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Istanbul: A Megacity in the Light of Turkey’s Political Transformation

Jean-François Pérouse, Istanbul Planète, La Ville-Monde Du Xxie Siècle. Paris: La Découverte, 2017.

This book is the result of more than twenty years of social, economic, and urban observations and investigations by a geographer[i] in Istanbul, a city Jean Baudrillard described as the “capital of the twenty-first century” (p.14). The author aims to disenchant this megacity, to understand it in all its complexity, and to go beyond its romantic and touristic perceptions by providing a reading of the city from below. The objective of the author is clear: to go off the beaten tracks and look to the everyday life of ordinary urban citizens. He also aims to explain the changing socio-economic and cultural morphology of Istanbul vis-à-vis the profound urban transformation that started in the 1980s and accelerated with the Party of Justice and Development’s rule (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi— AKP) during the 2000s.

For the last two decades, urbanization in Turkey has been driven by a neoliberal logic in which the "rationalization" of the use of space aimed above all to maximize land profit. The neoliberalization is obviously not peculiar to the arrival of the AKP as it has been unfolding since the 1990s. Yet it has intensified under the authoritarian regime put in place by this party under the rule of Erdogan. The effects are particularly visible in working-class, informal neighborhoods, as well as in certain public spaces like Taksim and Beyoglu. Jean-François Pérouse’s book is most welcome as it is the first manuscript in a foreign language[ii] that provides a comprehensive reading of Istanbul from the grassroots to the AKP’s urban policy for metropolitan cities. It tries to cover all urban problems with their human consequences, a goal that it achieves with considerable success.

Deconstructing Istanbul’s image as an urban system

The book is composed of three parts. The introduction entitled "Istanbul, the feast and defeat of urban immensity" opens with a reflexive section, in which the author reflects on his years of experience in Istanbul, first as a student, then as a professor in Galatasaray University and researcher in IFEA, sometimes as a tourist but always as a stranger in various areas and contexts—from the Gazi neighborhood in the 1990s to Taksim during the days of the Gezi resistance in 2013, and beyond. The rest of the introduction lays out the main research positions: the “deorientalization” of Istanbul, and observation of/from the margins rather than from the center. Pérouse’s approach focuses on urban interstices. His research methods are based on daily observations from below, and make use of long-term accumulated documentation, especially journalistic resources and adaptation as a research to an authoritarian context.

The first chapter entitled “Istanbul, the Mutant City” presents the main contemporary transformations of the city, based on an analysis of the mechanisms intervening in these transformations. The chapter also shows the environmental, physical (on the built heritage), and social consequences of these transformations. Pérouse begins with an analysis of the growth of Istanbul’s population, which grew in the last twenty-five years from seven to fifteen million inhabitants while urbanized areas have exploded. The classic analytical grid that would highlight rural migration and the incapacity of public actors to provide solutions as the main causes of this unsustainable urban sprawl are not relevant for Pérouse. In fact, according to the author, public authorities provoked this phenomenon, which accelerated under the rule of the AKP. AKP officials actually saw urban sprawl as a tool for economic prosperity and growth. It is, therefore, the result of a political choice. The claimed gigantism of the projects announced by real-estate stakeholders and the political leaders of the ruling party is a corollary feature of the sprawl. It is also reflected in their discourse. In recent years, the construction of any infrastructure, skyscraper, shopping center, or airport project is compared to similar examples in Europe to emphasize that what is being built is the largest in Europe or the world[iii]. This discourse of grandiosity, Pérouse argues, reflects a kind of revanchism with a double sense: first, the AKP leaders would like to showcase the real power of Turkey as the heir of Ottoman Empire and as an influential regional actor and second they would transform the city through social engineering. Pérouse is very close here of the notion of the revanchist city as elaborated by Neil Smith in his seminal work The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (1996). The revanchist city seeks to isolate and push out poor residents by criminalizing their everyday activities and the welfare regime itself, arguing that punitive measures are needed in order to bring “traditional values” back to the city, by which they mean a neoconservative ideal of cleanliness and order in both physical and social terms.

