Urbanisation under Neoliberal Conservatism in Turkey

Urbanisation under Neoliberal Conservatism in Turkey


In the past two decades, cities in Turkey have become central to the reproduction and continual development of neoliberalism itself, constituting increasingly important geographical targets and laboratories for a variety of neoliberal policy experiments, all aimed at increasing the value of the land. These include the creation of financial centres, the building of shopping malls and tourist attractions, and the construction of protected luxury accommodations. This process is particularly accelerated during the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule and became even the main tool for economic growth. The AKP decided to restructure the governance of Turkish real-estate markets and urban planning through the implementation of a number of legal and institutional reforms, with significant consequences for the socioeconomic geography of cities and the rural environment. It also combined neoliberal strategies to the conservative-Islamist restructuring of the urban space. This article examines the nature of these policies, the tools permitting their consolidation and finally how they shape city space and everyday life of inhabitants in Turkey.


Since the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) accession to power, urban development and transformation projects are undertaken in the country, restructuring dramatically social, political and cultural morphology of cities in Turkey.

Urbanisation and housing policies in Turkey since the early 2000s present some characteristics leading many researchers to qualify them neo-liberal. Much research, particularly Anglo-Saxon ones, highlights a progressive neoliberalisation in this area since the 2000s. This phenomenon results, according to geographers Marianne Morange and Sylvie Fol, on “the agreement of many cities to develop urban entrepreneurship in order to rise their attractiveness to face the international. It is accompanied by an abandonment of spatial planning to the benefit of the new competitive regionalism embodied in a strategic urban planning” (2014: 2-3). Social policies in the city and the search for spatial justice fostering social diversity and support for disadvantaged populations are gradually downgraded. This paper would discuss this process by analysing urbanisation process in Turkey especially during the AKP’s rule. The objective will be also to show the specificities of this neoliberal urbanisation nourished in some ways by the taste of AKP government for conservative way of life and Ottoman period.

Urbanization can be explained through to three historical phases; the period before 1980, the period between 1980 and 2001, and the period after 2001. The first phase corresponds to the beginning of urbanization in the 1950s, and it is clearly related to the high rate of rural migration (Öncü, 1988). This period is marked by the absence of public policy on housing. The housing question was never entirely addressed as a policy in the political agenda of changing governments, and housing needs was long-time managed by individual initiatives by constructing informing settlement called generally as gecekondus in Turkey (Türkün, 2011). As Kuyucu and Ünsal argue, “in the absence of a formal social housing policy, the informal market became the only mechanism to cater for growing urban populations. This particular solution to the “housing problem” was used extensively in Istanbul, where housing provision for low-income groups relied on the legalized appropriation of unauthorized land” (Kuyucu and Ünsal, 2010: 1483), resulting in the expansion of inner-city gecekondu areas. In Istanbul, this act of land taking was by no means legal, but was nonetheless sanctioned as it allowed the government to pass the costs and political hur­dles of urbanization on to the migrants themselves. In doing so, businesses were able to disregard hous­ing expenses when calculating labour costs and poli­ticians could tie votes to the provision of land alone (Lelandais, 2014). This arrangement was accepted as long as these new­comers provided themselves the needs for their own welfare like grow­ing food in their own courtyards and walking to jobs in nearby industrial factories. They were therefore able to reduce the costs of urban living. During the 1980s and 1990s gecekondus started to change owners in order to construct buildings, making possible for the first dwellers to increase their life standards.

The introduction of neoliberal economic rules started in Turkey during the 1980s. The control of the state was progressively reduced on markets and services under the rule of former Prime Minister Turgut Özal. In terms of anti-labourism and neoliberal centralisation of state power, Turkish government under Özal engaged in real shock therapy as its counterparts did elsewhere in Europe accompanied by an export-led growth strategy (Bekmen, 2014: 54). During the period between 1980 and 2001, economic development dominated Turkey’s public policy, and lead to the emergence of large-scale development projects such as the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which involves the construction of 20 barrages and irrigation channels. This era was also associated with the development of building co-operatives and the introduction of larger building contractors within the housing market. During this period the Real Estate Investment Trusts were beginning to influence the housing market, and they identified inner-city gecekondu areas as potentially profitable sites. Before the rise of AKP, previous governments had not attempted to regenerate gecekondu areas, fearing a backlash from voters and subsequent electoral defeat[1]. This view was only changed by two major crises in Turkey, the first being the major earthquake of 1999 in the Marmara Sea close to Istanbul, which caused the deaths of 16,000 people and the destruction of 20,000 buildings. This was closely followed by the 2001 financial crisis that provoked a considerable political and economic change leading to the AKP.

