Cities currently in the throes of unrest such as Aleppo and Homs in Syria, where war has raged for more than five years, destroying whole neighbourhoods, will leave a blank slate from which to determine their future physical layout. How their regeneration is managed could decide whether the violence there continues, or recedes into history.
The images from Homs, of smashed buildings lying next to seemingly unconcerned pedestrians out shopping, have become a well-known symbol that demarks the invisible but very real border between the pro- and anti-revolution communities.
A UN Development Programme-funded project to restore sections of Homs’ ancient Old City souk, which was destroyed following heavy clashes in previous years, could be viewed as controversial. When launched last August it did so under the patronage of President Assad and was to an extent co-opted by the government as a sign of the Damascus regime’s endurance — and as a warning to those who oppose it.
Most Turkish cities don’t face such immediate danger — with the possible exception of a few districts in the Kurdish cities of Turkey’s southeast — but the risk of conflict is most certainly bubbling under the surface. “Istanbul is becoming more crowded, and because of that I see people becoming more aggressive. It’s due to traffic, and a public transport system that cannot keep up with the population boom. The city has become very money-orientated. Its planning is not design-based,” says Can.
The battle for city space in Turkey three years ago centred on Gezi Park and sparked the biggest anti-government protests in a decade. Those who took to the streets say that their anger was not just about a city park, but about democratic access to all cities.
Since then, the vacuuming-up of historic residential street space to be spat out as communities of faux-chic cafes and restaurants has only spread, changing the character of 100-year-old districts of Istanbul, just as it has done in other Middle Eastern cities. “It’s commercialised historical heritage,” complains Elif. “All the old buildings are renovated in a way that, for example, keeps the facades old but the interiors, the living spaces modern for commercial purposes.” She points to the many residential neighbourhoods that have been turned into tourist hubs and street shopping malls “to cater for the increase of Middle Eastern tourists, because it’s what they want.”
There is another side to the story, of course, as the couple acknowledge. Can concedes that the gentrification of Turkish and Middle Eastern cities has led to more money for local businesses, which then gets pumped back into the local economy. This creates a more robust and active atmosphere in neighbourhoods, which fosters a sense of community. “Ten years ago there was no one in central Istanbul on the streets after 7pm. Once people discovered it was fun to be in the street, these neighbourhoods took on their own life. There has been a return to narrow street life and community,” he says.
“You can see this in Beirut, probably the liveliest city in the Middle East and even despite the heat, you can see this happening in the Gulf cities with series of pedestrian-friendly places along the waterfronts. It seems Dubai is trying to get rid of its car-first image, trying to get people outside.”
The fact that Istanbul must house, feed and find facilities for an additional 350,000 people every year — far more than global cities such as New York and London — means that function often takes precedence over form. Yet who would have thought just a half-dozen years ago that the cities of Syria, a country long considered a bastion of peace and tolerance, would be pulverised by war? In a region where conflict is determined to stay, the proper planning of cities now and in the future might just save us from another Afghanistan or Syria.