Forced transition: From gecekondus to gated communities

Text  by Isabella Balanchi –

Photo by Moa Aulanko –

The houses in Gülsuyu and Gülensu stand on a hill with steep streets and a view of both the skyscrapers of Istanbul and the twinkling turquoise Marmara Sea. The smell of jasmine flowers mixes with a vague smell of chickens and trash. Some of the houses are neat-looking and painted in bright colours, others are run down with fences of scrap metal and bricks scattered around. No matter the looks, the gecekondus, which translates to built-over-night, have in common that they were built illegally on state-owned land. They are a thorn in the side for the municipality, who wants to demolish the neighbourhood and rebuild it .

Houses for immigrants

The gecekondu neighbourhood, which is just an hour outside of central Istanbul, is an exception as most of the gecekondus in the city no longer exist. They were originally built by migrants in the 1950’s, who left their rural areas to work in the big cities as part of an industrialization. The state did not have money to spend on social housing, and therefore turned a blind eye to the workforce occupying public land. Back then the gecekondus areas made up 40-45% of all of Istanbul.

In 2002, the conservative governing party AKP implemented a plan to transform gecekondu neighbourhoods into modern housing and relocate the residents either in the new apartment complexes or to other areas. If the owners could prove that they had lived on the land for a long time, they were allowed to stay if they paid a small occupation fee. Most gecekondu areas were demolished and turned into the modern neighbourhoods of Istanbul.

“Only the owners got the right to be relocated into a flat, but many have several units with tenants, who were left out of the program and would need to move to other neighbourhoods far away. Some owners objected because they didn’t want to live in 13 story apartment, but were content living in a village area with a big garden and a sense of community,” Genc says.

 A neighbourhood of resistance

However in Gülensu/Gülsuyu, the self-built houses still stand. In the windows and on the porches, men with grey-haired moustaches and women with wrinkled faces and hijabs watch as the streets fill with children with backpacks, returning home from school. They pass the walls and fences with words in spray-paint, which are mostly political messages.

Gülsuyu and Gülensu has a history of socialist activism and were front-runners in the 2000’s to resist urban transformation. The residents were experienced with grassroot activism and organised a platform of 30 associations, which ran strong rhetoric campaigns. “AKP lost seats in the district and the mayor shifted to the social democratic party, so in terms of political success, they did something. But due to the national rise of authoritarianism of Turkey, they like many other movements lost some ground. The platform disappeared, but some associations still exist and Gülsuyu/Gülensu is one of them,” Firat Genc says.

The socialist history plays a key role in the state wanting to redevelop the neighbourhood: “Redeveloping it will break the sense of community, which is the root of the social and political organisation,” Genc says. The officials frame the area as a slum area with high rates of crime and speak of cleaning out the neighbourhood. “In some cases, there were illegal organisations, but most of them are not. They’re just communists.”

Gated communities

The one-story houses with chickens in the garden might soon be history. Since the original plan failed, a participatory program was started in 2015 with the goal to break down the complicated world of city planning to the residents to gain their support and involve them in the process of renewing their neighbourhood.

Emrah Altinok, who is assistant professor in the department of architecture at Bilgi University, works at the program. According to him, the beautiful location of the neighbourhood plays a big part in the municipality’s desire to transform the area.“When you consider the beautiful view to the Marmara Sea and the Princes Islands, it is valuable. But as the area is now with the steep roads and no public spaces, it needs to be redeveloped in order to build gated communities of varying scale for wealthy, wealthy people. If you keep the pattern as it is, it is not catchy for big investors”

With the new plans, it will be impossible to keep all the residents in the area. “There’s almost 20 percent of the community living in poverty. And to keep the required urban spaces, there won’t be space. So this will automatically relocate some people,” Altinok says. The people relocated will likely be the tenants, who have the least rights and money. “They will be evicted,” he says. “But it will be the main motivation to make it as close as possible to the original location.”