Istanbul’s Furious Bid to Become the Next Dubai – Next City

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Istanbul’s Furious Bid to Become the Next Dubai

Can the City Survive Its “Build Anything” Growth Strategy?

Story by David Lepeska

Photography by Mikhail Galustov

Published on Nov 25, 2013

On a gray October Sunday in Istanbul, two policemen handcuff a young man along Tarlabasi Boulevard, bundle him into their minivan and speed off beneath billboards depicting an idyllic vision of the neighborhood’s future: smiling, well-dressed couples stroll hand-in-hand amidst chic shops and smart stone apartment buildings.

Beyond the signage, a few abandoned and crumbling brick tenements rise from a construction zone encircled by eight-foot metal fencing. Down a side street, three kids kick a ripped red soccer ball and two men toss planks of wood onto a small street-side fire. A trio of young men throws softball-sized rocks at an English-speaking passerby, urging him to, “Get away! Go!”

Just a stone’s throw from Taksim, Istanbul’s central square, Tarlabasi is undergoing what Turkish officials call urban transformation. The government is replacing nearly 300 aging 19th century buildings across nine city blocks with high-end offices, apartments, retail outlets and a hotel.

Formerly a Greek neighborhood, Tarlabasi has in recent decades become a sanctuary for the marginalized: mostly Kurds, with a smattering of Roma, transgendered and poor Turks from Anatolia. Now some 2,000 of them have been forced out – receiving as little as a third the market price of their homes – as drug-peddlers, prostitutes and thieves have moved in. About a half-dozen families whose homes have been targeted for expropriation remain.

The Tarlabasi section of Istanbul is being completely transformed from a historic neighborhood into a district of offices, apartments and retail.

“It’s like an open prison,” says Bahattin Argis, a 53-year-old Kurdish cook and father of four who has lived in Tarlabasi since 1998. After years of back and forth, an Istanbul court was expected to confirm Argis’ eviction in late November, awarding him 180,000 lira ($90,000) to leave.

“I feel as if the government, they told me they would take my wife, and I said, ‘No, they cannot.’” adds Argis, who is likely to return to Mardin, near Turkey’s border with Syria. “But they just took her. If I am forced to move back to my home, I feel like my honor will have been violated.”

Istanbul was a sleepy backwater of two million people as recently as 1970. But decades of economic growth and sprawl have transformed it into an unruly megalopolis of 15 million, a city now facing one of the most ambitious – and contested – makeovers of modern times. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Istanbul native and former mayor of the city, has nearly $100 billion worth of construction projects on the drawing board.

These include a satellite city for over one million people, a multi-billion-dollar financial center, a six-runway airport expected to be the world’s largest, a third bridge across the Bosporus Strait and a 30-mile shipping canal linking the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea that the prime minister himself has called “crazy.” “If you really want to reach the level of contemporary civilizations,” Erdogan explained in April, “we must make such investments rapidly.”

Some 60 percent of the recent decisions made by Erdogan’s cabinet have been about construction projects, according to a government publication. Nationwide, construction has increased five-fold over the past decade. In 2002, Turkey issued building permits for 36 million square meters of space. In 2010, the number was 171 million.

Bahattin Argis stands near his house in Tarlabasi, which has been scheduled for demolition.

The building frenzy prodded local journalist and political analyst Yigal Schleifer to argue, in a May story for the online publication Eurasianet, that Turkey had “turned into a ‘constructocracy,’ with a domestic economy driven by the construction sector and ruled by a government that seems to believe that every new big construction project only gives it more legitimacy and prestige.”

Construction represents just six to seven percent of Turkey’s GDP, but its real impact is much greater. Building sparks activity in real estate, cars and appliances, manufacturing, finance and other sectors – though too much tends to also result in congestion, corruption, imperiled resources and a roiling population.

“Construction is now the locomotive sector, especially in Istanbul,” Mustafa Sonmez, an economist and a columnist for two Turkish dailies, said during a recent interview at his office near Taksim. “The main aim is to brand the city and sell the land of Istanbul for a higher price, to Turks and to foreign investors, and the government is succeeding.”

CONCRETE ECONOMIES

The bulldozer as stimulus is largely a new concept. Historically, building has been a byproduct of economic growth, not its driver. There have been exceptions, like the so-called Japanese miracle and the early skyscraper eras in Chicago and New York. But for the most part, cities have generally added housing or new infrastructure to respond to urban growth, not to fuel it.