Elected after the 2001 economic crisis, the AKP government has been an eager follower of the structural adjustment programme introduced by the former government in order to surpass the crisis. However, the party did not play a passive role and introduced new measures in order to surpass economic and financial problems the country was facing and to reintroduce economic growth (Akça et al., 2014). The neoliberal economic choices of the AKP had actually two main characteristics. The first was the support of Islamic capital groups close to the party in order to consolidate the power bloc as a unity of politically dominant classes and capitalist groups. The second was the promotion of urban planning and development projects by accelerating the construction industry, which was already boosted during 1990s via the emergence of Real Estate Investment Trusts and the privatisation of a number of urban public constructions (Enlil, 2011). The sector has been designated by the government as a solution to revive the country’s economy and stimulate growth (Yalçintan and Çavuşoğlu, 2013), but also to ensure the rise of a new capitalist group close to its conservative ideology and political objectives (Gürek, 2008).

In this sense, urban entrepreneurialism denotes an array of governance mechanisms and policies aimed at nurturing local and regional economic growth by creating a business environment propitious to capital accumulation and investment (Harvey, 1989; Leitner, 1990; Hall and Hubbard, 1998). The central point of these policies is indeed the spatialisation of neoliberal order. In other words, for the first time, city space is commodified and becomes one of the main sources for the capital accumulation. As Swyngedouw (2002) points out in his research on large-scale urban development projects (UDP) in Europe, the state is also the central actor in Turkey for privatising the large state-owned stock of former industrial and public buildings, forests, rivers and informally urbanised land, and creating a set of laws to expropriate property from the current owners of valuable inner-city neighbourhoods, and taking the risks and giving the guarantees related to the potential cost of UDP’s (Cavuşoğlu and Strutz, 2014). According the recent research of many Turkish scholars, Turkey and especially Istanbul is losing its uniqueness under the heightened impact of market forces and the competitiveness seeking ‘market state’, and has marked a quantum leap in a neoliberal direction (Keyder, 2005; Tugal, 2009; Lovering and Türkmen, 2011).

A legally based urban neoliberal regime

Starting from 2001, a new age of urban planning began to spread. By implementing a number of legal and institutional reforms, the AKP decided to restructure the governance of Turkish real-estate markets and urban planning, with significant consequences for the socioeconomic geography of cities and the rural environment. The first stage of this restructure was the reinforcement of Mass Housing Administration’s (TOKI) competencies in 2003 by the law no. 4966, permitting the transfer of all treasury lands to the use of TOKI with the permission of the Prime Minister in order to create lands for housing. Between 2004 and 2008 several laws were passed by parliament in order to establish land and housing policy directions of the government. The law no. 5162, accepted in May 2004, gave to the TOKI the possibility of forced expropriation in the areas of urban renewal, to establish partnerships with private firms and financial trusts and to develop transformation projects in gecekondu areas. The law no. 5216, accepted in July 2004 extended the rights for municipalities to decide about urban transformation projects and areas.

Another important law was granted to the municipalities and the TOKI to carry out urban regeneration projects not only in those zones considered to be decayed and unhealthy, but also in historical districts, ostensibly to renew and re-use them (Law no. 5366, 5/2005). In 2007, by the law no. 5609, the TOKI became the sole authority in determining zones of construction and the sale of public lands. Finally, in 2012, with the “Law on the transformation of Disaster-Risk Areas” (Law no. 6306), the government had the free hand to undertake renewal projects across the country under the TOKI’s agency by using the argument of ‘risk’. In this regard, the owner of the ‘risky’ property is forced to sell it to the municipality and demolish it at their own expense (Çavuşoğlu and Strutz, 2014: 147). The role of the TOKI is now undeniable in current urban policies given that it centralizes all housing decisions.[2] Previously a non-profit public institution for social housing, the TOKI today has permission to undertake ‘for-profit’ housing projects on state land, either through its subsidiary firms or through public–private partnerships, all to raise funds for the so-called construction of public housing (See Table 1).[3] TOKI is an instrument for revenue creation through both the development of projects in areas with high land rent and increasing land rents by developing construction projects that it can share with subcontracting construction firms, such as: Kuzu, Biat, Aksa, Ağaoğlu, Taşyapı, Albayrak, İhlas and Çalık (Gürek, 2008; Çavuşoğlu and Strutz, 2014).

