Growth Without Limits In Istanbul: A New Film Looks At The Human And Environmental Toll

Traffic in Istanbul.

"May God destroy your homes too!" a woman cries out as bulldozers tear down a ramshackle assortment of tents and shanty-houses in Istanbul's Ayazma neighborhood. The area's poor families, displaced to make room for a large housing development, are offered the chance to buy in to the new construction -- if they can rustle up down-payments of 15,000 Turkish Liras (more than $8,000) each.

Though less well-known than the plights of Sulukule and Tarlabaşı, the gentrification of the Ayazma area is a story repeated across Istanbul as the city grows seemingly unchecked.

Poor Families Displaced By Development
Footage of the Ayazma families forms the strongest parts of Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits, a documentary named after a concept of a "single continuous worldwide city" that looks at the drivers and effects of Istanbul's growth. Other sections -- with foreboding music, swirling visual effects, and a cartoon depiction of the government housing administration TOKİ as a rampaging alien ship swooping down from the sky to rip up buildings -- come across as heavy-handed when the bare facts are startling enough.

Far removed from infrastructure and city services, the Ayazma area suddenly became valuable after Istanbul's Olympic Stadium was built nearby. The "My World Europe" complex that will replace the shanty-homes is touted for its greenery and amenities in a TV spot by corporate head Ali Ağaoğlu, who offers the gleeful come-on: "Everyone deserves to live in a house with a swimming pool!"

Two boys walk by a shanty-house in a poor Istanbul neighborhood slated for demolition.

Building Boom Continues Despite Drop In Sales
The building boom continues in Istanbul despite a dramatic drop in housing sales due to global economic woes. According to the movie, which was shown this weekend at the Sustainable Living Film Festival, some 600,000 homes in the Istanbul area are standing empty.

Many of the remote, anonymous housing-block developments being built in Istanbul (and around Turkey) are of a planning style already discredited in Europe, experts say in the film, citing their detrimental effects on social connections. "TOKİ is dividing the city along class lines, but this will come back to haunt us," says Hatice Kurtuluş, a professor of political sciences at Istanbul University.

Cars, Accidents, And Emissions On The Rise
The city's continual push toward the outskirts has environmental impacts too: In 1980, there were 200,000 cars in Istanbul; today, there are 2 million -- and four times more are predicted by 2023. The traffic accident rate is six times the European Union average, travel times keep going up, and CO2 emissions from road transportation increased 37 percent between 1990 and 2007. A planned third bridge over the Bosphorus Strait will only worsen the problems.

"Here we think it's modern to build parking lots under parks and ecological to plant trees on balconies after all the needed soil is paved over," says Mücella Yapıcı from the Istanbul Chamber of Architects. "Then we call shanty-towns inhumane, demolish them, and replace them with concrete cages."

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Growth Without Limits In Istanbul: A New Film Looks At The Human And Environmental Toll
The documentary 'Ecumenopolis' examines the drivers and effects of Istanbul's seemingly unchecked growth, including displacement of poor families.

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