Urbanisation, both in developed and developing countries is increasing rapidly. Over 45% of the people in the world live in urban areas. In addition; the annual population growth rate is 2.4% in urban areas, while it is 1.7% in rural areas. Rapidly growing regions with major metropolitan regions in both developed and less developed countries face particular issues. The uneven growth causes urban sprawl which generates changes in the distribution of land use types and creates economic, environmental and sociocultural implications for the country.
Turkey is one of these developing and growing countries. Istanbul, being the most metropolitan city in Turkey, has the highest immigration rate. While the average population increase rate is 2.2% in all of Turkey, it is 3.8% in Istanbul. The population and urbanisation in Istanbul has increased due to heavy immigration rate from rural areas to access job opportunities, better education and better health facilities in the city.
Istanbul has consistently been at the centre of academic research in Turkey since the city is considered to be a microcosmic reflection of the social and urban change of the whole country. Being from Istanbul and getting to observe the uneven growth of the city and its effects over the years directly, Istanbul was chosen to analyse the implications of urban sprawl in this essay. In the next section, urban sprawl in general will be examined to have a better understanding of the following section specifically about urban sprawl in Istanbul. The sprawl in Istanbul will be structured chronologically by analysing the urban development of Istanbul since 1950s. Subsequently, the effects of urban sprawl in Istanbul on economic, environmental and sociocultural levels will be deduced.
2 Urban Sprawl
What is urban sprawl?
No definition of urban sprawl has been universally accepted yet. However, several researchers have tried to clarify this phenomenon. For example, Brueckner defines urban sprawl as the excessive spatial growth of cities. In an urban sprawl pattern, both residential and nonresidential developments occur in a noncontiguous way outward from the central city. These developments usually take place through consumption of agricultural and other fragile lands beyond the existing urban areas. Whereas, Galster provides a conceptual definition of sprawl based on eight distinct dimensions of land-use patterns: which are density, continuity, concentration, clustering, centrality, nuclearity, mixed uses, and proximity. According to this definition, sprawl is a condition where the values of those criteria are low.
Why sprawl matters?
In the ‘developed world’, the rise of ‘urban sprawl’ as the primary form of urban development has come under increased criticism in recent years because of its negative economic, environmental and sociocultural effects. The expansion of development at the cost of open space and natural resource lands has sparked intense interest and debate over the problems relating to urban sprawl.
Urban areas in both developed and developing countries are increasingly feeling the effects of urban sprawl such as climate change, resource depletion, food insecurity and economic instability. These are all factors that significantly reshape towns and cities in the century ahead. Therefore, urban sprawl matters because all of these factors need to be effectively addressed if cities are to be sustainable, that is, environmentally safe, economically productive and socially inclusive.
The impacts of urban sprawl
The costs and negative externalities of urban sprawl have been widely studied and it will be summarised in four main points in this section. First is the increase in travel and congestion. Excessive residential development without consideration of employment centre locations leads to longer trip length and produces negative environmental externalities. Secondly, as a result of the first impact, is the increase in energy consumption and air pollution. Studies have consistently found that compact development is more energy-efficient than low-density sprawl.
Third is the degradation of agricultural and environmental resources. New single-family detached housing consumes agricultural and other environmentally sensitive areas, leading to a decrease in available land and the deterioration of the environment in the long term. Greenfield development is favoured by developers in a competitive economy because it is simpler and more profitable to develop greenfield lands. This urban sprawl characteristic has emerged primarily due to free market conditions which favours conversion of rural land due to low land values and maximises profit.
Finally, there is the isolation of older communities, decay of downtown areas and reduction of social interactions. Urban sprawl disrupts social stability and increases economic disparity between older communities and newer suburbs. Also, as employment centres have spread out, they have become problematic for older neighbourhoods, because the new jobs are inaccessible to the poor and the working class.
Responses to urban sprawl
In response to concerns about sprawl, compact development strategies and policies have been adopted by local governments and countries to promote sustainable development and environmental protection. Some of these strategies include the establishment of physical containment policies, such as Greenbelts, Urban Growth Boundaries, and Urban Service Areas, as well as, the imposition of development fees, encouragement of urban development towards infill, and restrictions on residential capacity.
3 Urban Sprawl in Istanbul
Urbanisation in Istanbul
Istanbul, with its almost 15 million inhabitants and a yearly growth rate of 3.5 percent, primarily due to internal migration from rural areas, has been a growing city since urbanisation has started. Therefore, sprawling urban development and the associated conversion of rural land have become an important issue for Istanbul. As seen in many other big cities around the world, the population of Istanbul began increasing very rapidly especially after the World War II. The city’s population was only about a million in 1950; however, the population almost doubled by 1960 and became three million in 1970. This increase in population continued after 1970 and Istanbul became a megacity with its ten million inhabitants in 2000. Since the 1950s Istanbul has faced huge problems of growth and its structure has continued to constantly evolve. Because of the unavailability of planned settlements, high cost of planned areas, and other socioeconomic and political factors, many illegal urban areas have been established and starting in the 1950s Istanbul’s rapid urbanisation has had three main phases.