These changes ensured the neoliberalisation of land and the housing regime in Turkey. The state engages also in risk sharing with these companies. For example, in Istanbul’s third airport project, the state has provided a 25-year sale guarantee to the bid winner for rent-generating activities: 20 euros per passenger, a minimum passenger number guarantee and finally payment of companies’ external debt from the state treasury. These changes to legislation ensured the neoliberalisation of land and housing regime in Turkey:

Table-1: Housing projects led by TOKI-private partnerships in Turkey

Ekran Alıntısı

Source: Official websites of Mass Housing Agency and Demires Ozkul B, 2012.

During AKP’s rule, cities in Turkey have become central to the reproduction and continual development of neoliberalism itself, constituting increasingly important geographical targets and laboratories for a variety of neoliberal policy experiments aimed at increasing the value of the land. These include the creation of financial centres, the building of shopping malls and tourist attractions, and the construction of luxury gated communities. Recent projects, like the construction of the new presidential palace in Ankara, and the third airport or Kanal Istanbul constitute examples of this neoliberal urban regime summarised as follows: (i) the state appears as the main propulsive force and developer via the mobilisation and the increase of politico-economic competencies of various public institutions and the establishment of a new legal framework on property and urbanisation; (ii) urban transformation and large-scale development projects are the main tools of city structuring; (iii) the subsequent realisation of produced land rent embodied in the newly built environment of the city is one of the main objectives; (iv) urban transformation and UDPs are considered as catalysts of economic growth and the creation of new capitalist conservative class close to the government; and (v) the decision-making and realisation process of urban projects is closed to deliberative democratic discussion including inhabitants and has a top-down authoritarian and security-based stance. This neoliberal restructuring of urban space is coupled with a conservative appropriation of public spaces and production of new spaces in several cities in Turkey. The most emblematic example is Istanbul.

(Re)Design of Urban Space with a Conservative Perspective

What characterises the struggle on the perception and appropriation of the space and especially urban space during the AKP’s rule is the expressions of conservative ways of life in public space in addition to the commodification of space. The construction of mosques on the strategic places of the city like Taksim and Camlica,[4] the restriction of alcohol consumption in some public spaces, the progressive domination of Ottoman-Seljuk style architectural designs; especially, on public buildings highlight not only a symbolic transformation, but also a breakdown of spatial practices in a conservative manner under the rule of AKP. Creating its own capitalist class and high-income social classes during its rule, the AKP also succeeded to produce new public spaces directed by “Islamic-oriented” rules. One of the most important examples is the creation of new holiday concepts proposing an Islamic way of life for high-income conservative families.[5] In the proposed hotels, “women only” swimming pools and beaches are conceived and alcohol is not served. Today, the number of this type of hotels is more than thirty while in 1990s there were only two hotels like that. Another example is the proposition of “women only” public beach by Antalya Municipality in city’s Konyaalti Beach.

