(Lorena Rios / CityLab – July 25, 2017)

Its former mayor—now Turkey’s authoritarian president—said the Gezi Park protests of 2013 were merely “for the sake of a few trees.” Today, activists are struggling to preserve green space against a sea of government-supported construction.

“The first time I milked a cow was three years ago,” Rana Soylemez, a 30-year-old Istanbulite, admits. The historic city is known around the world for its beauty, but only 2 percent is classified as public green space.

“I am not dreaming about living in rural areas,” Soylemez says, inside a hidden café surrounded by a lush canopy of trees in a trendy central neighborhood. “You [shouldn’t] have to escape the city if you want a quality life,” she adds. “You don’t have to be part of this madness; we can change it.”

Istanbul’s population has risen from 1 million to 14 million since 1950. Its current construction boom is a trademark of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Holding a firm grip on procedures such as zoning permits, building licenses, land allocation, and the selection of companies in public tenders, the AKP uses construction as leverage to achieve its goals. Currently, $64 billion in government funds are earmarked for big infrastructure investments like airports, bridges, motorways, and hospital complexes—projects as utilitarian as they are controversial.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dreams of positioning his country among the world’s top ten largest economies by 2023. In 2013, then-Minister of Transport, Maritime Affairs, and Communication Binali Yildirim boasted a 10-year, $250-billion infrastructure portfolio. Yet many locals resent trading green public space and heritage for glitz and glamour. City government attempts to soften the environmental damage from the building boom include planting about 26.5 million tulips across the city every year. It’s a mostly appreciated effort, as tulips were very symbolic for the Ottomans and people still value them; however, the occasional sight of security guards standing in front of Taksim Square’s new flower beds takes away from the pleasantness.

While Istanbul won “European Capital of Culture” in 2010, it lost its bid this year to become the “European Green Capital.” Erdogan’s “Turkey Vision 2023” differs greatly from the dreams of citizens like Soylemez who want to protect green space from further development and privatization.

Soylemez is part of a small group of volunteers tending the Roma bostan (Turkish for “garden”) in the heart of the city. The bostan grew out of the 2013 Gezi Protests. Hundreds of thousands gathered in Istanbul’s main square at the time to support environmentalists after the government announced it would demolish it for a mosque and a shopping center. The construction of the mall has been halted, but work on the mosque is underway. The protests, which Erdogan—a former mayor of Istanbul—publicly denounced as being “for the sake of a few trees,” served as an awakening for those unhappy with the government’s murky policies and exclusionary planning process. At least three protesters at Gezi Park were killed and 8,000 injured at the hands of Turkish security forces.

Roma Bostan in Istanbul’s Cihangir neighborhood. (Lorena Rios)

Roma Bostan sits on a hill in the affluent neighborhood of Cihangir, facing the historical peninsula, the throne of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. During the violent dispersal during Gezi, protesters retreated from Taksim Square into nearby narrow streets to find shelter. Since then, the neighborhood has kept an anti-establishment reputation with anti-AKP youth often hanging out in its bars and cafes.

Striking domes and minarets unfold in all directions, but a city block of concrete buildings and construction cranes now obstructs the once-impeccable view of the Bosphorus strait from the one-acre garden. By law, Roma Bostan is designated as public space, but its prime location in front of the sea makes it a likely candidate for development. In fact, the municipal government now wants to turn it into a four-story café, but the plan has faced opposition from a small group of activists.

“Cinhangir is full of cafés,” Soylemez says intensely. “The last thing we need is another place to drink tea.”

Roma Bostan is well-known locally as a spot where people bring their own drinks and sit on the hill to enjoy the view. In 2015, Soylemez joined a group to get visitors to stop leaving their trash behind and turn it into a place where people can grow their own food and still socialize.

Today, the garden now grows 20 different fruit species and runs on a permaculture design that saves water while fostering a sense of community. “The bostan is mostly funded out of pocket,” a smiling Soylemez says. “We have a donation box and receive donations of seedlings and chicken manure from local farms. A pizza restaurant in the neighborhood gives us ash from their ovens to enhance soil,” she adds. The people who still gather next to the garden to enjoy a few beers stopped littering. And Soylemez, who lives near the garden, now picks up fresh produce whenever she feels like it.