Phase 1: slums
Slums (referred to as “gecekondu” in Turkish) which are early village-like developments on squatted land were the first response to the housing shortage in the growing industrial city. The rapid population growth has increased the formation of slum populations in Istanbul and encouraged the formation of illegal one or two-story houses built very fast in poor quality. The period between 1950 and 1960, following industrialisation, the influx of working class populations increased, whilst the need for human labor in farming decreased. Consequently, migration from rural to urban areas intensified, as well as the housing demand. The outcome of this issue was the evolution of even more gecekondu neighbourhoods around the city.
Phase 2: post-slums
Starting in the 1970s, most of the slum plots were legalised and granted additional building rights. The local government signed over property rights to squatters instead of investing in social housing. These slum neighbourhoods constitute the nuclei of many sub-provinces of Istanbul today. During this expansion, Istanbul has grown mostly in the west and east, where agriculture and bare soil were the dominant land use types, and natural barriers like the sea in the south and the forest in the north forced urban growth to continue along the coast of the Sea of Marmara.
As a consequence of rapid industrialisation and population increase, growth of the city through the peripheries introduced the need to link urban areas through transportation systems. However, the construction of the E-5 motorway and the first bridge over the Bosphorus in 1973 triggered urban sprawl instead of providing a sustainable solution, and Istanbul became an “overgrown industrial city” by the 1980s. The construction of the bridge especially expanded urban growth in the north along both sides of the Bosphorus.
Peripheral highways have also had a significant impact on suburbanisation and retail expansion patterns in Istanbul, accelerating urban sprawl to the edge of the city. An increase in accessibility has affected the location of new residential settlements and firms. Major highway intersections have attracted some retail and office space development. Industries and other firms have established themselves at the periphery, in search of lower land and transportation costs, while large plots for large modern office buildings and shopping malls have been constructed. This commercial restructuring of the city has led to different types and sizes of commercial facilities at suburban ‘corners’ contributing to the outward expansion of the city. As a result of all this suburbanisation, new subcenters have emerged and ongoing population growth resulting in multi-centred peripheral development has dominated the development of the city.
Although the historical Central Business District of Istanbul started to decline in the 1970s as a result of suburbanisation, it began to recover after the 1980s with the help of revitalisation projects. During the 1980s, a second wave of migration brought newcomers to abandoned historic buildings in central areas due to these projects. This trend introduced concerns about heritage conservation, along with the regeneration of the waterfront and abandoned industrial areas. These renewals were conducted with the idea of eliminating pollution whilst increasing the land value of the area and promoting a new image of Istanbul as a global city. In this period, the urban skyline of Istanbul changed dramatically with high-rise office towers, luxury apartments, international hotel chains and shopping malls. Meanwhile, the Central Business District developing in the north, led to the construction of a second bridge over the Bosphorus in 1988.
Phase 3: mass housing
Since the 1990s, Istanbul has had unprecedented mass housing development. This process, which differs from earlier phases based on “self-building” is organised predominantly through the housing development agency of Turkey, which is TOKI (Toplu Konut Idaresi Baskanligi), in partnership with larger private enterprises. TOKI was established in 1984 in order to act as the public landowner and stakeholder in private developments or as the public developer of mass housing. TOKI has predominantly used a single urban typology: clusters of towers on open land, resulting in gated complexes with surrounding protective walls. This private sector has also adopted this typology to build repetitive fifteen-story towers, which are perceived as most efficient and profitable.
21st century in Istanbul
The beginning of the 21st century brought the rise of the Justice and Development Party as the ruling party from 2002 to the present and following the financial crisis in 2001 economic growth was achieved through subsequent macro developments. Over the last 20 years many global city discourses have been produced for Istanbul. Central government and local authorities have proposed various projects to make Istanbul a global city. With these projects, Istanbul’s urban identities have been transforming radically and the city has been developing with intense heterogeneity, especially in its urban housing and mega-projects, as never before.
Turkey’s “Vision 2023” defines a set of goals to be reached by the centennial of the Republic of Turkey, stressing the importance of public infrastructure investments in further economic growth, and urban and global. Amongst the numerous projects; the construction of the third bridge over the Bosphorus, a new waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara (Kanal Istanbul) and the third airport are the distinct ones. These projects all continue to promote urban sprawl and add to the negative effects for the city.
4 Effects of Urban Sprawl on Istanbul
Economic policies always had a strong effect on urban growth and change in Turkey. In each period, the urban space has been shaped by the economic policies of the state. The construction sector represents a by-product of economic growth, which means the construction sector follows economic growth rather than contributing to it. For example, period of 2010–2014, the low interest rates and amendments in urban legislation boosted the construction sector and positively affected the economic growth. Although there were some periods when construction industry growth therefore urban sprawl had positive effects on economic growth; these were short-lived effects that could not offer permanent solutions for the economic troubles in Turkey because construction sector is highly dependent on economic stability.
