Blog Post: Istanbul Seminar

It is has taken long enough for me to put together this blog post but here it goes:

Attending the CIEE IFDS in Istanbul was a welcomed opportunity to put myself in area completely outside my conform zone. The seminar did not focus on education or instructional design. It actually focused on urban spaces and the effect that “beautification” projects have on the lives of those that are relocated. We also had the opportunity to learn about culture and society in Istanbul (and Turkey in general). I loved that I was able to get outside my bubble; my area of research.

Here are some thought on what I learned during the seminar. For several years now, the government has tried to relocate individuals from the gecekondus (informal settlement) around the city to government built housing. The reason behind this relocations is primarily to use the land were the gecekondus are located for urban renovation projects (new high rise buildings, condominiums, Olympics parks, etc.) Unfortunately, this gecekondus are not only a living space for the individuals that live in it, it is their entire support system. In their gecekondus, they get to interact with other people with a similar background and they have networks and relationships that they have formed over time. Taking them out of their gecekondus and sending them to government built housing most likely makes them feel like a fish out of water.  There are also other socioeconomic consequences that come with the displacement of the families from the gecekondus. One of the main socioeconomic consequences is that government built housing is not affordable for a low income family that has lived in an informal settlement and was not paying for rent (and other utilities). The result is that families abandon the government built housing and start living in the streets. Sometimes, they also try to rebuild in other informal settlements. Another consequence of the displacement is that children quit school to start working at a very early age to help pay for the cost of the government built housing. Of course, this leads to very high illiteracy rate as well as others issues related to the type of work they choose to do to make money to help support their family members.

Another side of the issues of urban renovations projects in Istanbul has to do with the conservation of traditional architecture and buildings in the city. Of course, the city of Istanbul has a a very historical architecture due to its history. With the urban renovation projects, activists are concerned that new and modern construction will take over the historical aspect of the city — which is an important aspect of the Turkish (Istanbuler) cultural identity. During the seminar, the group had the opportunity to do several walking tours (Yes! In the winter weather) and to drive around the city. It is clear that Istanbul is experiencing a construction boom. High rise buildings, malls, condominiums, and gated communities (I was not expecting to hear this) are been built all over the place. In any case, it seems that new and modern is taking over the more historical architecture (I read this week about something similar happening in Toronto, Canada).

During the seminar we had the opportunity to meet with the Vice Major of Begoglu (one of the most central districts of Istanbul — a city of 20 million). From his perspective, the government is taking citizens into consideration as they move forward with the urban renovations projects. However, the following day we met with a community center worker in a migration center in the middle of one of the main gecekondus in Istanbul and her perspective of the situation was different. She shared her experience with the situation and expressed her frustrations. From listening to other Turkish Istanbulers the issue will continue unless a more reasonable solution is put in place for the families that live in this informal settlements.This urban transformation projects are affecting groups of individuals that are now part of this growing city and are affecting the overall cultural identity of Istanbul.

I wanted to make sure that I wrote this post because I felt that it is an important topic to address not only in Istanbul but in so many other cities that I see this happening. As I mentioned in this post, I recently read about this happening in Toronto but I also know that it is happening in my very own Panama. The city of Panama (not to be confused with Panama City, Florida) is also experiencing a construction boom and individuals in informal settlement (who have lived in this place for several generations) are been displaced to make room for condominiums and office buildings. Is this the right solution? No. I am not opposed to urban transformation and renovation but I also do not support that the government and private entities simply destroy a place that someone has called home for many years just because they want to “beautify” a space.

I am not sure if I will get an opportunity to sit and write about my experience in Istanbul again so I want to mention that it was nice to visit the very historical parts of the city [the Blue Mosque, the Haguia Sofia, the Grand Bazar, the Spice Market, and the Galata Tower]. I should also mention that this was my first visit to a predominantly Muslim country and it was very interesting to experience it from the Turkish perceptive. Of course, this experience was even more special because I was able to share with other colleagues that were also forming their opinions and perspectives about the city, culture, and politics. I am tremendously grateful to Ege and Pinar, our Turkish seminar coordinators for their insight and hard work organizing the lectures and tours.

I don’t want to make this post longer so I am just going to finish by saying that my adventures in Turkey are not over — in a way they this seminar was just the beginning. See you soon Istanbul!

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