Street Fighting Sultan: Erdogan's Troubled, Troubling Visit to Soma

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, is a natural born fighter; in Turkish his surname means “a soldier is born,” or "brave (male) hawk." So it seems fitting that the past year of criticism and instability has made him increasingly combative.

Since the Gezi Park protests last May, he and his advisers have lashed out at a laundry list of real and imagined enemies, from the interest rate lobby to the Jewish diaspora, and from foreign media to Lufthansa, the parallel state and Pennsylvania, the sanctuary of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Confronted by an unfamiliar foe last week, Erdogan went one better. Arriving in the small Turkish city of Soma the day after a coalmine fire that ultimately killed more than 300 workers – Turkey’s deadliest-ever human-caused disaster – the prime minister’s car was mobbed by angry locals as it wound slowly through the streets.

In the city center, he emerged from the car and prepared to speak. Here was an opportunity for Erdogan's bullhorn moment, as when US President George W. Bush appeared at the site of the Twin Towers days after 9/11 and, improvising in response to a shout from the crowd, expressed the sentiment of so many New Yorkers and Americans.

Instead, the Turkish prime minister delivered a defensive speech of jaw-dropping insensitivity. “These types of incidents are ordinary things,” he said. "Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time." Surrounded by the sobbing family members of dead and missing miners, he downplayed their suffering, citing similar disasters that happened in Western countries a century ago.

Walking through the crowd minutes later, Erdogan found himself jostled and jeered and stopped to berate a group of men. “Those who boo the prime minister of the country will get slapped,” he said, jabbing with his finger.

Erdogan quickly made good on his word. He led his entourage inside a grocery store and came upon a young man in a blue shirt. “I was not one of the protesters but just a customer of the store,” the man, Taner Kurucan, later told reporters. He began to back away from Erdogan and his security team as they approached.

“Why are you running away? Come here, you were just telling me to resign,” Erdogan seems to say in this video, lunging toward Kurucan before grabbing and smacking him. “Why are you running away, you spawn of Israel?”

In the space of about 15 minutes, the leader of a country of nearly 80 million people brushed aside the almost unprecedented suffering of his citizens for political purposes, threatened mourners to their faces when they dared express their frustration, and finally wielded violence and, possibly, an anti-Semitic slur on an innocent bystander. It was a performance worthy of Game of Thrones’ fictional, venomous King Joffrey -- and all the more conspicuous just weeks after South Korea's prime minister resigned in the wake of a ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people.

That the slapping victim quickly forgave his tormentor probably said more about Turks than their leader. “I believe the prime minister slapped me involuntarily,” said Kurucan. “He could not control his emotions and took it out on me. It was an unfortunate event, but I do not think he did it on purpose. Then the bodyguards beat me up and I fell down by the freezer.”

Was Erdogan in control? Let's peak inside his head. For starters, his power is nearly absolute. He has been surrounded by yes-men for a decade and has never lost an election, including a confidence-building victory a month and a half ago.

When he recently found himself listening to a speech critical of his government, Erdogan flew into a rage, as President Abdullah Gul, sitting next to him, tried to curb his heckling. “You are misbehaving, and your statements are false,” he shouted at the lawyer giving the speech, before storming out of the hall, entourage in tow.

He is constantly courted by a flaccid media, with reporters often pitching one softball question after another and newspapers and TV stations presenting only the most friendly spins on the news of the day. “Such pandering has made him sloppy, complacent, and blinkered,” writes William Armstrong, an analyst of Turkish media, “so that when a ‘black swan’ event like the disaster in Soma occurs, he is simply not conditioned to respond adequately.”

Not only is he unable to respond adequately, these days he seems capable of only two emotions: pride, when victorious or touting his accomplishments, and belligerence, when faced with dissent.

So this prime minister comes to a town wracked by grief and seething with pain, expecting the usual fealty. When instead his very own people – working class, conservative Turks, rather than Alevis or Kurds or urbane, Twitter-using liberals – boo and hiss and call for his ouster, his blood boils. He needs to lash out, but he knows he is in an open, public space, watched by dozens of cameras and thousands of eyes.

