For more than a decade, Turkey has enjoyed unprecedented growth that is in many ways unique to Europe. In turn, the country’s infrastructure and social services have improved drastically, and major business developments have taken place, especially joint investments with the EU.

However, the Turkish government is implementing urban transformation through sudden, top-down decisions that do not sufficiently account for environmental protection or consultations with citizens. In the process, the population’s leanings are largely ignored, making it impossible to nurture civic consensus on the pace and nature of economic development.

In addition, there is no systematic monitoring of urban transformation practices and abuses. Few national and international NGOs are allocating time to the subject, and most of the evidence of abuses comes not from academic or other dispassionate sources but from stakeholders in the process and commentators. Moreover, projects such as nuclear plants and a new canal will affect other countries in the region and may be challenged on that ground.

In late May, civilian protests started in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in response to the government’s planned modification of the space to make way for road tunnels and a replica of military barracks that would include a commercial center.

Small and moderate at the outset, these protests have now become a major headache for the Turkish government. Beyond the Taksim renovation project, what is now criticized is the lack of democratic management of decisions pertaining to new public infrastructure and urban transformation. The Turkish government is being asked to account for the environmental and socioeconomic repercussions of its actions and to give the people a greater voice at the local level in the decisionmaking process.

Major Infrastructure and Urban Transformation—Subjects of Contention

After winning Turkey’s 2002 general election, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government continued the efficient economic policies that were introduced by its predecessor after a major financial crisis. Thanks to that and to a fifteen-year-old customs union with the EU and EU accession negotiations that were opened in 2005, there has been a major influx of European direct investment in Turkey. The country has emerged as an integrated production platform for European manufacturing industries.

This growth period has led to major advances in Turkey’s public services and infrastructure, including airports, roads and highways, high-speed railroads, utilities, hospitals, universities, and museums. In parallel, a vast process of urban transformation and renewal has taken place in many Turkish cities, at times catalyzed by local conditions and events, such as when infrastructure was built and renovations made for Istanbul’s stint as European Capital of Culture in 2010.

Boosted by its economic success and unchallenged political predominance, the AKP government has launched a number of initiatives, such as Istanbul’s candidacy for the 2020 Olympic Games. The most emblematic projects are in or around Istanbul, which is not surprising given that the city’s wider area is home to some 25 percent of the country’s total population.

Some projects are presented as indispensable ingredients of Turkey’s economic growth. The growing road and air traffic has led to decisions to construct a third bridge over the Bosphorus and a third airport for Istanbul (the build-operate-transfer tender was awarded on May 3 for €22.1 billion—$29.6 billion—after some last-minute changes to the tender rules).

In undertaking these megaprojects, the Turkish authorities are taking immense responsibility for the ecosystems in and around Istanbul. Sustainable development is a prime long-term concern, as these projects have a major environmental impact, especially on the forested areas to the north of Istanbul—the 7,659-hectare (18,926-acre) airport will directly or indirectly affect 2.5 million trees.

Similarly, the “Kanal Istanbul” project, a canal linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara that will run in parallel to the Bosphorus, is formally meant to protect the Istanbul urban area from accidents and pollution resulting from increasing long-haul maritime traffic, including hydrocarbons. But it could have a massive effect on the environment in Turkey and beyond. If the Kanal Istanbul project were to proceed, it would potentially impact a major ecosystem affecting several countries around the Black Sea and the Mediterranean: Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Greece. For example, heavy pollution from the Danube and Dnieper Rivers could flow into the Marmara and Mediterranean Seas, while the project could affect sea currents and sea temperature on both sides of the canal.

In addition, the Turkish government would inevitably need to address legal considerations linked to the Montreux Convention on high-sea commercial and military traffic in the Bosphorus. Construction of the canal is therefore not a decision for Turkey to take alone. The wider legal impact of such a canal should be thoroughly evaluated at the international level.

In a similar vein, the EU and a number of neighboring countries including Turkey agreed in June 2011 to a voluntary cooperation scheme on nuclear risk assessment. Under that arrangement, the projects for two new nuclear power plants to be built on the shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean are being subjected to the “nuclear stress tests” procedure in line with EU policies introduced after the Chernobyl catastrophe. The results were reported to the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group in March 2013, and cooperation continues.

