Unstoppable Growth: Istanbul’s Decent into “Chaos”

Istanbul Dense

“The ecological limits have been surpassed. The population limits have been surpassed. The economic limits have been surpassed. If you ask me where this will lead….chaos.” (Mucella Yapici, Istanbul Chamber of Architects)

By: Pierre Herman

Can cities grow indefinitely? The answer is an obvious no. Cities have physical limits, and by that I don’t just mean boundaries which prevent further growth. Limits include an environmental carrying capacity of the land they occupy. A high density population combined with little green space, for example, is the perfect formula for disastrous flooding.

Stradling Europe and Asia, Constantinople (Istanbul in modern Turkish) has quickly become the world’s preeminent example of irresponsible over-development, woefully inadequate public transport, and an uncomfortable collusion of public and private interests that leaves few voices heard except those of banks and private equity funds. Ironically, Istanbul was the site for the United Nation’s second Habitat conference (1996) on sustainable urban development. While I’m sure the summit was a boon for the city economically, the lessons learned were few and far between.

In 2013, Istanbul erupted in violent protest over the proposal to build a shopping centre in one of the city’s last remaining central green spaces, Taksim Gezi Park. Global outrage over the police crackdown and the threat of new protests means the park thankfully remains intact, but antagonism over Gezi Park represents only a sliver of why the city is on the precipice of environmental catastrophe. The Gezi protest movement was the manifestation of a city at its peak of discontent.

The situation is brillantly captured in Ekümenopolis, a 2012 documentary which highlights the city’s new found obsession with conquering every square meter of land and smothering it with concrete. In the documentary, we meet the marginalized citizens in traditional neighbourhoods or slums set for demolition and the high-rise communities built to house them: ghastly cookie-cutter, Courvoisieresque districts which would make Jane Jacobs roll over in her grave. It is at times harrowing to watch. This is city which has Istanbul’s academic community worried, and at times, literally up in arms.

Watch it here:

Istanbul’s soaring population is an important piece of the equation. According to the World Population Review, Istanbul is already one of the fastest growing cities in the world, adding new heads at a rate of 3.45%, which translates into squeezing in another 4 million people into an already dense city by 2025. This will mean expanding into green areas to the north of the city and along the Bosphorus. While Istanbul has throughout history been one of the world’s largest metropolises, the dilemma today is how a city can cope with such numbers without putting immense stress on the surrounding environment.

Public transport is woefully unprepared for that kind of population growth, and the numbers speak for themselves.  Istanbul has only 16 kilometres of underground public transport (compared to 400 kilometres in comparably sized cities worldwide (London, Moscow, Tokyo, Mexico City, and so on). Rail accounts for only 10% of public transport (compared to 77% in New York and 96% in Tokyo).

Private cars are proliferating under explicit government policy approval while new roads and brigdes are being built to fight traffic congestion. In 1980, there were a modest 200,000 cars on Istanbul’s roads. In 2012, that number had risen to 2 million and by 2023, it is estimated there may be as many as 4 million cars. The share of public transport as a percentage of total transport has actually dropped from 60% (in 1996) to 47% (in 2006) and CO² emissions from road transport have risen 37%. Need we say more?


If there was a doctrine which laid the foundation for Istanbul’s growth, it would be the one borrowed from business management textbooks that guides modern corporate behaviour: grow or die. With Detroit looming as a terrifying example of cities that stopped growing and reversed course, large cities around the world are taking up this mantra with religious conviction, believing that only through frenzied development can they vie for a spot among the elite “world cities”. This development and growth has a cost to the environment, however, as Istanbul so vividly illustrates. Green space is traded for high-rise construction and economic growth in the form of real-estate construction, and public expenditure in transport is cut in favour of private ownership. In today’s neoliberal run cities, public investment is justified only if it lifts a city’s economic growth and helps it compete with other contenders for “world city” status.

Istanbul epitomizes the new mantra of competitive cities globally which prefer fast development that fills city coffers in the short term, seemingly unconcerned about future consequences, be they environmental or social. It is a sad reality that we now face: cities which compete with other cities, packed with competing individuals who care very little about each other.

Contentiously, Istanbul has applied for European Green City 2017, a laughable prospect given the complete lack of sustainability in the city’s planning and growth.

I implore everyone to watch Ekümenopolis to understand the great calamity that cities will face if they continue to pretend that continual growth (economic and physical) is possible in a finite world. And Istanbul is hardly a unique story. Shanghai, Toronto, Lima, London, Moscow and Bombay are just a few of the cities that are expanding dangerously fast and with sustainability absent but for the most superficial of lip-service.  We can do better than this – the future of our communities depends on it.

Istanbul 3

Fast Facts Istanbul

Population growth rate: 3.45%

Population:   2014: 14 million          2025: 18 million*

Kilometres of underground transport: 16

Proportion of public transport (rail): 10%

Number of cars:  1980: 200,000   2012: 2 million    2023: 4 million*

Rise in CO² emissions from transport: 37%


(Sources: World Population Review/Ekümenopolis | 2012)

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This entry was posted on December 17, 2014 by in Architecture & Urban Design, Ideas & Issues, Transport and tagged , , , , .

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