Kanal Istanbul, much more than just a canal

Launched as a way to relieve the busy Bosporus, the prestigious Kanal Istanbul is planned to be one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world. The 44 km canal, for which preparations started in late 2019, is expected to cost 15 billion dollars. But is it really necessary? According to Emrah Altinok, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at Bilgi University, the real story behind the canal is over-urbanisation.

Text and photos by Bart jacobs

Besides the canal itself, which will be constructed on the western side of Istanbul, a completely new city will be built, offering homes to 4.5 million people. Emrah Altinok, who did a PhD on political and economic decision making on urban space in Istanbul, has done extensive research on the canal housing projects. He is worried about the quality of life of the entire city of Istanbul. “Right now, there are already many problems in this city, because over 15 million people live in this small area. Many of the problems in Istanbul are directly linked to urbanisation, so having another 5 million citizens will bring this city into disbalance.”

The canal was first thought of by the Turkish government as a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of modern Turkey in 2025. Several big infrastructure projects were started during the last ten years. For example a new airport was built, one of the biggest in the world, and a new bridge across the Bosporus was constructed.

One of the areas near the canal route that has already seen some real estate development projects is Küçükçekmece, located next to a lake which will be part of the Kanal Istanbul in a few years. The first major real estate projects are already under construction here.

Prices going up

Emine Atik has been working as a real estate agent for over fifteen years in the Küçükçekmece neighbourhood. She explains that housing prices have increased significantly since the canal project was first announced in 2011. “Before that time we used to have mostly old buildings for sale, mostly built in the 1980s. Nowadays, there are so many new and bigger projects going on, and as a result prices have almost doubled. This is however mostly for new buildings, the older buildings only went up by 10 to 15 percent. When the canal is finished in 2025, we expect housing prices to increase even more.”

The street was cleaned up and the square around the corner got a make-over.

The new housing projects provide many benefits for local people as well. Bilal Gizem, who owns a local kebab shop, says that because of the nearby real estate development the neighbourhood experienced a modest makeover. “The street was cleaned up and the square around the corner got a make-over. City council even payed for a new playground for the kids.”

However, due to a recent bankruptcy of a real estate company, the five tower residential complex near his restaurant is not completely finished and not many people live here at the moment. “To be honest, we’re actually happy about that. That project would also have around twenty restaurants on their property, so the people living there would probably not go to my restaurant. But because of the bankruptcy, there is now only a supermarket at the resort so the people that live there are coming to my restaurant now.”

Protests weaker after coup

Assistant professor Altinok has also looked into groups that protest against the canal. “Public resistance against this government has always been very strong: there are always groups of people protesting against what the government does. But the main problem nowadays is that the groups are not organized anymore. The military coup in 2016, resulted in many intellectuals and academics to leave Turkey. Because of this, the organizational structure of protest groups was destroyed as well.”

Recently, the newly elected mayor of Istanbul since June 2019, Ekrem İmamoğlu, of the opposition party CHP, has protested against the canal. He is very upset about Istanbul not being involved in decision-making about the canal, which is mostly in the hands of the Erdogan government. A report made by scientists about environmental problems that might be caused by the canal construction also angered the major.

Almost 100.000 citizens of Istanbul have signed a petition that stated the canal is bad to the city. Altinok believes that the protests will not have any effect. “Erdogan already said, whatever the protesters say or do, the canal will be constructed anyway. Even though the canal might not turn out the way they picture it right now, they will continue to push the project.”