There is no Alternative? A discussion of an alternative on Tarlabasi Renewal Project

This blog post is inspired by the fieldwork I conducted during my PhD research. The research focuses on renovation and regeneration projects, and also on the gentrification concept, in two historic neighbourhoods of Istanbul. The overall goal of the research was to explore how poor inhabitants in these areas might be enabled to stay in their homes rather than being displaced. I sought to understand the processes that are leading to gentrification in Istanbul, to explain what is happening, how and why. I spent almost 6 months interviewing residents from two historic neighbourhoods in Istanbul (Galata and Tarlabasi), NGOs working in the area, academics interested in the neighbourhoods, people from the Municipality and the construction firm that won the tender for the Tarlabasi Renewal Project. In this research I found that state involvement expanded in order to secure Istanbul’s place in the hierarchy of world cities and I provide an explanation linking different spatial scales and levels of abstraction from city to neighbourhood. In sum I present a powerful critique of world city gentrification processes in a developing country. In addition to this critique I also sought ways to prepare an alternative policy option or a framework for Tarlabasi neighbourhood.

During the interviews I conducted, academics and people in NGOs stated their suggestion about alternative solutions for Tarlabasi. These suggestions can be summed up as:

  • Policies about displacement process should be drawn up, rather than solely eviction;
  • Social housing should be built for people living in the project area;
  • There should not be a specific project, but rather there should be physical rehabilitation of the neighbourhood and social policies to tackle the poverty in the area;
  • A project should be created with the inhabitants for the renovation of the area, rather it being run by a private construction firm. During any possible renovation process the Municipality should provide rent support for tenants.
  • Houses should be properly renovated with respect to their original form rather than demolishing the whole area and building it again:
  • Social policies (such as policies for poverty, rent assistance, educational support, tackling the crime rate, providing better infrastructure) should be drawn up to improve residents’ situation in the neighbourhood.

In this post, I present two main aims for at least one possible alternative; historical preservation and giving housing rights to the working class inhabitants of the neighbourhood. First, developing a historical preservation programme in accordance with the planning decisions and urban conservation laws with regard to population densities is a main target. The second is to keep the poor inhabitants in their homes and meet their housing needs. The main housing suggestion for the neighbourhood is to create social rented housing because owner-occupied housing schemes with low rate mortgages and monthly instalments are not feasible for the poor population of Tarlabasi.

To achieve this alternative policy, I suggest the immediate cancellation of the Project, reconstructing the demolished buildings with respect to their original form and providing social housing to all the displaced people that would allow them to live somewhere in or close to the central city, rather than pushing them to the periphery. But this strategy needs to consider tenure in Tarlabasi. The Project solely encourages owner-occupation rather than creating possibilities for rental property. Due to the high tenancy rate in the area, it is important to begin by building social rented housing, but this could be complemented by a model focusing on owning a house depending on the owner-occupier rate in the neighbourhood. Depending on the demand from the inhabitants for the owner-occupation model, the sale of the properties should respect the income levels of the inhabitants, that is, creating the possibility of buying the property through flexible and affordable instalments. If owner-occupiers choose to sell their property, they should be required to give the state first option of buying the dwelling in order to retain it in the social housing stock. In the case of a sale, the state should be able to buy the property from an owner-occupier for its market price before rehabilitation because in this alternative, the state is the main investor in the rehabilitation project. In the social housing model, the rent should be regulated according to the income level of the residents, with rent subsidies granted where needed.

 I suggest that the development of cultural and tourist amenities should be encouraged. For tourist-oriented developments, residents of Tarlabasi should be given priority in employment since these places would be state-owned the profit would go directly to state.

The Tarlabasi renewal land area is 20,000 m2, and the current project cost is 500 million TL (around £125 million) with luxurious office areas and shopping malls and residential areas amounting to the whole of the proposed built environment (Gap Insaat, 2012). Increasing the number of flats designated for residential use with well-restored buildings, instead of demolishing and re-building, would cost less than this amount. Finally, the Mass Housing Development Agency (MHDA) has housing ownership schemes on the periphery of Istanbul, where an eligible person (eligibility requirements are set by the MHDA) can buy a house for monthly instalments of 700 – 800 TL (£90- £100). In Tarlabasi, few people could commit to such long term instalments, as currently, rent prices in the neighbourhood are around 500 – 800 TL (£60 – £90). If social housing was constructed in Tarlabasi to rent to the inhabitants, it would be feasible for the MHDA to charge them around the same rents instead of the housing re-payment instalments.

This kind of project takes many years and requires a strong political will, but many municipalities that are re-elected every five years choose to do short-term projects that are not for the benefit of whole urban population, but to attract investments to their locality and thus increase their electoral standings. For that reason, neighbourhoods like Tarlabasi with the most disadvantaged segments of the population are frequently ignored since improving the social environment in these places is not a good advertisement for the municipalities at election time. Because the results are not immediately visible and it takes more than five years to see the positive effects of such social programmes. Because of this, these rehabilitation projects should have the support and help of the national state. Local municipalities do not have big enough budgets or strong enough authority to make them happen. Creating social housing in the area is crucial for this alternative to succeed. In Turkey, the MHDA, therefore, the organization responsible for creating social and affordable housing, should be responsible for the construction of these forms of alternative project.

It is true that rehabilitation alone cannot solve all the problems of the neighbourhood; the ability of inhabitants to pay affordable rents depends on their incomes, so also that needs attention.  For that reason, it is also necessary to develop solutions involving the local and national authorities and NGOs, to decrease the poverty rate in the neighbourhood. It can be concluded that the rehabilitation of Tarlabasi for the working class residents is economically and socially feasible, but the political will to initiate such a process is not there. A rehabilitation project with the inhabitants that improves not only the physical and historic environment, but also the lives of those who are having financial and social difficulties due to unemployment, underemployment and territorial stigmatization, is suggested for Tarlabasi. I suggest that before any physical renovation processes are planned, social policies to decrease the poverty and crime rate and to provide free legal counselling and education are needed in the area.

As it can be seen in other world cities in the Global South, massive urban regeneration projects that focus only on the physical rehabilitation of the urban environment can have detrimental effects on the poor. This may seem like a quick fix for urban deterioration for the developing (and sometimes developed) part of the world; however, in the long-term, it can lead to further social exclusion, increased poverty and stigmatization in the city.


This post is part of my PhD dissertation and attempts to open a discussion on alternative ways in which urban regeneration ad rehabilitation projects can be managed to enable the poor inhabitants to stay in their neighbourhood rather than displacing them. 


Aysegul Can received her PhD from University of Sheffield, Department of Urban Studies and Planning. She is currently a Lecturer in The Department of Urban and Regional Planing, Istanbul Medeniyet University.



Gap Insaat, (2012). Tarlabasi Renewal Project Leaflet. Istanbul: Gap Insaat.

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