4 Ways in Which Istanbul Is Wonderfully Sustainable

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© K Martinko – A bustling, beautiful street near Kadıköy, full of bars and restaurants. K Martinko – A bustling, beautiful street near Kadıköy, full of bars and restaurants

A mix of cultural practices and smart infrastructure investments has created a city that's a true pleasure to visit.

I always wanted to visit Istanbul; I just didn't think I'd go so soon. When a trip to Sri Lanka was canceled in mid-air due to the horrific attacks that happened on Easter Sunday this past April, I found myself in need of an alternate plan. Going straight home to Canada didn't feel right. I figured I should make the best of already being halfway around the world.

So I went to Istanbul, a place that a well-traveled friend said would feel safe and welcoming, yet sufficiently exotic and exciting for a solo female adventurer like myself. I applied for a visa electronically, which was mercifully issued within minutes, bought a plane ticket from where I was stranded in Abu Dhabi, and headed westward the next day, carrying a backpack filled with clothes that were certainly not selected for a cool Mediterranean spring climate!

I quickly discovered a city that far exceeded my expectations. Spanning the Bosphorus strait with one foot in Europe and one in Asia, the city was the physical embodiment of its geographical divide – a blend of European architecture and cultural sophistication, mixed with the exotic bazaars, food vendors, carpet displays, and calls to prayer from towering minarets that made me feel as though I'd stepped into a real-life Aladdin.

Everywhere I went, I encountered friendly people who seemed delighted to have a visitor from afar, who asked me where I was from, told me I was welcome, and quizzed me on my thoughts about Turkey. (Being a solo female helped to incite their curiosity.) It was a refreshing change from the irritation exuded by many Europeans at the sight of yet more gawking tourists.

But what made an even bigger impression on me was how advanced the city is when it comes to certain eco-friendly practices. Some of these are a byproduct of Turkish culture and not so much specific government policies, but the end result is a city that's pleasantly clean and easy to move around in. These are some of the things that stood out for me.

1. Extensive public transit

tram in Istanbul

© K Martinko – An electric tram pulls into the stop at Sultanahmet

The public transit network is phenomenal, far better than Toronto's. There is a vast network of electric streetcars, subways, funiculars, buses, and ferries that move large group of people quickly around the city. All use the same transit pass, which can be reloaded quickly at any stop, and allow for easy movement between the different types of transit.

As soon as I figured out the general layout of the city, I was able to get everywhere I wanted to go on transit. The routes are well-marked with big signs and I never got lost or turned around. Several young people I spoke to said they gave up their cars upon moving to Istanbul because the transit was so good.

ferry at Eminönü

© K Martinko – Ferry terminal at Eminönü, where you can scan a transit pass and get anywhere on a boat in minutes

I cannot speak for the suburbs of Istanbul, but in the central, historical, shopping, and financial areas that I visited on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait, it was remarkably well-connected. I was even able to get to the car-free Princes Islands out in the Sea of Marmara (a 90-minute ferry ride from the main port) for a couple of dollars on a public ferry that left every hour.

2. Pedestrian-friendly streets

grand bazaar

© K Martinko – One of the many entrances into the Grand Bazaar

Perhaps because the public transit network is so good, there are a plenty of pedestrian-only and pedestrian-dominated streets throughout the central core of the city. These streets are thronged with people doing their shopping, socializing with friends, eating with families, and listening to live music. Occasionally they move to make way for a scooter, police car, or an electric tram, but generally the pedestrians own these roads.

The most famous example is Istiklal Caddesi, through which an estimated 1.5 million people pass on foot daily (3 million on a weekend). The 2.5-km street is lined with food shops, tea stands, and fashion retailers, with musicians set up on every corner. It is exciting at any time of day, but nighttime is when it really comes alive. I saw this in many other neighborhoods as well, such as Kadıköy, Balat, Beyoğlu, and Fatih.

views of Istiklal

© K Martinko – Two views of Istiklal Caddesi, one showing a Sunday afternoon group (L) and another with the antique tram (R)

3. Clean streets

I was amazed at how little garbage there was in the streets. The city clearly stays on top of litter, with street cleaners and sweepers out in full force after dark, but even during the day there's nowhere near the amount of trash being generated as I see in North American and European cities.

simit seller on boat

© K Martinko – A man sells 'simit' on a ferry in Istanbul

I attribute this to eating habits. People don't eat on the go like they do here. They may stop at a vendor to buy a small bag of roasted chestnuts, a cob of corn, or a handful of rice-stuffed mussels, but these are served in paper wrappers and (from what I noticed) are usually eaten on the spot. No one is toting giant disposable coffee cups because they prefer to drink their tea from small glasses available everywhere. This observation relates to my next point.

4. Local food markets

People I met said that supermarkets are uncommon in Turkey and that almost everyone does their shopping at weekly neighborhood markets filled with domestically-produced food. I wandered through one such 'Tuesday market' in the Çapa neighbourhood and was impressed by how extensive it was, filling multiple streets with vendors selling all kinds of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, clothing, and household goods. Groceries are supplemented with corner store and butcher shop purchases.

pear seconds

© K Martinko – Crates filled with pear seconds at the market

An Australian woman who has lived in Istanbul for years told me there's minimal prepackaged food available, and most people cook from scratch for their families. This is enabled partly by the fact that many women do not work outside the home after marriage, and so have more time to prepare meals. But it does have the benefit of better food culture and a visibly healthier, less overweight population.

I realize that exploring Istanbul for a week hardly constitutes an in-depth look at its eco-minded cultural practices, but based on first impressions (and extensive personal travel experience), I can say with confidence that I found Istanbul to be impressive. It's a place that stood out for me and to which I hope to revisit someday soon.

A special thanks to Intrepid Travel, which invited me on the original Sri Lankan trip, but ended up giving me some wonderful contacts when I decided to go to Istanbul. Intrepid also sent me a night-tasting tour of the city, during which I learned much about the city's remarkable food culture.