Megacity of Istanbul as a result of AKP’s growth machine

The AKP’s urban policy has one major objective: transforming urban space into a major source of profit in order to ensure the growth and extension of AKP’s political power. This objective rests on two main tools: urban sprawl and vertical development of the city. Among the new distinctive features of Istanbul’s landscapes, giant shopping malls occupy a central place. They symbolize the omnipresence of consumption and the commodification of all dimensions of urban life. Almost all shopping malls are coupled with luxury housing projects. They are not only temples of consumption but also indicators of distinction for the upper social classes. Beyond the emblematic example of shopping malls, commodification of space is also widespread in many sectors: health, sport, education, higher education, culture. Each of these sectors is used in order to contribute to the above-mentioned objective, and urban space is exploited (via the commodification of public lands by private firms, for example) in order to reinforce these sectors. The health sector, especially the parts targeting aesthetic operations, eye problems etc., is highly promoted in order to create a high-level health tourism which could also contribute, according to the AKP, to the flourishing of a post-industrial economy. New elitist amenities largely promoted by public policies allow a well-to-do segment of the population to stand out while the majority of the population has to settle for public services at a discount. This promotion of consumerist lifestyles causes a contraction of public space and reduces the possibility of enjoying free urban amenities.

In the second chapter, entitled “The Origins of An Urban Monster,” the author focuses on the drivers of the transformation of Istanbul through a detailed identification of the actors, and the representations that guide their action. Using urban transformation projects (UTP), with examples from different sectors, particularly tourism and sports, J-F. Pérouse attempts to provide the main characteristics of the AKP’s political ideology that have direct consequences on Istanbul. These are conservatism, liberalism, “democratism”, developmentalism, and religio-nationalism. These characteristics are reflected in urban space through various projects in the city. The action of the AKP starts from the assumption that its exceptional geographical and historical context destined Istanbul to become a major international player, and that this destiny could be realized through neoliberal public policies. These policies include firstly a marketing of the city, which has attracted more and more international tourists—notably from the Middle East—whose motivations are varied and often multiple (consumption, medical tourism, religion, congress etc.). The achievement of this international destiny also involves the construction of major infrastructures and the hosting of major events (shopping festivals, Formula 1 competitions, the construction of an Olympic village etc.). In addition, there is the will to restructure the public spaces and reshape the city’s landmarks in a conservative manner with the desire to revive the Ottoman past by rebuilding some buildings and places. This is the case with the project of Gezi Park, which was an Ottoman military barrack before the republican era (1930s-1940s) and with other new projects aiming to revive a glorious imaginary Ottoman past. This involves social engineering which divides progressively the urban space between women and men, between secular ways of life and conservative ones. With the multiplication of religious high schools everywhere in the city and the promotion of religious events and habits, the AKP definitely wants to impose a conservative image on Istanbul.

Human, Environmental, and Cultural Consequences of AKP’s Urban Policies

According to Pérouse, the UTPs are the main tools to achieve all these social and urban changes. The UTPs aim to bring economic growth via neoliberal policies and to promote a social order based on the family as a basic cell (conservatism and religio-nationalism). Initiated in 2004, they often draw on vulnerability to seismic risk to find legitimacy to call for the demolition and the replacement of half of the six hundred thousand buildings in the city. Their objectives have diversified and blurred over time: the UTPs have become the tool and the label of any public intervention to reconfigure (renew – redevelop) urban spaces. The author criticizes the spatial and architectural determinism of these projects: while these interventions concern essentially the built environment, they seek also to transform all socio-economic realities. On the one hand, the public authorities increasingly use them as a tool to grant land to private actors close to the AKP in order to ensure economic support for the party. On the other hand, the UTPs are also a tool for social engineering aimed at imposing the moral and political order promoted by the AKP. Those who fail to match this ideal have no place in the city and its political community. One can argue, then, that both redistribution and the rights-based conceptualization of citizenship are seen as liberal values that need to be abandoned. Publicness and citizenship are no longer to be considered rights or public goods. This means the notion that public space should be accessible for all social groups is denied; the publicness, the accessibility of public space, is not treated as a social value, but reduced to an issue of public order. The UTPs exclude not only people living in housing poverty, but anyone unable to comply with the “traditional values” defined by powerful political actors. Access to public spaces and thus to citizenship is defined as a privilege a resident gains through material wealth and political compliance, rather than a right.