Other projects are more directly related to Istanbul’s urban transformation: Galata Port, the transformation of the Haydarpaşa rail terminal into a hotel, the redevelopment of Taksim Square, and renovations in the districts of Süleymaniye and Tarlabaşı. Each of these projects is heavily criticized for representing a purely economic, even speculative, vision of urban renewal.

With urban transformation of this sort, commercial and collective interests naturally collide. In a city like Istanbul, where trade and industry have moved into the suburbs, vast built-up city-center areas have become available and inevitably elicit huge financial appetites. This process is not unique to Turkey, as most industrial cities in Europe or the United States have gone through the same problems and have nurtured techniques and methods to cope with the issues at hand.

What does seem unique to Turkey is both the speed at which these developments are taking place and the overwhelming role of the central government in the process. The country’s urban transformation is criticized for two main reasons: the excessive centralization of decisionmaking and the lack of consultation with citizens before projects are given the green light.

Changing Laws to Speed Up Transformation

In Turkey as in most countries, projects such as transforming a city, erecting new buildings or demolishing old ones, and developing natural spaces are regulated by national or local laws. In addition, professional bodies of experts are supposed to be involved.

But, according to Prof. Cengiz Aktar, the Turkish government has been substantially amending the legislative, regulatory, and administrative frameworks for these projects. Laws have been changed, controls reduced, and consultations forgotten about. The aim has been to speed up the process of urban transformation in a fashion compatible with the government’s political goals.

There have been numerous legislative changes affecting urban transformation. For instance, a “law on the transformation of areas at risk of natural disaster” was implemented. Though it is justified by the earthquake risk in many parts of Turkey, in actual fact it affects the authority to make demolition and development decisions about vast expanses of land and runs counter to preexisting legislation and supervisory bodies. The law also introduces emergency procedures that leave all decisions about demolition and construction activities in the hands of the government and give a new supervisory role to a few private construction companies selected for those undertakings.

Then there is the “law on the conservation of nature and biological diversity,” which is still to be voted on in parliament. It would allow for fast and drastic changes to the definition of protected areas. It would also give the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization more authority and reduce the role of NGOs.

The new “2B Law,” which deals with the sale of public land, is expected to allow for more sales of public land to private parties. As a result, a massive amount of land assets will be transferred from public entities to private interests. In the Istanbul region alone, this is estimated to cover 35,000 hectares (86,487 acres).

“Environmental impact assessment” regulations were amended in 2011, allowing for more exemptions. In particular, these changes affect large projects, such as the third bridge over the Bosphorus, a major highway from the Istanbul region to the city of Izmir, and dams and power plants.

Public procurement procedures have also been substantially amended, allowing for more frequent exceptions to the 2002 law that originally outlined the financial basis for projects. These amendments have permitted more direct procurements to take place and curtailed the autonomy of the public procurement agency.

In addition, the administrative role of municipalities has been redefined so that the real decisionmaking powers are transferred to the metropolitan municipalities, whose number in Turkey as a whole has recently risen from sixteen to twenty-five. This shift has concentrated key decisions in fewer hands.

The main professional Turkish organizations responsible for upholding technical standards, such the Chamber of Environmental Engineers or the Chamber of Architects, have seen their role and function curtailed.

Democracy at the Center of the Debate

Traditionally, the Turkish state plays the central role in making decisions about public works projects. In the case of urban transformation projects, state dominance not only is being felt but has recently been reinforced.

The ballot box is the centerpiece of any democratic system, but elected parliaments and the governments emanating from them cannot decide on every issue concerning citizens’ daily lives only through majoritarian rule by the central state. Local and regional considerations do matter. A democratic government should allow opposing views, seek consultations with its citizenry, and attempt to achieve consensus among the population.

Yet, amid the changes taking place in Turkey’s infrastructure and cities, the voice of the people has in large part been disregarded. The authorities have generally shunned attempts by civil society to introduce local consultation mechanisms for urban transformation projects. Such consultations either have not taken place at all or have not happened in any genuine way.

Frustration with the manner in which the central government has conducted urban transformation without local consultation has now morphed into a generalized protest by civil society, at least in Istanbul, Ankara, and other major cities. The civic protest against the Taksim Square renovation project has been repressed so violently and dialogue has been denied in such a way that the protest movement has now become the focal point of opposition to the government.