So he threatens, then makes his way to a more protected spot and curses and smacks the first person he finds. The fact that he issued a warning and proceeded to find a hidden spot to unleash his temper shows that he remained in control of his actions, if not his emotions. Yet still we caught a glimpse of the unprecedented.

Turkey has seen a great deal of political turmoil in its 90 years, but never before has a prime minister physically assaulted a Turkish citizen in public. But nor has a prime minister ruled Turkey for this long. The extended reign with minimal political competition has lent Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a macho air of superior infallibility.

It's there in Erdogan aide Yusuf Yerkel's kicking of a Soma protester being held down by two policemen, and in the AKP spokesman later defending Yerkel’s actions. It's there in just about everything Erdogan does these days.

And it’s likely to extend through August, when for the first time in Turkey’s history, politicians will directly compete for one of the highest offices in the land. The presidential election will not be about party, like the campaigns that have come before. Voters will instead cast ballots for individual candidates, ostensibly unaffiliated with any party.

He has yet to declare his candidacy, but many believe this is the election Erdogan has been anticipating for much of his career. The problem is that with his dreadful Soma performance he may have finally begun to alienate his sizable base. It does not bode well for Turkey’s democracy that, just now, this street fighter appears surlier than ever, and willing and able to do whatever he pleases.


This Week in Tayyip: Erdogan Woos, Weds Lady Love

So begins a new weekly series covering the man who has run the Republic of Turkey for nearly a dozen years -- Kasimpasa-born, Rize-raised, Erbakan-weened, former simitci and futbolcu, devlet ve baba all in one, the unstoppable, inimitable Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Sunday started well for Tayyip, as he decked himself out in a plaid 1970s-style sports-coat, in apparent sartorial solidarity with his base, and voted in Uskudar, a conservative district on Istanbul's Asian side.

Then it got even better, as his Justice and Development Party (AKP) trounced all comers in nation-wide municipal elections. The ruling party took an estimated 45.5 percent of the national vote, handily beating the main opposition CHP's 28 percent and marking a perfect six-for-six in elections since the party's 2001 founding. The AKP's total represents an increase of seven points from the last local elections, in 2009, though a four-point drop from 2011 parliamentary elections.

As he took to his Ankara balcony to deliver the victory speech Sunday night, the PM was in high spirits. He began by waxing Ottoman, thanking his "brothers" in Palestine and Egypt, the Balkans and Syria, before thanking the voters themselves. "My brothers, I thank you very much because you have protected the new Turkey’s struggle for independence. I thank each of you because you have protected the ideal of a great Turkey and the targets of a great Turkey."

He went on to declare war against his many unseen enemies. "Those who managed could flee. More can flee tomorrow. I have filed criminal complaints about some of them; they can also flee. As I have said, from now on we’ll enter their lairs. They will pay for this. How can you threaten our national security?"

He added a bit more fire and brimstone, then appeared to contradict himself, hinting at forgiveness. "Come on, let’s turn over a new page. Oh, the opposition. Oh, the people who have given their hearts to the opposition. Turkey’s interests must be over everything else...Let’s raise Turkey together...We have come to serve the people, not to be a master over them. We are only the porters of a big stone on the path."

Winding down after about 20 minutes, the prime minister claimed his blushing bride. "This is the wedding day of the new Turkey," he said, before closing with a bit of romance. "We got wet together under the pouring rain. In all the songs I am listening to now, everything reminds me of you. Everything reminds me of Turkey."

Tayyip has wooed you, Turkey, and won your hearts yet again. He's all yours.


Turkey's Roller Coaster Voting Day May Mark Onset of Political Winter

Sunday morning -- the day of highly anticipated local elections in Turkey -- brought blue skies and sunshine in Istanbul. Voters turned out early, waiting cheerily in snaking lines outside polling places in Fatih and Pendik, Cihangir, Uskudar and Kadikoy. Then reality set in.