Urbanization across much of the developing world is upending that dynamic. “The phenomenon itself is not new, but it’s happening on a scale that is new,” says Blair Ruble, an urban resilience analyst at the Wilson Center, a Washington, DC-based think tank. “What is new is where it’s taking place, and how it’s taking place” – which is to say, in developing countries, and lightning-fast.

Find an emerging economy and you’ll likely find the makings of a constructocracy. Brazil recently launched a $400 billion infrastructure agenda, just as it nears completion on a similarly sized national housing scheme. Riding Indonesia’s six-percent annual growth, Jakarta is throwing up tall buildings – like the planned, 2,093-foot Signature Tower – as quickly as Doha or Dubai. From 2009 to 2020, the number of skyscrapers in the Indonesian capital is expected to increase more than six-fold, from 40 to 250.

Construction has become a means to an end in Istanbul, where political leaders see it as a path to lightning-fast economic growth.

In Lagos, the number of $100-a-night hotel rooms has tripled since 2004. Manila’s skyline has been transformed in recent years, with a 63-story luxury residence, the new headquarters of the Asian Development Bank and a Trump Tower still on the way. And as India’s urban areas welcome another 250 million people by 2030, tens of billions of dollars of new metro lines are on the agenda in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and other cities.

Then there’s the Concrete Dragon. From 2000 to 2010, China built roughly the equivalent of all the housing in Europe, excluding Turkey. This year the government launched a building boom previously unknown to man, in which some 250 million people will be urbanized by 2025 at a cost of as much as $600 billion a year. Rows of 20-story towers, along with roads, schools and hospitals, are appearing almost overnight on formerly dusty plains. “At current rates of construction,” writes the Economist Intelligence Unit, “China can build a city the size of Rome in only two weeks.”

The world’s urban population is growing by three million people every week, or nearly 300 people per minute, says Ruble. And the trend has just begun. As agrarian economies in Africa, Asia and South America shift to industry and services, waves of migrants will continue to seek opportunity in newly modernizing cities. Rates of urbanization and the ratios of rural to urban residents vary greatly, from the nearly 90 percent rural population of Brazil, to around 70 percent in Turkey and less than 40 percent in India. Yet every year for at least the next two decades, 100 million people will move from rural areas to cities, according to Ruble. They will need places to live and work, along with highways, bridges and metro systems to get from one to the other.

Cities generate roughly 80 percent of the world’s economic growth, according to several estimates. That number is sure to rise as urban populations expand, with the growth coming largely from construction. As leaders engage in a construction arms race, competing to attract talent and capital to what they hope emerges as the next great global city, the 21st century may come to be symbolized by the jackhammer and the crane. “The volume of urban construction for housing, office space, and transport services over the next 40 years,” predicts Global Trends 2030, a recent report by the US’s National Intelligence Council, “could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history.”

THE POLITICS OF HOUSING

Few cities portend this future quite like Istanbul. Blessed with rolling hills, vital waterways and postcard-perfect vistas, Istanbul has for nearly three millennia provided leaders looking to cement their legacy with both riches and a fantastic natural canvas. Byzas and Constantine, separated by nearly a thousand years, adorned the city with their names. Justinian gave the world the Hagia Sophia. Theodosius left his still-standing walls. Then came the Ottomans with their mosques and pencil-thin minarets. When Mustafa Kemal (later given the honorific Ataturk, meaning “father of the Turks”) established the Republic of Turkey in 1923, he shifted the national capital, and the focus, to Ankara.

The tide began to turn in the 1950s, with economic expansion and mass immigration to Istanbul from rural areas. Today the former Constantinople represents one-fifth of the country’s population and 40 percent of its tax base. Some parts of the city look like Frankfurt, others like Cairo, still others like no place in the world. “Istanbul’s greatest virtue is its people’s ability to see the city through both Western and Eastern eyes,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk writes in Istanbul. His hometown falls short of European livability standards but outperforms most megacities in key measures like crime, services and infrastructure. A bit of both, Istanbul is perfectly poised to inform the mature cities of the West and the bulging-at-the-seams starter cities of the emerging world.

A billboard featuring Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looms above a construction site.

Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s economy has risen steadily at an average of more than five percent growth for over a decade. As a result, Istanbul – the country’s economic engine and financial and cultural capital – now inspires a devotion bordering on the spiritual. “It is the city that instilled in us the feeling of mission,” Prime Minister Erdogan said early this year. “Istanbul will act as a lighthouse that shows the way.”

