How Istanbul Will Define This Decade
Istanbul may already be big, but soon it's going to be huge. According to predictions aired by Euromonitor this month, Turkey's largest city will become Europe's most populous sometime between 2017 and 2018, overtaking both the London region and Moscow, not to mention leaving Paris far behind. By 2020, the city is expected to have over 16 million inhabitants, compared to 13.8 million in 2012.
These massive growth predictions are being fueled by Turkey's galloping economy, which has grown an average of 5.3 percent annually over the past decade, even as neighbors to East and West are stricken by slumps and war.
To admirers of the Turkish miracle, Turkey has excellent husbandry of the economy to thank for its stellar rise. Skeptics see this boom as an unstable one nonetheless, whose reliance on foreign credit is having an unbalancing effect. Istanbul isn't the only metropolis swelling – Euromonitor lists five Turkish cities among to the top ten fastest growing in Western Europe. Istanbul still remains a leviathan like no other, its ravening appetite for fresh land and migrants seemingly endless.
For the next several exciting, difficult years, Istanbul's challenges will be titanic. For start, there are practical issues with expanding a city that is under stress even at its current size. Istanbul's public transit system, for example, has long struggled to keep up with the city's growth. Much has improved: tram and metro networks continue to expand, while the new railway tunneled under the Bosphorus Strait in extremely tough conditions has finally delivered the city a desperately needed alternative to roads and ferries.
This still isn't enough. The system is struggling to keep up with demand, and some vital subway lines remain under construction. Meanwhile, a lack of sufficient alternatives to car travel mean that endless tailbacks are standard, especially around the two bridges crossing the Bosphorus. With the city spreading out like a wave, this rush to fight congestion – always one step behind – will be around for years.
Residential towers are seen next to the newly built Mimar Sinan mosque in Atasehir on the Asian side of Istanbul. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
Expansion isn't just happening at the city's edge, either. Construction is no less fevered within districts already built. Neighborhoods constructed after WWII were often poorly built, making them vulnerable to collapse during the major earthquake the city is warily expecting at some point. Developers insist that, for the city to move forward, these areas need to be demolished and rebuilt, a process that is well underway.
And therein lies Istanbul's greatest clash. The government's critics see the wave of demolitions – and many other plans for Istanbul – as a land grab by the ruling party's cronies, concealed under a mask of progress. As these brilliant maps (alas only available in Turkish) show, major government projects do not just often involving the forced eviction of poorer Istanbul residents. They have also consistently involved the transfer of large chunks of tax money to corporations and media groups that have a cozy relationship with the current government. Meanwhile, much new housing development segregates residents between state-supported low income housing on the one hand and gated communities for the wealthy on the other, risking a socially polarized future for Istanbul’s new districts.
Riot police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators during a December protest against internet censorship in Istanbul. (Reuters)
For many, this property speculation is skewing the city’s course in the wrong direction. Environmentalists allege that Istanbul's third Bosphorus Bridge, due to open in 2015, will not even ease, let alone resolve, the area's congestion problems. It has really been built, so the argument goes, to encourage property development around the bridge’s currently wooded, rural site. Anxiety and discontent among locals is growing and dividing Turks. While support for Prime Minister Erdogan's government remains high across the nation as a whole, only 43 percent of city-dwelling Turks now express confidence in the government. Under an increasingly autocratic rule that clamps down brutally on demonstrations and attacks even high ranking officials that question its practices, the voice of these discontents is being muffled and sometimes stifled. Istanbul may be well on the way to becoming the largest city Europe has ever seen, but its expansion, and the hardball politics behind it, may be causing as many problems as it is solving.