19th INURA conference, 2009 Istanbul

March 24, 2009

public panel

26th June – 3rd July, 2009

Urban Transformation. Capital / State / Civil society

Human societies are unequal since long ago -we almost forgot how long- so we built cities to contain inequality, or, cities that helped to reproduce inequality. However, ‘the city as a container and reproducer for inequalities’ is on the way to disappear, as the regime of capital accumulation is changing, a process that started in the core economies already in the 1970s. So today, we no longer produce the inequality and make it dwell in our cities, moreover we produce our inequalities by producing our cities. Or, better: Today, our regime of capital accumulation is rather based on the production of the built environment in order to produce sustainable inequality. Obviously, ‘the city as the producer of inequalities’ is on the agenda of history. In Istanbul, that agenda became visible after 2003, when the last ‘national’ crisis of the financial sector was overcome, and the development, construction and real estate businesses emerged as the engine of economic growth of the metropolis.

The change from one regime of capital accumulation to another one usually comes with a lot of suffering and struggle: Social groups with a particular role within the old regime, lose their economic and/or social status as well as their political impacts, while they are being replaced by those who represent the new. (Initially, without putting any value judgement on that ‘new’.) In this particular historical setup, the ‘city fathers’ of the conventional kind disappear, as big capital emerges as a major actor and investor into the urban sphere – a realm into which it had never before in history been penetrating as deeply as now. Moreover, the new capital agglomerations tend to appear impersonal, in abstract or even hypothetical forms as various kinds of transnational funds, sometimes made visible through corporate agents, quite often even not that. In the core economies where ‘advanced’, complicated financial structures were designed under circumstances lacking transparency, the fund transfer through built environment has reached its absolute material limits: transfer from sectors of society that have no further resources left to supply the capital accumulation process. The recent crisis of housing finance has become identical with a structural crisis of the capitalist mode of accumulation.

In Istanbul, the intervention of big business into the production of the urban has undergone its preparatory stages since mid 80s and has just recently taken off: recently, however, overwhelmingly.  Here, in a city with a remarkable informal sector in housing development, the process of capital transfer within the new accumulation regime would follow its own path.

For particular historical reasons Istanbul had undergone a process of de-elitization in early-, till mid-20th century, hence a classical institution of city-fatherhood could not develop, as the potential for that was destroyed just when it was about to emerge. The agenda to territorialize the nation state just hit that vacuum and helped legitimize a very fragmented model of real estate ownership. ‘Zillions’ of micro property units, broadly an outcome of migration, visibly still dominate the urban landscape. They function as niches absorbing small capital accumulated by building up the urban. Strong social relics of an initial ‘housing not-yet-as-commodity’ phase 1945-85 still  have an impact; what emerges is a picture that does not allow widespread fundisation as a major technique for surplus transfer. Involved capital is mostly shown in connection with or identifiable with ‘a face’. This is often used to explain the ‘relative immunity’ towards the recent crisis – still at the moment of drafting of this text.

Where advanced financial architectures are not applicable given the extent, depth and complexity of urban production patterns which derive from the informal, other instruments, mainly of a political kind, replace them. These rather crude political techniques are based on allegations that the informally-produced property failed to supply both safety regarding disaster risks and quality of living environment. Its de-legitimization that might end up with full or partial dispropriation is based on that assumed irresponsibility. Missed responsibilities of the public are not at all addressed, while the local official language of the planning discipline and politics subsume the current change to Istanbul under the somewhat devious terminology ‘The Urban Transformation’, which is designed as a public-private-partnership process.

The Istanbul way of making a metropolis has recently gained recognition within international urbanistic scholarship, almost when its distinctive character began to fade out. A forgotten metropolis still 10 years ago, – forgotten, possibly because it was first abandoned by its own scholars of built environment- Istanbul today has become a target of extensive urban research. The seemingly unintelligible, overlapping temporalities, the synchronic changes of different kinds within an extremely dense and heterogeneously urbanised topos, make the 13 million metropolis between the Marmara and Black Sea one of the most breathtaking laboratories of urban developments today. The likeliness that the recent crisis will delay activities of the planned Transformation or the chance that Istanbul’s urbanisation might take a new course, the potentials to intervene into the process will obviously keep it at the focus of interest for some period. ‘Archaeological’ expeditions into Istanbul’s most recent urban past, when housing broadly was not-yet-a-commodity are likely to produce valuable hints in the field of implementation.

Analogously, the painful social process that accompanies The Urban Transformation as planned and implemented, is attracting a growing attention and solidarity of international circles of urban activism. The makers of The Urban Transformation demonstrate a strong will to convert that historically ‘substitute-for-property’ into what they think it ought be: into property of second class. Its owners, the ‘substitute’ or ‘transitory’ city fathers, are threatened by partial or even full dispossession and displacement; their tenants not accounted for at all. ‘Urban struggles’ is likely to become a pioneering field for Istanbulite social movements to overcome their traditionally isolated situation on international level.

The realms of both political and civil society are becoming space for struggle between the old and new accumulation regime, or small and corporate capital. Istanbul, through business as usual, is obviously on a secure track to create its new, more sustainable models and spheres of inequalities. Where is the space for intervention? How can Inura help to link with past and present lessons learned from other metropolises? How can the particular Istanbulite story help to understand processes going on elsewhere? … are among the other questions, which the 19th Inura Conference to be held between 26th June/3rd July in Istanbul will focus on.