This conservative evolution is also observable in the project of pedestrianisation of Taksim Square leading to Gezi Park protests. Taksim has an important place in the collective memory of working class struggles in Turkey. For working class organisations, especially unions and Marxist-Leninist political parties, workers could not give up this place, as the orchestrators of 1977’s massacre were neither found nor an investigation conducted. For the Kemalist parties and groups, Taksim has a memorial importance, as it is one of the first examples of the republican period’s urbanisation conceived by Henri Proust, a famous French planner, during Atatürk era and aftermath especially with the presence of Atatürk Cultural Centre. These two groups (workers and Kemalists) want to keep Taksim Square in its current state, while the AKP government wants to transform it in a manner which will make it forget as a landmark of Republican period. Furthermore, another unique feature of the area is the Orthodox Church at Taksim Square. Therefore, there is a desire to give some Islamic and Ottoman characteristics to the Square by the construction of an old Ottoman barrack and a mosque just opposite to this church. The conservative political power aims to reorganise the space and everyday life according to its own norms by distraining the public spaces of the social groups declared as “enemies” as they do not have the same values, norms and lifestyles (seculars, Kemalists, liberal leftists, Romani people, Kurds, Armenians, LGBTs, etc.). The objective is pushing them to the outside of these places and therefore making them invisible in public space

Evictions, demolitions and insecurity discourse as main characteristics of neoliberal urban regime

Urban transformation in Turkey is considered as the main tool of the regime’s neoliberal policies in order to generate land rent, to commodify new spaces and to redesign city space. Therefore, the first objective is to transform gecekondus whose lands are located close to the city centre and have high estate values. TOKI is aware that gecekondu areas include some of the potentially most valuable land in the metropolitan cities. Conversely, these areas will not be marketable to the existing population that lack the resources. TOKI, therefore, sets out to remove them. In June 2009, UN-HABITAT’s Advisory Group on Forced Evictions was invited by civil society groups to visit selected sites like Ayazma, Başıbüyük, Gülsuyu-Gülensu, Tarlabaşı and Sulukule, where approximately 80,000 residents were likely to be evicted and to resettle to the outskirts of the city.

This view has meant that gecekondu neighbourhoods in Istanbul have been the first targets of the TOKI, which intends to replace them with new housing complexes, reflecting urban neoliberalism’s deep concern with imposing a certain social landscape on the city. This type of policy involves new and aggressive strategies of policing and surveillance aimed at particular groups and spaces, the criminalization of poverty and the increased use of the penal system (Dikeç, 2009). For the first time the passing of the new Criminal Code in 2004 (Law No. 5237), made gecekondu construction criminal offence, punishable by five years in prison. This clearly reveals the government’s ‘zero-tolerance’ approach on this issue. Gecekondu demolitions, previously rare in Istanbul, have now increased dramatically. During the period 2004 and 2008 11,543 units were demolished in Istanbul the highest record in any period (Kuyucu and Ünsal, 2010: 1484).

In order to facilitate the demolitions and displacements, urban transformation targets the urban poor and the informal economy, orders maintenance policing, the privatisation of security, and the literal or de facto privatisation of public space and the (re-)emergence of an often racialised discourse of the poor as dangerous and criminal. The discourse of the former president of TOKI, Erdoğan Bayraktar confirms this statement:[6]

Today, the gecekondu is one of the most important two or three problems that Turkey faces. It is well known that such things as terror, drugs, psychological negativity, health problems and oppositional views all come out of gecekondu zones and irregular areas. For this reason, Turkey that wants to integrate with the world, that wants to join the European Union, must rid itself of illegal dwellings . . .Turkey cannot speak of development without solving the gecekondu problem.

This statement brings out the desire of policy-makers to link the shantytown or unhealthy downtown districts to criminality and to designate their inhabitants as potential offenders and enemies in order to legitimate the urban transformation projects in public opinion. Küçükçekmece Municipality, for the transformation project of Ayazma neighbourhood where the majority of inhabitants are Kurds, asserts as follows: “It is essential to redevelop existing sub regions—which are problematic, unhealthy, lack urban quality and life security, are socially corrupted and centres of crime—as healthy and liveable places” (Küçükçekmece Municipality, 2007: 6) using therefore “public rhetoric played upon the racist prejudice according to which Kurdish-ness is equated with political disloyalty, quasi-feudal primitivism, general anti-social attitudes and criminality” (Lovering and Türkmen 2011: 84). The background noise provided by the high-profile Turkish media coverage, that uniformly celebrates Turkish soldiers killed by the PKK as ‘martyrs’ while their opponents are ‘terrorists’, heightened the reluctance of Ayazma residents to display public opposition (ibid).