When he became prime minister in 2003, Erdogan took control of TOKI, the national housing agency. It had been little used since its creation in 1984. The next year he expanded the writ of Istanbul from the municipality to the entire province, tripling the city’s land area from about 690 square miles to more than 2,040, making it twice the size of Luxembourg, or a bit smaller than Delaware.

In the years that followed Erdogan announced a series of mega-projects planned for the vast, mostly green areas north of the city annexed in the expansion, including the new airport, the third Bosporus Bridge, the satellite city and the new shipping canal. (The planning committee gave the canal project a green light in April, but the government may balk at the estimated $30 billion price tag. Also, none of Turkey’s Black Sea neighbors have weighed in on the proposed canal, which would likely require their approval.)

As construction on these projects has neared, property values in the area have increased four-fold, according to local realtors. Property in Turkey has provided better returns than in any other country in Europe in recent years, according to the Knight Frank Global House Price Index. Last year, the Turkish government passed a law that allows citizens of the Gulf states, Russia and other countries to buy up to 30 hectares of property in Turkey. In 2013, the country expects an estimated $5 billion in real estate purchases by foreigners.

TOKI is crucial to this effort. The agency developed $7 billion worth of land across 2,000 construction sites in 2012, often using public assets for private or political gain. For instance, TOKI has partnered with the Agaoglu Group to build Maslak 1453, an ongoing Istanbul development of two dozen luxury high-rises. In June, a Saudi billionaire bought two blocks of Maslak 1453 apartments for $200 million.

Office buildings rise in the Maslak district.

The AKP’s increasing popularity – in the most recent parliamentary elections, the party won 50 percent of the vote – has been partially attributed to the half-million homes built by TOKI in the past decade. “Especially in Anatolia, TOKI builds many kinds of projects to win voters,” says Sonmez. “Sometimes a mosque, a stadium, sometimes military compounds and malls – whatever’s needed.”

Controlled by the leader of the country with near-zero financial accounting, TOKI wields immense power to remake Turkey’s built environment. Aykut Erdogdu, an opposition parliamentarian from Istanbul, published a report last year that questions TOKI’s bidding process, arguing that contracts are awarded based on connections. The report also alleges corruption within TOKI totaling nearly $400 million during the 2003-2011 leadership of Erdogan Bayraktar. “There is theft and roguery here,” Bayraktar said in response, acknowledging $30 million in extortion. “Whoever is found guilty should be punished, even me.”

THE ROAD TO CHINA

If Turkey appears to be emulating China, Istanbullus might look to Beijing to see their future. Chinese officials went all-in on building perhaps 15 years before anyone else. The population of the Chinese capital has doubled since 1990, from about 10 million to more than 20 million today. Across a municipality of nearly 6,500 square miles, an authoritarian government has built dozens of skyscrapers, laid thousands of miles of new roads and replaced most of the city’s traditional hutong neighborhoods with bland modern apartment blocks.

Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute argue that, regardless of density, as a city’s population increases its denizens become more productive and better at generating ideas to solve the problems of civilization. The bigger the city, they argue, the more efficient it is. True in the long run, perhaps, but not initially. Like Istanbul, today’s beefed-up Beijing has an expanded labor force, better infrastructure, available office and living space, and an engaged local economy.

But it also has more than five million registered vehicles, relies heavily on energy derived from coal and regularly records air quality numbers far beyond the World Health Organization’s “very unhealthy” range. Bike and scooter riders don surgical masks for their morning commutes and children are often kept indoors due to the risk of cancer and respiratory illnesses. Through the first six months of 2013, tourism fell 15 percent. On a heavy smog day in October, the government closed expressways and curbed takeoffs and landings at the airport. Some residents of Beijing – now one of the world’s most water-scarce cities – get just a few hours of tap water each day. Desperate city officials have turned to desalination, river water diversion and melted snow to boost supply.

In 2002, Turkey issued building permits for 36 million square meters of space. In 2010, the number was 171 million.

Beyond these Malthusian concerns, hyper-construction also presents a more Hobbesian hurdle. A 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled Beijing Can’t Outgrow Corruption highlighted the depth of the graft in the Chinese capital. The story cited a railway official reported to have received $2 billion in bribes in exchange for contracts.

“Construction just creates so many opportunities for shenanigans, with the interface between officials and developers, the inspections, licenses and so on,” says Ruble. He points to rising corruption in early 20th century Chicago and New York, and an ongoing construction-related bribery case in Montreal that goes all the way up to the mayor. “If even a Canadian city has rampant corruption,” he says, referring to a country widely seen as one of the world’s most upright, “then you know you have to build mechanisms that shed light on them.”

