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.”
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