The trouble began with reports of violence in Turkey's southeast, as brawls and gunfights broke out between backers of rival candidates, resulting in at least eight deaths. Reports of vote manipulation soon streamed in from across the country -- polling place workers handing out the wrong envelopes or urging voters to back a specific party; vote-count observers blocked from entering polling places; ballot papers annulled; the niqab serving as an ID card in one conservative district. As of this morning, the count of citizen-submitted reports of fraud and irregularities at one reliable website stood at 289.

Shortly before polls closed, news websites affiliated with the Gulen movement became inaccessible, reportedly subject to cyber attacks (they have since been restored). Early vote counts diverged widely, with the backers of respective parties reporting the numbers in their favor. To top it off, the power went out in several cities across the country, hampering evening vote counts. Some saw a human hand, others pointed to poor weather conditions in eastern regions.

We saw the expected: politicians of all stripes turned out to vote, including Turkey PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in one of the 1970s-style sports jackets he favors; in a conservative district of Istanbul, bare-chested FEMEN protesters stood on top of tables at a polling place and denounced Turkey's government; and the the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won Istanbul in a tight race, taking the day's biggest prize.

And the unexpected: a story posted on the website of pro-government Daily Sabah, since altered, claimed Erdogan had won the mayoralty in his childhood home of Rize, along the Black Sea; the AKP lost the Hatay (Antakya) mayoralty to the CHP, in possible fallout from its Syria policy; and as of this morning, the vote in Ankara remained disputed and may end up in court.

There were also signs of progress. In the 90-plus years of the republic, no major Turkish city had been run by a woman. Now the country has not one, but three female metropolitan mayors, including the AKP's Fatma Sahin in Turkey's sixth-largest city, Gaziantep. Further, in the Meram district of Konya, Turkey gained its first-ever headscarfed mayor. Turnout reportedly hit a record, with 92 percent of the country's 52.7 million eligible voters taking to the polls. And the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) looked set to record its first-ever mayoral win, in the eastern province of Tunceli.

But this day was about one man. In the end, despite the corruption allegations, the mass protests and shameful leaks, the AKP took about 45 percent of the national vote, making the party a perfect six for six in elections since its 2001 founding and hinting at a one-party state. An empowered, energized Erdogan declared victory long before midnight, warning that his enemies would "pay the price."

With more meaningful elections still to come, it's a safe bet that the crackdowns on opponents of the regime -- journalists and Gulenists, secularists, protesters, progressives, and social media users -- will continue, perhaps even increase. Erdogan is likely to either run for president this August, or alter party rules and campaign for a fourth term as prime minister in parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2015.

The Turkish people have spoken, and if the current results hold, it would seem they’re OK with a corrupt near-police state overseen by a bombastic, dissent-crushing, conspiracy theory-prone strongman. Despite the arrival of spring, Turkey may be looking at a long, dark political winter.


Tearing Down Istanbul: excerpt from my feature for Next City

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.

“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.

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.”


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.

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.”

To read the rest of this article, go to Next City.


Gezi Just the Beginning

While researching my soon-to-be-published story on Istanbul and the global building boom, I came across three nuggets of research that intersect in fascinating ways, underscoring where we are today and pointing toward an angry urban future.

The first bit has been in the news of late, and perhaps on the minds of Turkey watchers. Looking at historical data, Jeremy Wallace, a political science professor at Ohio State University, found that urban population growth tends to undermine authoritarian regimes. The greater the level of urban concentration in a given country, the shorter the shelf life of the autocrats.

It’s a logical finding, highlighting how cities concentrate large masses of people, connect them via roads and transport, and help them progress up the socio-economic hierarchy, moving beyond survival to concerns about services and quality of life. Wallace also found that these autocratic governments seem to understand this, and thus lavish a great deal more attention on their big cities than their rural areas – which, ironically, tends to draw more people to those cities. He also unearthed particularly good news for Gezi protesters and other critics of Erdogan’s government: regimes in which a single city, usually the capital, dominates the urban landscape fall nearly four years sooner.