Especially the urban transformation projects of the 21st century, which require detailed analysis process over a long term for the benefits of the society, are in short term agenda for Turkey and consequently Istanbul became a resource of investment in global economy. Although these projects create some employment, they essentially generate huge profits for the ruling party’s backers. The building industry has become the backbone of rapid development. Speed, on the other hand, is often synonymous with an unchecked, unbalanced, unaccountable way of working concerning the environment. Prioritising speed and cost; these projects are often exempt from Environmental Impact Assessments or Strategic Environmental Assessments.
Many current environmental problems in Istanbul are directly or indirectly related to rapid urban growth and sprawl. Urbanisation has significant effects on our natural environment and the services it can supply to humanity. The environmental effects of urbanisation started in Istanbul with the formation of slum populations. These illegal and informal residential areas started to invade the water catchments, forest areas, and high-quality agricultural land around the city. In addition, the construction of bridges on the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn have changed the accessibility of various areas to one another and therefore caused a spatial transformation in the pattern of land use. The forest areas in the north which contain rich flora and fauna, water basins and natural resources have been affected by these developments as well. Thousands of hectares of land have lost their forest characteristics due to illegal housing development and Istanbul lost around 5% of its forest area between 1973 and 1995 due to urban growth.
With the current mega-projects in Istanbul, deforestation and losing green areas to business development is a serious concern when the scale of the projects is taken into consideration. For example, 80% of the total project area of the third airport consists of forested land. One of the direct effects of deforestation is associated with anthropogenic climate change. The heat island effect, caused by the destruction of forests for land-use and transportation, threatens the health of the urban environment. There is an expected increase in regional air pollution when the natural carbon cycle is interrupted. In addition, the intensification of the land traffic will further increase emissions along the access roads, due to the wider road networks connected to the third bridge and tunnel portals.
There are also problems connected to ecosystems. Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects warns that Istanbul will be deprived of water as the construction sites of some current projects are in ecologically protected and sensitive areas including water basins. According to the ESIA report for the third bridge and connected motorways, the main route passes through the northern border of the Belgrade Conversation Forest and Bosphorus Key Biodiversity Area. These areas consist of a wide range of habitats, forests and lakes, as well as several vulnerable habitats with rare plant species. These environmental effects cannot be limited to the area of construction, since the mega projects will also pioneer the transformation of the region into new usage areas.
Urban sprawl also effects Istanbul in a sociocultural way. For example, the start of mass housing of TOKI developments in 1990s is parallel with the emergence of a new middle class as a dominant class in Istanbul, which reflects a worldwide condition within global capitalism. Continuous advertisement campaigns on mass media construct a narrative dream for Turkish families: car ownership and a condominium comfortably decorated and equipped with the latest domestic technology. A TOKI flat is the first step in releasing this dream even if the price to pay is isolation, reduced social relations, long journeys to work, hours spent in traffic jams or shopping in massive malls, high service and maintenance fees and long terms debt.
Additionally, quitting the principle of using the public land stocks for the needs of the society with the planning approach of 2000s, gives rise to various applications which form threats in terms of the urban rights and the liveability of the city. These lands are considered as the potential for unearned incomes. Their market values are increased by several times for the new functions and new structuring rights. The participation of the public in the competition of obtaining unearned incomes, in addition to the companies and individuals, creates problems. Ignoring the life quality concept for the purpose of ensuring finances poses danger not only for the unique identity of Istanbul but also for the life of its citizens.
Another outcome of the greedy non-participatory planning approach is that new development doesn’t match with how the inhabitants would like to see the city developed. One example is the Golden Horn Metro Bridge which opened in 2014. The cable-stayed bridge has a very modern design that doesn’t really fit into the historic context of the area. Therefore the historic atmosphere needs to be protected as well.
In spite of all the current and potential economic, environmental and sociocultural drawbacks, Istanbul continues expanding the limits of its growth (and sustainability). A primary reason for this is the uncontrolled and unplanned urbanisation policy in Istanbul. As a result of the heavy immigration growth, the expansion of the city could not be controlled since the start of urbanisation.
The anticipated expansion towards the north should set up new hubs of global competitiveness in Istanbul, but the problems of jeopardised natural resources, property rights and expected migration influx could violate the existing urban fabric and deepen social frictions. Therefore, the neoliberal attractiveness of new developments could easily vanish in the near future, especially when faced with the latest globally promoted imperatives of environmental awareness and social cohesion already launched by many competing cities in the global hierarchy.
These negative effects of urban sprawl, pose a need for an inquiry into the planning approach in Istanbul. Freely competitive markets might fail to provide efficient solutions to problems of resource allocation. Therefore the government should adopt strong urban containment policies to deal with urban sprawl and to promote more sustainable development. This could be further researched and studied as a proposed solution to the rapid and uneven urban growth in the city. Controlling urban development processes, driven by market forces and master plans, is essential to promote sustainable urban development, especially under conditions of rapid urban population growth which is the case in Istanbul.