The building of such mechanisms often begins in the streets. In nearly all developing-world cities, the new middle classes remain fragile amidst yawning inequality. They understand how one stumble could push them back into poverty, and appreciate the importance of safety nets and government responsiveness.

“The emerging and growing middle classes – 3.2 billion strong worldwide by 2020, and 4.9 billion by 2030 – desperately need good and accountable governance,” the World Bank’s Sina Odugbemi wrote in a recent blog post. “Governing elites that do not make sure they have it can expect a whole lot of trouble in the years ahead.”

Construction has begun on the third bridge over the Bosporus.

Lacking the release valve of the ballot box, China witnessed some 500 civil demonstrations per day in 2011. The government has dispatched a national army of urban management officials, called chengguan, to help maintain calm in its dozens of fast-growing cities. The protests that shook Brazil earlier this year started in response to a hike in bus fares. And Istanbul’s development obsession famously led to weeks of seething protests.

It may have also led to violence. In Gulsuyu, a poor neighborhood on the city’s Asian side, armed gangs have been peddling drugs and attacking residents with shootings, stabbings and raids, ultimately killing a 21-year-old in September. Many locals believe developers are financing the violence in an effort to get people to leave so they can build. The district sits along the Marmara Sea just a mile from Istanbul’s rustic, tourist-friendly Princes’ Islands. “The price of our land has gone up due to construction work in the surrounding areas,” a village leader told the online publication Al-Monitor. “Like most of our dwellers, I, too, believe rent seekers are behind the gangs.”

A MORE EQUITABLE CONSTRUCTOCRACY

Construction-fueled urban expansion tends to create a snowball effect, overwhelming planning and public objectives in a quest for profit. Pointing to urban environmental problems like Beijing’s air, many scientists argue that unchecked global growth threatens to destabilize life on earth. Not surprisingly, minimizing such fallout has emerged as a key concern among international policymakers. It’s the focus of recent reports from the World Bank, the United Nations and other international bodies, as well as an ongoing study at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But Ruble believes a focus on building can be sustainable if it includes lasting infrastructure and incorporates contemporary thinking. “If it’s mainly about building condos and it’s the only sector you’re relying on for growth, that’s a problem,” he says. “If it’s smarter growth, with the sort of infrastructure that helps create economic activity in other sectors and a bit of forethought directed by some sense of policy, maybe it can work.”

Officials ignore locals at their own risk. Consider Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York, often seen as the poster child for smart, fast growth. From 2002 to 2013, the city rezoned a third of its land and built 40,000 buildings. It also added the United States’ largest bike-share system and 700 acres of parkland. “Urban living became a cause, a public good,” the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman writes of the Bloomberg era. Yet the elevation of that good made the city prohibitively expensive. Today’s New York has more homeless people than it has had for decades, and a dearth of blue-collar jobs. Issues of inequality fed into the Occupy Wall Street movement, which started in downtown Manhattan in fall 2011 and shook the country for weeks.

The city’s newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, campaigned on the idea that New York has become “a tale of two cities.” His landslide victory underscored the importance of a competitive political system able to provide checks and balances – an asset Turkey supposedly has, and China does not. Yet Turkey’s institutions have in the past failed to check the authoritarian impulses of the country’s leaders, from Ataturk to Erdogan.

“We may have no Istanbul to leave for the next generation.”

“We, the people in Turkey, think that democracy is whoever gets the most votes gets to do whatever they want,” says Istanbul filmmaker Imre Azem, sipping tea at an open-air café along the Bosporus. The 38-year-old made the prescient 2011 documentary Ekumenopolis, which details the city’s recent economic history and the long-simmering frustrations that exploded into protest this year. “Because the AKP has the most votes, they can take your rights, they can demolish your house, they can build a third bridge, they can run a highway through Taksim Square – because they have what we call the ‘national will.’ We have to tell them, ‘No.’ The national will has to respect the wishes of the people, has to respect our right to the city, has to respect human rights.”