According to some research, urban transformation targets the urban poor and the informal economy, aggressive enforcement of these via ‘broken windows’ and order maintenance policing, the privatisation of security, the literal or de facto privatisation of public space and the urban transformation is coupled in general with the emergence or re-emergence of an often racialised discourse of the poor as dangerous and criminal. All contribute to spatial fragmentation and massive fortification of the spaces between rich and poor (Herbert and Brown, 2006; Wacquant, 2002). In this framework, the multiplication of gated communities in Istanbul is correlated to the sentiment of insecurity and the desire to be among his/her similar (Daniş and Pérouse, 2005; Genis, 2007; Low, 2001). Işin explains this phenomenon by introducing the concept of “neurotic citizen” incited by governing actors to make social and cultural investments to eliminate various dangers by calibrating its conduct on the basis of its anxieties and insecurities rather than rationalities (2004: 223). He relates it to the home becoming a fortified castle through gated communities, surveillance technologies and security industries that address the vulnerabilities and anxieties associated with “home security” (ibid: 230).

With this new urban regime, it is now possible to undertake planning and renewal projects anywhere in Turkey, regardless of the intended outcome. Moreover, new laws have given public institutions power for carrying out such projects, including urgent expropriation. This has in turn weakened the concerned inhabitants’ capacity for resistance and negotiation. Within this framework, the city is not perceived as a social human project but rather a source of profit. Lower-class neighbourhoods inhabited by the city’s poorest, which at the same time carry the highest potential in terms of the rising value of urban land, have been refashioned by local municipality-private sector partnerships and allotted to new Istanbulites. These individuals have the highest cultural and economic capital, such as local and foreign executives working in sectors who are in great demand in the post-industrialist era (e.g., finance, design and informatics) as well as professionals of the institutionalised field of arts and culture (Adanali, 2011). As many activists and advocacy groups emphasise, Gezi Protests emerged at the backdrop of these urban processes, which constituted for several years the cause of various urban social movements organised locally but with common revendications and perspectives throughout Turkey. These movements are often invisible and do not find echo in the mainstream media. Gezi protests have been their visible expression.

To conclude, regarding the electoral promises of political parties during the elections in June 2015,[7] neoliberalism seems to rule urbanisation in Turkey. In spite of several popular reactions to large-scale urbanisation projects like third bridge on the Bosphorus, a new water channel at the west of Istanbul and nuclear plants, the policy makers consider this form of urbanisation as a necessity in order to create jobs, competitive cities and to engender sustainable growth.

Dr. Gülçin Erdi Lelandais, Research Fellow-Sociologist, French National Center for Scientific Research, CNRS-CITERES

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Erdi Lelandais, G. (July, 2015), “Urbanisation under Neoliberal Conservatism in Turkey”, Vol. IV, Issue 7, pp.54-67, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=9490)


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[1] In the 1990s, gecekondus made up 30% of the total number of buildings in İstanbul, housing almost the half of the population.

[2] Since 2003, 65,808,239 square metres of land have been transferred to TOKI ownership at no cost (Radikal, 27 May 2008). Between 2003 and 2008 the TOKI constructed approximately 340,000 housing units (50,000 of which are in İstanbul), 317 trade centres and 30 hospitals, in addition to numerous other buildings (www.toki.gov.tr).

[3] Law No. 4966 (2003), Law No. 5162 (2004), Law No. 5582 (2007) and Law No. 5793 (2008).

[4] This places are symbolically and geographically importants in the global urban scale of Istanbul. Taksim is one of the most cosmopolitan, modern, secular and Western-style places in Istanbul and Camlica is the highest and most visible hill of Istanbul

[5] Many websites like www.islamiotel.com or http://www.muhafazakarotelim.com/ propose different kinds of « Islamic » hotels and villas for summer holidays.

[6] Erdogan Bayraktar in 2007 to the Urban Regeneration and Real Estate Investment Conference, organised by

the Urban Land Institute. See Zaman Newspaper, 13 November 2007; Sabah Newspaper, 13 November 2007.

[7] For example, we can mention the project “Merkez Türkiye” (Center Turkey) proposed by People’s Republican Party (CHP) and recent urban transformation projects managed in Diyarbakir by HDP-ruled municipalities in Kurdish regions



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