The impending destruction of the last public park in Istanbul was the straw that broke the camel’s back last Tuesday. When a peaceful demonstration to save Taksim Gezi Park was met with violent police retaliation, the situation quickly escalated into a nationwide protest against the increasingly authoritarian Turkish government. At this moment all across the country, thousands are standing up not only for Gezi Park but for the right to shape the place that they call home.
More information on the situation in Turkey after the break.
Adjacent to one of Istanbul’s most important plazas, Taksim Square, Gezi Park’s significance to the city and to its residents has been compared to that of Central Park’s to New Yorkers and Hyde Park’s to Londoners. For a city with already very little public space, it’s no wonder that the Turkish government’s plans to convert the park into a shopping mall were met with rage. What started out as a small attempt by activist group Taksim Dayanışması to save the park’s trees erupted into a city-wide and then nation-wide protest after Turkish police used tear gas and a water cannon to deter protesters. Gezi Park and Taksim Square, along with other parts of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and elsewhere have been transformed into a battleground between citizens and police, with more than 1,700 arrests and hundreds wounded.
It’s important to note that the transformation of Gezi Park is not the only public project the Turkish government has developed without taking residents’ needs or wants into account. A new bridge across the Bosphorus, gentrification processes that displaced countless Istanbul residents, and the construction of other shopping centers have put the city – and all of Turkey, it seems – on edge.
Residents claim that in addition to the government jeopardizing their right to utilizing and enjoying public space, it is also encroaching on their freedom of expression and the ability to assemble lawfully in any part of the city. In a televised interview which aired Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed those taking part in the protests as “a few looters” and called social media sites such as Twitter “an extreme version of lying,” making it clear to the world that the voices of hundreds of Turkish citizens would continue to be ignored by their government.
History has shown us that public space is inherently linked to the freedom of expressing oneself, and this is certainly not the first time in recent memory that a nation has used space as a weapon against (and battleground with) authority. It is also a near instinctive reaction: when we as humans really want our opinions to be heard by others, we turn to open, shared spaces such as streets, plazas or parks. When those in power are not interested in what we have to say, public space is no longer a priority to them (as one can see in Gezi Park’s case), and these spaces become a battleground for supporters of the state and those who feel that their rights are being violated.
Zucotti Park in New York, site of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, is a great example of a public space that was utilized by citizens to capture the attention of those in power and to express their concerns about America’s future in a passionate way. The occupation of Tahrir Square in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 was also an incredibly integral part of taking back the country from former president Mubarak and showing the world what a determined group of people could accomplish. Anywhere around the world, public space can begin to embody the beliefs of those who occupy it.
As our review of the “Freedom of Assembly: Public Space Today” by AIA Panel in 2012 shows, however, ownership of and treatment of public space can be just as complicated and politically-charged as the messages of those inhabiting them. According to Jane Jacobs, the success of a city is the health of its public spaces, but what defines a healthy public space and who should get to decide the fate of spaces such as Istanbul’s Gezi Park? Does Turkey’s government have the right to execute what it believes to be the best choice for the city’s future, or is it the right of the people to take control of their city and to actively participate in the development of an urban landscape that suits their needs?
What do you think about the character of public space and the role it plays in the protests raging through Turkey?
If you would like to express your support and stand in solidarity with the citizens of Turkey, please sign this petition here and help spread the word.