Last week, Istanbulites who use the highway from Kadıköy that leads to the bridge saw municipality workers taking down vertical gardens. This came as a shock as the former AKP municipal administration had built them alongside the city’s highways to conceal the walls, claiming the gardens were “sound and emission barriers.”
However, their function was minimal and the cost considerable. In the past decade, around 180 million Turkish lira were spent on the vertical gardens, and their yearly maintenance cost was 2 million TL.
The pro-government media backfired against the mayor of Istanbul, claiming that those vertical gardens were “symbols of Istanbul” and that Ekrem Imamoğlu was taking down “beautiful plants” - only to replace mehvethem with graffiti!
Prof. Dr. Yasin Çağatay Seçkin, the director of the Istanbul Municipality Parks and Green Spaces explained that their aim was to turn Istanbul’s walls into a canvas and support artists. The first “Talking Wall” will be applied on a 2,000 square meter surface on the O-1 highway. As the art works will be sponsored, the budget required to maintaining the vertical gardens will be dedicated to green spaces.
This move may seem unimportant to foreign observers but it entails a lot: Since 1994, Istanbul was ruled by Erdoğan and his predessors. Projects, investments regarding the city were singlehandedly decided by the AKP. The budget of Istanbul was not transparent and corruption ran rife.
Tearing down vertical gardens is also a symbolic way of saying those days are over. But this is a small step indicating how Istanbul is slowly changing under the CHP mayorship.
A few days ago, the municipality of Istanbul announced that Istanbulites would choose between architectural projects for three major squares. Three projects for each square are ready for Taksim, Bakırköy and Salacak-Üsküdar.
Now this is quite significant, since for years no one asked citizens about their opinion on public areas. Big projects were always presented, executed, opened by President Erdoğan and his party, usually before the elections. Erdoğan announced the hotel-shopping mall complex project in Gezi Park in 2012 in that way.
Only that time, it sparked the greatest public uprising in the history of the Turkish Republic. When the first trees were to be teared down, a small group of Istanbulites protested peacefully since they had no legal grounds for the project and public opinion wasn’t consulted.
Thousands of people to the park and occupied it. Violent police interventions led to serious injuries and several deaths which spiraled up to a nationwide uprising in most cities across the country. In the end, Gezi Park was saved, but Taksim Square and Turkey as a whole underwent a great change- physically, socially and politically.
Be it May 1 gatherings or Pride Week - Taksim has always been the place, the symbol for democratic protesting throughout the history of the Turkish republic.
Yet in the past seven years, a strict ban on any public gathering in the Square has been imposed. Meanwhile, Taksim Square became a vast space of concrete, a huge mosque has been built and the rebuilding of Ataturk Culture Center (AKM) has almost reached completion under AKP rule.
After Ekrem Imamoğlu was elected, the Istanbul Municipality organized a colloquium for Taksim as well as Bakırköy square and the Salacak shoreline. A jury of national and international academicians and architects chose nine out of hundreds of projects. Starting this week, only Istanbulites will be able to vote among the projects with the slogan “Istanbul is yours, the choice is yours”(istanbulsenin.org)
In general, the projects aim to integrate ecological, aesthetic, cultural, architectural and public aspects. To be able to decide on public spaces is a crucial, democratic step for Istanbul.
But there are oppositional voices, such as the architect Mücella Yapıcı, who was among the first to protest back in 2013. She told the independent outlet Bianet that Taksim projects resembled each other:
“I think the municipality of Istanbul has taken a very important step. However, one has to be careful because Taksim is not an space, it is not the continuation of a green space. It is a space of collective memory in our history. I believe the political and social memory of Taksim Square are forsaken in those projects.”
Whilst Istanbulites have - for the first time - a say in their public spaces, Yapıcı has a very important point: Taksim Square is a political space and to treat it as anything else does not feel right.