In June, a vast array of Turks – young and old, the wealthy and the expropriated, fans of rival soccer clubs, Alevis, Kurds and other minorities – took to the streets to deliver that message. In August and September, they met at regular neighborhood forums – more than 60 in Istanbul, over 120 across the country – to discuss ways to challenge the government. In October, the Gezi Party was born. According to its bylaws, the party seeks to strengthen Turkey’s constitution and “provide necessary conditions under which individuals can freely determine how to live their lives.” Another new party, the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, includes among its deputies one Sirri Sureyya Onder. A filmmaker, columnist and opposition parliamentarian for Istanbul, he became something of a hero among protesters after being hit in the head by a teargas canister and hospitalized in the first days of protest in Gezi Park.

Nationwide, construction has increased five-fold over the past decade.

Turkey’s convoluted political system, with more than 70 parties, makes it nearly impossible for newcomers to gain traction. But the timing of the new Gezi-related parties seems good. Local elections are set for March. Istanbul, the lynchpin of Turkish politics, is far and away the biggest prize of the vote. It has been controlled by the AKP since Erdogan became mayor in 1994. But a recent poll by CNNTurk found the current mayor and likely AKP mayoral candidate Kadir Topbas in a dead heat with his likely opponent. What’s more, a national survey from MetroPoll found AKP support down 15 percent from a year prior.

The AKP remains Turkey’s most popular party, and altering the priorities of government is likely to require more than one election. But time may be on the side of the upstarts. Jeremy Wallace, a political science professor at Ohio State University, recently found that, due to protest and politics, rapid urbanization tends to undermine authoritarian regimes in the long run. “We have around the corner one of the most important elections of our time,” says Safak Pavey, an opposition parliamentarian for Istanbul who took part in the protests. “It’s when we will choose whether we want to go in the same old direction or choose a different path.”

FROM MOSQUES TO MARINAS

For now, the construction continues on all sides. It’s a bit of a shock to stroll, in just a few minutes, from the desolation of Tarlabasi to the glitz of Istiklal Caddesi, a broad pedestrian thoroughfare that is Istanbul’s liveliest street. In recent years, old cinemas and independent bookshops have been replaced by art galleries and multiplexes, retailers like Starbucks, Zara and Adidas, and rooftop bars peddling $20 mojitos.

At one end is Taksim, where the government is routing roads underneath the square and hoping to build a space-age mosque. (With the cancellation of the plan to build a replica barracks and shopping complex, the government has agreed to hold a plebiscite on the future of Gezi Park, in which all Istanbul residents can vote. But it has yet to set a date or detail the choices. Many observers doubt the vote will take place.) Several new hotels are going up, and, a few blocks east, the city is knocking down an old soccer stadium and building another at a cost of $100 million.

At the other end of Istiklal, the 14th-century Galata Tower stands between a planned $700 million cruise-ship port along the Bosporus and the construction of a six-story underground parking garage to be topped by a park and art gallery. In neighboring Kasimpasa, the conservative, working-class district of Erdogan’s youth, a 15th-century shipyard is to be remade into a $1.35 billion destination with marinas, five-star hotels, a cavernous mall and 1,000-person mosque.

“We hope this won’t destroy the historical mood of the area,” Kasimpasa resident Omer Yazici says of the shipyard project, expected to begin next year. A retired sailor with three children, he was chatting with some friends outside a pide shop near the project footprint on a sunny August afternoon. “But times are changing, and we can’t stay in the past.”

Yazici, who has three teenage children, believes the new development will cut crime, reduce congestion and boost the local economy. Taxi driver Osman Yuksul, a father of two getting a shoeshine along a busy main thoroughfare, disagrees. “They are just looking to fill their pockets,” he says. “Look at all this green, these views. This project will destroy the neighborhood. It will ruin the scenery, destroy the environment and bring air pollution.”

When he was elected mayor, Erdogan initially appeared to lean green. He picked up piles of trash, proposed congestion pricing, switched public buses to natural gas and delivered water via hundreds of miles of new pipes. The next year, when he heard of plans for a third bridge across the Bosporus, he said it would be “murder for the city.”

Experts agreed, and in 2004, the city moved to expand public transport by starting work on a $3 billion metro tunnel under the Bosporus. Five years later, the Istanbul Metropolitan Plan urged officials to continue developing the areas along the Marmara Sea on the European and Asian sides of the city, but to leave the northern sections of Istanbul, along the Black Sea, alone. Planners argued that these forests provided a crucial carbon sink that helped protect nearby water reservoirs.

But as prime minister, Erdogan appears to have embraced a belief common among the Republic’s right-leaning leaders: that a bold, modern Turkey requires new buildings and infrastructure. Ankara approved the third bridge across the Bosporus last year. And in response to recent protests against the building of a street through the campus of a major university in Ankara, Erdogan remarked, “Those who are not civilized will not understand the value of a road.”

