Istanbul and the Grassroots. Civil Society Organisations, Local Politics and Urban Transformation

By Fredrik Björk

When “Istanbul” is mentioned, all kind of images come to mind. Hagia Sofia, the Galatea bridge, crowded streets and bazars. To many of us, Istanbul at least to some extent represents the exotic. The uniqueness of a city that spans two continents, where history, religion, politics and culture frequently clash rarely fails to capture our interest.

At the same time, many of the issues that affect the lives of ordinary citizens in Istanbul are curiously similar to what we encounter in cities in Sweden or other western and northern European countries. Martin Schwegmann, who will visit Malmö university and talk at the Urban Seminar on October 19th, recently defended his dissertation with the title “Istanbul and the Grassroots. Civil Society Organisations, Local Politics and Urban Transformation”, in which he investigates the nature of Istanbul’s newly evolving landscape of civil society actors in the field of urban development.

 Demolished Gecekondu in Ayazma district, Istanbul (Photo: IMECE)

“Since the early 2000s, Istanbul and many big cities in Turkey have been experiencing a massive paradigm shift towards a neoliberal urban regime resulting in urban transformation manifested in forced evictions, demolitions and resettlements of poorer populations of both inner city and former informal settlements on the fringes of the cities. In the face of this development new and old civil society actors reorganize and struggle to raise their voice for their right to the city. 

A major outcome of the research is an extensive inventory of relevant civil society actors at play in urban development as well as a description of the applied strategies and tactics of both civil society and project implementers. The two most important civil society actors are the growing number of neighbourhood associations in affected neighbourhoods and newly evolving social movements or civil platforms.

Secondly the study gives insight into the mobilization patterns of four different neighbourhood associations. These develop mainly in response to an urban transformation project underway posing a potential threat to the livelihood, socioeconomic networks and physical environment of the affected populations. This reflexive formation makes it difficult to maintain a high degree of mobilisation over the usually long implementation period of urban transformation projects. First associations try to define therefore their own vision for their neighbourhood and thus try to achieve a more sustainable and constructive mobilisation within the neighbourhood.  Civil platforms emerge usually out of more general political or ethical considerations of academicians and professionals from the realm of urbanism such as urban planners, sociologists, architects, artists and the like. These organizations reach longer term mobilisation and reach often much broader attention. Yet they are chronically underfinanced and therefore lack sustainability of resources. In recent times greater networks of these and other civil society actors emerge and raise more and more public attention. The challenge here is to find a common narrative which embraces an as wide as possible range of organizations without getting stuck in disputes over political, religious or cultural affiliations”, Martin Schwegmann writes in his abstract.

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