The second nugget comes from urban data researchers Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute, who found that the bigger the city, the more efficient it becomes. It's an idea that turns Malthus' theories about over-crowding and pestilence on their head, and its largely been borne out.

West and Bettencourt argue that a city is an organism, and, just as an elephant needs only 1,000 times the energy of a guinea pig despite being 10,000 times its size, a 5-million-person city needs less to accomplish factors more than its 200-hundred-thousand-person brethren. As a city grows, in essence, its inhabitants become better at solving its problems.

Finally, we have Brad Werner, a complex systems analyst at the University of California-San Diego. Of late he has begun to argue that, due to the apparent futility of global environmental management, mass resistance could well be humanity’s best means of slowing the unchecked growth threatening to destabilize life on earth. Many scientists are of the opinion that ditching our current economic system – focused on global capitalism and urban development – may soon become necessary to our survival. But only Werner has gone the next step and argued that protest may be our only chance of saving the planet from ourselves.

Considered together, the three discoveries -- from a political scientist-slash-historian, a pair of data researchers and a systems analyst -- outline a 21st century truth. As cities have gotten bigger, their inhabitants have hit upon protest as the best, most efficient method of dealing with heavy-handed governments failing to see which way the wind blows.

What does it all mean for Istanbul, Beijing, Moscow and other big cities? Hard to say for sure; could be dark days ahead.


How Istanbul Found Its Melancholia: A Short Urban History

Unfortunately, our generation did not carry the valuable heritage that it inherited into the future. It may seem slightly extreme, but it was almost a betrayal. -- Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Aesthetic Cities conference, Istanbul, April 2013.

The story of Istanbul begins with the first storytellers. Greek settlers first dropped anchor at Chalcedon, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, in 685 BC – though it may not have been the most promising locale. According to Greek lore, Byzas, a Megaran and the son of King Lisos, some years later asked the Oracle at Delphi where he should settle down and build his great city. He was given vague plans to look “opposite the land of the blind.”

Byzas sailed up the Aegean to where the Marmara Sea meets the Bosporus, spied Chalcedon and decided its settlers must have been blind to settle in a location so inferior to the one across the strait. There, on an acropolis surrounded by water on three sides – the Bosporus Strait to the east, the Golden Horn to the north and the Marmara Sea to the south – he founded Byzantium, in 657 BC.

Byzas secured his prize by building great stone walls around the promontory. The city flourished, taking advantage of the best natural harbor between the Atlantic and the Pacific and great incomes from trade, fishing and tariffs from boat traffic. All that lucre inspired Dionysian revelry among the people – “Byzantium makes all of her merchants drunkards,” the Athenian playwright Menander wrote – and a fetish for physical expressions of greatness.

In 196 AD, Roman emperor Septimius Severus expanded the city walls, erected a Hippodrome and laid a colonnaded Royal Path. Constantine the Great arrived in 324 and expanded the walls again. He also renamed the city in his name and built a forum, temples and palaces. A few decades later Theodosius built what came to be known as the Theodosian Walls, chunks of which remain standing today and are protected as UNESCO heritage sites.

The city stretched for miles, yet Istanbul had barely been born. Soon after Justinian dedicated the Hagia Sophia in 537, the great church was hailed as the architectural splendor of the world, inspiring jealousy in rival leaders. A thousand years later, when Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, he is said to have ridden directly to the Hagia Sophia and converted it into a mosque on the spot.

Mehmet II, known to Turks as Fatih (meaning “conqueror”), undertook the first of Istanbul’s many projects of urban regeneration, sprucing up the streets of the sagging capital and building the Fatih mosque complex, the origins of the Grand Bazaar, and Topkapi Palace, among other works.

The Ottoman era peaked in the mid-16th century during the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning sultan. He teamed with the famed Mimar Sinan (architect Sinan) to build Suleimaniye, still the city’s largest mosque and generally regarded as its most beautiful.

Sultan Ahmet I needed a dozen years to build the six-minaret Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, and died a year after its dedication in 1616. Centuries of decline soon followed, during which the city’s center of gravity drifted across the Golden Horn, to Pera.

