Unplanned urbanization damages Istanbul's silhouette irreversibly

As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned mayors against unplanned and improper urbanization, experts have been quick to say that Istanbul's historic silhouette has been irreversibly and irreparably damaged.

Erdogan's critical remarks on Saturday at the Fourth Local Administrations Symposium organized by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Ankara turned eyes once again to the ongoing projects in Istanbul that will have a permanent mark on the city's landscape. Erdogan urged those who think only of “stone and concrete” when it comes to city planning to re-evaluate their ideas and create cities that have “souls and direction.”

But Today's Zaman talked to experts who unanimously stated that the damage to Istanbul's historic silhouette has been done -- and they urged authorities to take action against further unplanned urbanization. In 2012, the traditional silhouette of Istanbul, which is comprised of the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque, was marred by a high rise building erected in the district adjacent to the historic peninsula. Currently, a new bridge under construction over the Golden Horn, a mosque on Camlica hill and the rearrangement of Taksim Square are being debated due to aesthetic concerns.

Architect Ahmet Vefik Alp, a member of the Council for Environment and Urban Planning at the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, said mistakes are being made in zoning and urban planning in Turkey and that the country has failed in the subject of architecture. Alp agrees with the prime minister's warning.

According to Alp, the bridge being built across the Golden Horn, which ignores the historic Suleymaniye Mosque, is “unacceptable.” Directing attention to a report prepared by UNESCO on the new bridge, Alp says UNESCO's threat to remove Istanbul's silhouette from the list of global cultural heritage sites was softened in the Turkish translation of the report. “Such issues will take a toll on Turkey,” added Alp.

On a similar note, the head of the Istanbul Chamber of City Planners (TMMOB), Tayfun Kahraman, says Turkey continues to build the new bridge on the Golden Horn despite the “warning of UNESCO to include Istanbul's silhouette on a list of threatened cultural heritage sites.” For Kahraman, what has led to the ultimate damage of the city's silhouette are the “privileged zoning rights” that are granted unlawfully.

“Traffic has become much worse due to the construction of buildings above the number of an acceptable limit,” said Kahraman, citing the example of Istanbul's Esenyurt district. He stated that as they have “already gained rights,” the buildings that have been constructed already cannot be demolished -- but further damage could be stopped by preventing new zoning rights.

According to Kahraman, further unplanned urbanization requires “a strong political will” and the prime minister's warnings have come as a result of complaints from the public.

Stating the importance of a “wide consensus” in making construction decisions that could have an impact on the silhouette of the city, Alp said the project concerning the Camlica Hill mosque in Istanbul proceeded as a fait accompli. Although he supports the idea of a mosque on Camlica Hill and participated in the project contest, Alp rejects the idea of repeating the style of Ottoman-era mosques. He thinks that “a big mistake is being made in Camlica.”

Chamber of Environmental Engineers President Baran Bozoglu believes that Istanbul faces another problem in addition to the damage of its silhouette: greed. He said projects aiming for maximum profit in narrow areas and the money-centered approach of national and international firms have turned the city upside down.

He called on the government and the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality to reconsider projects such as the Istanbul Canal, a third bridge over the Bosporus, the Golden Horn bridge and the Galataport, a port along the Bosporus, since they would cause even more serious problems than unplanned urbanization.