Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Rosario Cuervo.
This week, however, with Istanbul poised to assume the title of European Capital of Culture and expecting some ten million tourists next year, many wondered if the city's explosive growth and accelerating modernization are compatible with its beauty and potential for sustainability. With so many urban planners and environmentalists in town this week for the Ecocity World Summit, it was only natural that the discussion turn to the host city - a massive and, in parts, overcrowded place, blessed with the remains of a long and dignified history, yet slow to deal with urban problems such as flooding and traffic.
Plenty of local planners and policy makers participated in the discussions, which Turkey's Minister of Environment and Forestry Dr. Veysel Eroglu kicked off with a long and impassioned speech describing his vision for a more ecological Istanbul and detailing some of the work being done by his ministry in areas such as afforestation, wastewater treatment and watershed protection.
Istanbul remains a city of great contrasts. Professor Ahmet Samsunlu of Istanbul Technical University noted that almost half of the city's urban growth is unplanned, built by massive waves of migrants from the countryside, with many of the city's residents considered squatters by authorities. On the other hand, new districts are also going up with corporate hi-rises and "modern" residential buildings.
(Moving around town, I noticed plenty of very tall buildings going up in older parts of the city as well. One of them was actually being marketed under the name "Anthill.")
Murat Suyabatmaz of the Istanbul Cyclists' Association, who led a bike tour of the city earlier in the week for people attending the event, described the resistance he had encountered to making the city friendlier to bicycle riders:
"Encouraging bike ridership can reduce air pollution in the city by 25%. People say bicycle infrastructure isn't appropriate for Istanbul, but we say it is... Bicycles are part of the solution."
While there was quite a bit of disagreement between academics, politicians and activists, especially regarding the slow pace of change, the event provided an interesting platform for discussion of local initiatives in light of international experience.
Many international models for green cities were presented as well, including proven solutions from cities like Vancouver, Freiburg and Montreal, as well as newer initiatives such as Tianjin Ecocity in China and something called New Vistas, corporate America's answer to the ecocity as a suburban planned unit development.
Throughout the three day event, the Minister sat in front row, occasionally asking questions, offering comments or standing up to defend the policies of his government.
Meanwhile, a new industrial park may be the first hint of a new development approach in the city. Ostim Park, an "industrial eco-park" slated to host companies from green industries such as renewable energy and environmental technology, was presented as a partnership between local government, business and academia. The park management's building, a green building generating its own energy and recycling its water, will be the first to go up. Ostim Park is expected to begin operating in 2012.