When Mustafa Kemal established the Republic of Turkey, in late 1923, he shifted the national capital, and the focus, to Ankara. Years later, just as he had embraced secularism and modernity for his country, he looked to the West to revive Istanbul and set it on a course for future greatness. In 1935, the French urban planner Henri Prost won a competition to devise a master plan for the city.

Prost, who had gained renown with his work in Fez, Marrakesh and Casablanca, re-envisioned Taksim as a central square with a broad green space. He demolished the Halil Pasha Barracks, which had been built in 1806 and turned into Taksim Stadium a century later, and remade the square. The Taksim we know today, complete with a monument to Ataturk and 30-acre Gezi Park, was completed in 1943.

By this time, a proud melancholy known as huzun had fallen over the city. “In Istanbul the remains of a glorious past and civilization are everywhere visible,” Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk writes in his memoir, Istanbul. “No matter how ill-kept they are, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city…inflict heartache on all who live amongst them.”


Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Master Urban Planner

Turkey’s long-serving prime minister has described his third term as that of an “usta,” or master, borrowing the term from the celebrated Ottoman architect Sinan in reference to the pinnacle of his career after apprenticeship and graduation.

But master of what, exactly? Erdogan never said. Politics? Governance? Conspiracy theorizing? It’s impossible to know for sure. Maybe he was referring to urban planning.

Istanbul is undergoing a slew of major projects that will change its very face in the years to come. Yet it is doing so without a master plan. Or rather, it has a master plan, but officials have decided to ignore it.

Going by his recent comments, Erdogan, native son and former mayor of Istanbul, believes he has a masterful understanding of urbanism and city design and is more than capable of remaking this city on his own.

“If we change our habits, the country, Istanbul, the environment and families will be able to mutually benefit,” Erdoğan said last week, pointing out that 350,000 new cars take to Istanbul’s already congested roads every year. “I hope that you will reconsider your relationship with your vehicles. A modern city is not one where the transport is mainly carried out by private vehicles, but one where it is operated by public vehicles.”

The government is implementing a series of billion-dollar projects that will very likely add to Istanbul’s pollution and sprawl and severely reduce its green spaces. The third Bosporus bridge, the new airport, a canal linking the Marmara and the Black Sea, and satellite cities on the Asian and European sides, for instance, all of which helped inspire the Gezi protests earlier this year.

The usta’s solution to over-population and urban sprawl is to build horizontally. “We have to attach importance to aesthetics,” he said in April. “You will tell me that 40 or 50 storey buildings can de aesthetic, too. They can, I won’t deny it. But humans should live near the soil.”

This must mean that Istanbul Sapphire, opened in 2011 and at 54 stories and 238 meters the city’s tallest building, doesn’t count. Nor does the vast sea of 12-story towers the government is building as part of the Kayabasi housing project.

“In many places, we consider the construction of tall buildings to be a talent, but I don't see it this way,” Erdogan said in a speech at the Justice and Development Party’s symposium on Livable and Aesthetic Cities, back in March. “People are becoming distanced from the land. Horizontal architecture should prevail."

He spoke of “stone and concrete” cities without “soul and direction.” “Now children cannot live their childhoods properly,” Erdogan warned. “We're building childhoods on concrete grounds. Let’s build them on grass.”

The prime minister then asked a pointed question. “Can a generation that has a relationship with nature only through books and cartoons and documentaries have a healthy spiritual view of the world and the future?” Erdoğan wondered. “People don't shape cities. On the contrary, cities shape people.”

There are the words of Tayyip Erdogan, urban planner, and they generally ring true. This Istanbullu just wishes the prime minister were able to put his money where is mouth is.

“Misguided urbanization has been a part of daily life since early years of the new republic,” writes Today’s Zaman columnist Bulent Kenes. Actually, it goes back much further, to the days of Constantine and Theodosius. Istanbul seems to inspire visions of planning grandeur in its leaders. Great for them; not so much for residents, or the city itself.