The third chapter, “The Tribute of Greatness,” is devoted to both the negative effects and "excluded" inhabitants of economic development. The author defends the hypothesis that the storytelling of the UTPs and giant urban projects proceed from a "symbolic inclusion" approach that sought to mask the real economic exclusion of a great part of the population, especially those at the margins. The principle of this system is to make people believe that everybody can access to property and become rich in the sea of opportunities proposed by Istanbul. According to the author, this is one of the successes of the AKP’s miracle: it is always possible to be a winner[iv]. In fact, if there is a miracle, it is actually the capacity of ordinary inhabitants to produce everyday strategies and tactics in order to adapt to all economic conditions by enabling their informal networks, family solidarities, and kinship relations and managing all this alone by using some unexpected resources the city offers. The consequences of this endless urbanization and extension have serious impacts on environment. Environmental issues (the reduction of forest area especially in the northern sections of the city with the construction of third bridge on the Bosphorus, the scarcity of water resources, atmospheric, aquatic, and soil pollution) combine with the destruction of the built heritage. While accessible green spaces deteriorate and shrink, well-off classes appropriate and privatize spaces offering the best environmental amenities (notably the waterfronts).

In this part, Perouse emphasizes particularly the difficult conditions for women and the LGBT community. Honor crimes and all kind of violent acts (sexual harassment, rapes, mobbing etc.,) perpetrated against women are particularly concentrated in Istanbul[v]. Beyond the display of economic success and a "multiculturalism of façade," the author denounces the invisible daily life of the left-behind populations (gypsies, Kurds, and today Syrians, see pp. 178-193) composed of "sweat, exploitation and humiliation." While Perouse closely follows the political developments of the country, and draws up a rich cartography of the actors (entrepreneurs, political decision-makers, lobbyists) who produce the city “from above,” he does not forget to document also the production of the "ordinary" city "from below," and the organized networks and actions of the humblest inhabitants.

Recent developments in urban space under the AKP era as presented by Pérouse have been the object of much research. Most of this research including Pérouse’s book show clearly that the central element of these policies is indeed the spatialization of the neoliberal order: for the first time, the commodification of urban space has become one of the main sources of capital accumulation via the land rent and real estate speculation[vi]. The state has become the central actor of this commodification by privatizing old public buildings including industrial sites, forests, rivers, and informal settlement areas by putting in place a set of laws designed to facilitate their realization. What is interesting is that all the CEO of firms realizing these projects belong to circles close to the president of the republic. Even if the author does not use this reference, this organization can de facto be analyzed as an urban "growth machine" in the sense of Harvey Molotch (1976), whose objective would be to produce "the dynamics of investment processes and the provision of main public investments in the right place at the right time in order to promote inter-urban and interregional competitiveness”[vii]. This urban governance is based on the imbrication of friendship, family, economic, and financial but also political ties and is constantly concerned with finding new opportunities for investment. Inhabitants are rarely informed about projects that concern them. They are not invited to participate in project development, and do not have the opportunity to negotiate or even express their needs and demands in terms of housing and amenities.

The main contribution of the book is the socio-economic analytic grid mobilized to understand the mutations of Istanbul under the auspices of the AKP. Indeed, most media discourses tend to focus on identity-related realities (ethnic, confessional, or political) and often offer a simplistic and essentializing view of these categories or groups (Islamists, Muslims, Kurds, the seculars etc.). Without eluding them, the book links these realities to their social and economic dimensions and takes advantage of this to dismantle certain clichés about the images of Istanbul. Urban sprawl, clientelism, and the economic development choices of power are no less structuring for the Istanbulites than the normative injunctions (on alcohol, abortion, the place of women) of conservative morality and the authoritarian turn of the AKP.

The unique regret about the book could be the very limited place given to socio-cultural and political mobilizations related to various urban issues in the last years in Istanbul. Always related to the capacity of inhabitants to adapt, resist, and contest political domination, these mobilizations have taken place against the environmental damage of the third bridge and the third airport projects, forced displacements, dismantlement of neighborhoods, demolition and transformation of historical buildings like Haydarpaşa and Atatürk Cultural Centre. Since 2004, in many neighborhoods (formal and informal) mobilizations and resistances have been organized in order to oppose the urban transformation/renewal projects and to defend housing rights but also neighborhoods with their social and cultural life. In many areas, citizen initiatives have developed, like in Sariyer Kazim Karabekir or Tozkoparan, where inhabitants have taken the initiative to create alternative projects for housing adapted to their everyday needs. These movements show also that the authoritarianism of the AKP has its limits and is not able to entirely control citizens’ initiatives and to embed a whole political oppression in Turkish society.