There are instances across the country of people standing up to AKP-supported, environmentally destructive construction—filing lawsuits and collecting signatures, facing tear gas and police brutality in the process. In the Black Sea Region, locals have resisted the erection of hydroelectric plants and power plans at the expense of the environment. Back in February 2016, the small province of Artvin, for example, blocked roads, set tents, staged protests, and earned the title of a “junior Gezi” from Erdogan. Their resistance managed to keep the mining projects away, but their fight will continue, as Turkey’s High Court recently rejected the 2016 cancellation of the project.

A view of construction along the Bosphorus. (Lorena Rios)

“Construction is a visible act of development, of a bustling economy,” explains Aslihan Demirtas, an architect based in Istanbul and New York City. “It’s a show. Your open spaces are always prone to being converted overnight into a 20th floor condominium.”

On August 2016, Turkey inaugurated the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge,$3 billion USD project that connects Istanbul’s European and Asian sides. Work on a new airport, is expected to cost $14 billion and will be Europe’s biggest when it opens. It will also will wipe out 15,000 acres of forested land and disrupt more than 300 bird habitats and flight paths.

It is estimated that Istanbul will lose about 2.7 million trees from its northern forest with the construction of these two projects combined.Such initiatives are works of political and financial maneuvering that leave the government indifferent to the environmental impact. “The [airport] and the [bridge] going through the northern forest is a natural crime,” Demirtas says. “It’s an incision in the lungs of Istanbul. That will leave a scar.”

Other megaprojects include the Eurasia Tunnel, an undersea motorway between the European and Asian shores of the Bosphorus, and a highway—complete with a suspension bridge—from the industrial hub of Gebze outside Istanbul to Turkey’s third-largest city, Izmir. There’s also Canal Istanbul, a man-made waterway still in the planning stage, and Three-level Big Istanbul Tunnel, the world’s firstthree deck undersea tunnel.

“Istanbul can only have more green spaces if half of the city is destroyed by the upcoming earthquake,” Ali Taptik, an Istanbul-based artist trained as an architect, says glumly. (The city sits on an active fault line.)

“In the construction industry in Turkey everything is managed for immediate profit. People want to see immediate economic benefit,” he says. “It’s the commodification of Istanbul.” This approach makes it difficult for architects and urban planners to develop projects that value cultural wealth and heritage. “It is not the environment vs. the city; it doesn’t work that way,” he adds. “We need to limit construction.”

This goes for proposed parks, too. Taptik and Demirtas are outspoken activists for the protection of the Yedikule Bostan, a memorial garden along Istanbul’s ancient city walls. Gardening in the Yedikule Bostan is a 1,500-year-old practice, and the architects— along with a group of historians, environmentalists, artists, and concerned civilians—came together to protect the space in 2013 after the government announced plans to turn it into a modern public park.

The activists want to protect not only the heritage and historical value of the Yedikule Bostan, but also the livelihoods that the particularly green and fertile land sustain. Takptik says the park proposal, which would include cafes, an artificial river, and paving over of the bostan, is unnecessary and another step towards the city’s commodification. The city’s plan instantly sparked a heated debate. Activists wanted to see the bostan preserved while residents supported the park proposal.

“We consider the bostan and the bostanci [gardener] our cultural heritage,” Demirtas explains. “So we acknowledge that our fighting is very paradoxical; fighting to prevent a privately cultivated land from becoming a publicly usable park.”

Gardeners and ecological activists have been the best supporters of Yedikule, Taptik says. Their work has stopped the municipality’s plan to build a park and has given visibility to the cultural and historical heritage of the garden. For the people behind Roma Bostan, their resistance has also yielded fruit. The neighborhood association where the garden is located just won a court case that forbids the municipality from building over existing green spaces.

“Since Gezi, a lot of community gardens emerged from the movement with the name of bostans,” Taptik continues. “They have been called ‘gardens of resistance.’”