Disturbing the Social Fabric

The current wave of urban transformation also has massive cultural and socioeconomic effects. One consequence is the marginalization of Istanbul’s Roma people, an ethnic group that accounts for less than 1 percent of Turkey’s population. For instance, the Sulukule neighborhood in Istanbul, which has historically been inhabited by Roma communities, was demolished to make way for a renovation project despite an international campaign against the evictions. A 2012 report by the Open Society Foundation concluded that:

    Evictions are about more than property; they interrupt the entire life, education, employment and progress of a family, possibly irreparably, and hasten the decline of the Roma people. Evictions must be viewed and addressed in this light.

Another major effect of urban modernization is the development of new forms of wealth and poverty now occurring in parallel to the transformation. According to a study in the journal New Perspectives on Turkey, while “gated” residential compounds have introduced “new forms of living, governance, and social and political relations and non-relations,” the traditional temporary housing for recently arrived internal migrants (called gecekondu in Turkish) has been replaced by permanent marginal developments. Gentrification and marginalization go hand in hand in Turkey, and urban transformation—especially in Istanbul—has led to a form of social and spatial segregation of different groups. Here too, consultations have been kept to a minimum.

In addition, some aspects of urban transformation are subject to the UNESCO World Heritage status of certain parts of Istanbul, such the historic peninsula, the center of the ancient city. But in several cases, transformation projects have bypassed historic preservation requirements. Some urban development projects have also ended up in court.

The frenzy of construction has been repeatedly criticized. One Today’s Zaman commentator, Suat Kiniklioğu, called the current process the “cementization” of Turkish cities and “the ruthless exploitation of every centimeter of land.”

Can Technical Improvements Be Made?

At the technical level, there are several steps that can be taken to improve democratic decisionmaking for urban transformation projects.

First, environmental considerations should be seriously incorporated into the decisionmaking process. In any country experiencing strong growth, there are inevitably temptations to give priority to immediate gains and visible results over longer-term considerations such as environmental protection and the interests of future generations. Democratic governments should resist these temptations.

Second, inclusive consultation mechanisms should be set up with all stakeholders, including impartial specialists such as environmental engineers and architects, city planners, citizens’ associations, and local communities. That would provide a counterweight to government decisions on such difficult questions as demolition versus reconstruction and natural conservation versus economic development.

Finally, importing best practices from abroad may improve decisionmaking. EU policies and practices are especially relevant since Turkey is currently negotiating its EU accession and is supposed to adopt the union’s policies and standards. Ultimately, it is to the benefit of Turkey and its citizens to adopt the practices of those countries that have learned from their mistakes and patiently improved their policies. The EU has a wide array of policies on urban transformation and regional development that could be put to use.

Internationally, as much as the Turkish authorities may feel confident about mastering their country’s economic and physical transformation, Turkey will have to shoulder its international responsibilities when it purports to launch projects impacting the regional environment and international agreements. This will be the case for the two nuclear plants and for Kanal Istanbul.

In the End, It’s All About Politics

The issue of urban transformation has morphed into a nationwide political problem in Turkey. It is now the symbol of the country’s disputed style of democratic management.

With its mix of neoliberal economics, top-down political decisions, and hurried schedules, the Turkish government has imposed its views on a wide array of construction and transformation projects and ended up running projects of local interest from offices in Ankara. Put in perspective—and although the issues may seem only remotely connected—the debate is now much broader than urban transformation.

As a matter of fact, the Taksim renovation project, in substance and in style, has become the symbol of the majoritarian concept of democracy to which the AKP so strongly adheres. As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan put it on June 7:

    We have said that we are going to demolish AKM [the Atatürk Cultural Center on Taksim Square] and build a huge opera house there. Participants of this vandalism immediately responded “we won’t let you demolish it”. Excuse me, but we made this decision before the elections and the majority of the people said “yes” for us in the elections. People supported us, because they supported these [projects].

A micromanagement issue—the government’s refusal to consult the Taksim Platform, a local citizens’ initiative—has become the epicenter of a lasting political storm, the full political fallout of which is still to be measured. Subsequently, the excessively forceful handling of the protest created an outrage resulting in a degraded image of the government, both domestically and internationally.

The issue here is not the legitimacy of the Turkish government—it was elected democratically in 2002, 2007, and 2011, with up to 50 percent of the vote—but the way in which the opinions, beliefs, and lifestyles of the other half of the population are disregarded, when not suppressed.

This poses fundamental questions about the nature of the “advanced democracy” promised by the ruling party. And it does not bring Turkey any closer to the EU or the United States, two crucial allies for its future well-being, prosperity, and security.