Last but not least, the book is particularly marked by Pérouse’s research methods mentioned at the beginning of this review, consisting in leaving a very limited place to the theoretical discussions especially on the neoliberalization of cities in urban studies. Emphasizing a so-called “specificity” of Istanbul, Pérouse makes the choice to focus on the city itself, its habitants, and its transformations rather than a theoretical analysis of it.


Ayfer Bartu Candan and Cenk Özbay, Yeni Istanbul Calışmaları. Sınırlar, Mücadeleler, Açılımlar (Istanbul: Metis, 2014).

Bülent Batuman, “Minarets without Mosques: Limits to the Urban Politics of Neo-liberal Islamism”, Urban Studies 50, no. 6 (2013), 1097-1113.

David Harvey, Géographie de la domination (Paris : Les prairies ordinaires, 2008).

Kemal Inal, Nuray Sancar and Ulaş Başar Gezgin, Marka, Takva, Tuğra, AKP Döneminde kültür ve politika (Istanbul: Evrensel, 2015).

Harvey Molotch, “The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place”, American Journal of Sociology 82, no. 2 (1976), 309-332.

Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, (London: Routledge, 1996).


[i] Jean-François Pérouse arrived in Turkey in 1999 as an assistant professor at the University of Marmara, while also acting as the manager of the research pole “Urban observatory of Istanbul” at the French Institute of Research on Anatolia (IFEA) until 2006. After this, he also became invited professor at the University Galatasaray. In 2012, he took on the management of IFEA and remains the director of this institute to this day. He has major collaborations with Turkish academia and has published several books and papers in Turkish.

[ii] J-F. Pérouse published a book in Turkish in 2011 about urbanization in Istanbul and the life in different districts especially marginal ones. The book in French also makes a synthesis in some parts of this book: İstanbul’la Yüzleşme Denemeleri (The Confrontation experiments with Istanbul. Peripheries, Mobility and Urban Memory). Some other books in Turkish tried to provide a global lecture of Istanbul as a scientific object.

[iii] Jean-François Pérouse, Istanbul Planète, La Ville-Monde Du Xxie Siècle (Paris, La Découverte, 2017), 23.

[iv] Pérouse, Istanbul Planète, 192.

[v] Ibid., 173.

[vi] Ayfer Bartu Candan and Cenk Özbay, Yeni Istanbul Calışmaları. Sınırlar, Mücadeleler, Açılımlar (Istanbul: Metis, 2014); Kemal Inal, Nuray Sancar and Ulaş Başar Gezgin, Marka, Takva, Tuğra, AKP Döneminde kültür ve politika (Istanbul: Evrensel, 2015) ; Bülent Batuman, “Minarets without Mosques: Limits to the Urban Politics of Neo-liberal Islamism”, Urban Studies, vol.50, no.6 (2013), 1097-1113.

[vii] David Harvey, Géographie de la domination (Paris : Les prairies ordinaires, 2008), 42.  


About DARS Page

The DARS Page chronicles daily acts of resistance and subversion (DARS) in contemporary Arab societies and beyond. All forms of resistance and subversion to political, economic, social, or cultural forms of exploitation are of interest. This includes resistance to authoritarianism, occupation, imperialism, and social norms, and the many ways these are subverted.

While acts of resistance and subversion are ubiquitous, the focus is conventionally placed on the grand and visible, even as these constitute a small portion of the daily actions of millions of people who find themselves resisting and subverting on a daily basis. We cover and analyse both visible as well as invisible daily acts of resistance and subversion. DARS also features news and analyses on civil society in the region. 

DARS aims to provide both empirical and theoretical means to capture a multitude of phenomen: personal or collective, visible or underground, nonviolent or violent. We are not locked into a political party nor into a single theoretical framework. We advocate a decidedly critical and contextualized approach. If you have any questions or comments, or would like to us to consider featuring something on the DARS Page, please email us at dars@jadaliyya.com