To grasp the sheer extent of current government-initiated construction projects, we only need to put Istanbul’s most prestigious and eagerly awaited infrastructure landmark to the test: Marmaray is a subterranean train that crosses underneath the Bosporus strait to connect the historic peninsula of Sultanahmet to the Asian side of Istanbul. Originally scheduled for opening in 2009, the train finally took its maiden voyage in late 2013. It covers the approx. 2 km distance from Üsküdar/Asia to Sirkeci/Europe in less than ten minutes at an estimated average hourly passenger volume of 150,000. Due to extensive construction and countless of technical issues, many locals remain skeptical if the 1.5 km tunnel will withstand earthquakes – and many have not yet taken a ride on the new line. Nevertheless, Marmaray counts among the few projects that could take some pressure off Istanbul’s heavily congested roads, but photography artist and former city planner Murat Germen says it is not enough. Compared to the environmental impact of the third Bosporus bridge, Istanbul’s future third airport, and extensive highways to connect them, Marmaray constitutes only a minor improvement to the city’s growing issues. “There is a basic rule of city planning: If you try to solve a traffic problem by making new roads, it will help temporarily. But after a while, things actually get worse since traffic intensity increases.” He demands more substantial investment in public transport and car-free zones – and also points out that Marmaray, the extension of the Istanbul Metro network, and the Metrobus line (since 2007) are mere starting points for a faster, better, and more efficient means to get around in the city.

Marmaray project, photo by MEOGLOBAL Muhammed Enes Okullu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Marmaray project, photo by MEOGLOBAL Muhammed Enes Okullu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Back at Marmaray, those who leave the train at Yenikapı, one stop beyond Sirkeci, find themselves on the shores of the Bosporus and within walking distance of the recently inaugurated Yenikapı Square. The area, large enough to hold more than one million visitors, was erected on a landfill that extends roughly 400 meters into the Marmara Sea. Half park, half pavement, the square is designated for political rallies and other large events. Easily spotted on satellite images of Sultanahmet, it has changed the shape of the peninsula significantly.

Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, photo by VikiPicture (Own work)  [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, photo by VikiPicture (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Istanbul, the megapolis on the seams of Europe and Asia, has yet to see the end of the government-advocated development and construction boom – and so it comes as no surprise that many old neighborhoods are shaken up by construction. The controversial Gezi Park project demonstrated that developers and municipality alike seem to prefer replication over preservation; an urban strategy that has stretched the historical tissue of Istanbul thin more than once. The Tarlabaşı Renewal Project mirrors this lucrative approach, transforming the low-income district into a prestigious residential and shopping area under the pretext of earthquake safety measures. According to national law no. 5366, passed in 2005, municipalities can assign an endangered building’s restoration or reconstruction to commercial investors if the owners of the building are deemed incapable of doing so themselves. Although a number of structures will in fact be restored to their former glory, most of the historical buildings in Tarlabaşı will be razed and replaced with replicas of iconic 19th century townhouses and apartment buildings. It seems that while balancing the needs of a constantly growing population and responsibility towards its ancient cultural heritage, Istanbul’s decision makers have yet to find the perfect formula to turn the city’s growth into a sustainable urban success story.

Tarlabasi, Still from "Agoraphobia" by Imre Azemn
Tarlabasi, Still from “Agoraphobia” by Imre Azem

Text: Nina Ludolphi
Header image: Dirk70/ photocase.com