Shops along Istiklal Street.

That may be a commodity in decline. In its latest global congestion index, Dutch GPS manufacturer TomTom ranked Istanbul’s traffic the world’s second worst after Moscow. Officials argue that the third Bosporus bridge, now under construction, will address the problem. But there’s wide consensus among urban planners that new roads tend to eventually lead to an overall increase in traffic. And transportation experts generally agree that while an expanded metro system and the $3 billion rail tunnel underneath the Bosporus, opened in October, may cut traffic, the bridge is likely to make matters worse.

The first two Bosphorus bridges, which added hundreds of thousands of new cars to city roadways, would seem to offer persuasive evidence. “The sprawl that began with the two bridges will now at least double,” says Sibel Bozdogan, a professor of architectural history at Harvard University and Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “It is an ecological disaster.”

Building the bridge, its feeder roads and the new, six-runway airport will require the removal of as many as five million trees. In addition, Hacettepe University professor Cemal Saydam, an environmental engineer and an expert on regional water bodies, argues that Erdogan’s proposed canal would befoul the Bosporus and Marmara Sea and undermine ecosystems from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

As with Beijing, scientists and planners estimate that the elimination of forests and water reservoirs required for Istanbul’s ongoing and planned projects will leave the city heavily polluted and gasping for water within a decade. After studying Istanbul’s three-millennia history, Stephan Barthel and Sverker Sörlin of the Stockholm Resilience Center found that the city’s productive use of green space and close connections to land and water “have been essential properties for long-term survival and success.”

Still, the government’s thirst for land remains unslaked. One potential new law authorizes TOKI to enable construction on environmentally protected areas, including national parks. Another would exempt major projects, like the third Bosporus Bridge, from submitting to an environmental impact assessment. And a recently proposed plan involves the development of military zones occupying more than 50,000 acres across Istanbul, mostly green space along the Bosporus and the Golden Horn.

Pavey, an Istanbul native who received the International Women of Courage Award last year from then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, foresees a crisis. “The urban quality of life is getting better all across Europe, but here we’re looking at a future in which Istanbul will not have water because of the destruction of the forests and reservoirs,” she says. “We may have no Istanbul to leave for the next generation.”

TOWARD AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Istanbul may seem immune to the ravages of time and man. Earthquakes. Fires. Bubonic plague. Angry Crusaders. Ottoman conquerors. Authoritarian officials. And wave after wave of razing and renewal. But the current test is of another order.

Look at Beijing, where the problem has metastasized. In mid-October, smog enveloped a handful of cities in northeast China. Harbin, home to more than 10 million people, recorded air quality readings above 1,000, worse than Beijing’s highest readings and 40 times what the World Health Organization considers safe. The city had to cancel bus service and close schools, highways and airports due to visibility of just a few meters. In early November, doctors discovered the country’s youngest case of lung cancer contracted due to air pollution – an 8-year-old girl in the Yangtze River Dam area, outside Shanghai. A concerned government has committed $275 billion to cleaning the country’s air.

With construction progressing at such a breakneck pace, some worry there will be no Istanbul as we know it for future generations.

Meanwhile, the Istanbul transformation rolls on. Erdogan Bayraktar, the former head of TOKI who acknowledged agency corruption, is overseeing a $400 billion national initiative to knock down or reinforce all buildings at risk of earthquake damage. Over the next two decades the government plans to rebuild a third of all the housing in Turkey, some 6.5 million housing units.

The first phase involves 14,000 buildings across 50 Istanbul neighborhoods, including, most likely, more of Tarlabasi. Construction in the current renewal area is to be completed in 2015, and most locals doubt the city would surround new luxury buildings with dilapidated apartment blocks. “I’m sure they will do it here as well,” says Enver, who runs a market across the street from the ongoing project. The 44-year-old has eight children ranging in age from 25 to six, and expects to lose his shop someday soon. “Sometimes we will have an empty stomach; sometimes we will have a full stomach. We will try to take care of ourselves, but it will be in God’s hands.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

A freelance journalist and editor based in Istanbul, David Lepeska writes about Islam, technology, media, and cities and sustainability, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Metropolis, Monocle, The Atlantic Cities and other outlets.

Mikhail Galustov is a filmmaker and photographer based in Istanbul and primarily covering the Middle East, South Asia and Russia. He has worked in 56 countries on assignments for Time, The New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, PBS, National Geographic and MTV, among others.