For over two months, Turkish civil society has been in an uproar over the proposed construction project on Istanbul’s Gezi Park near Taksim Square. This project would essentially demolish one of the largest open public green spaces located in central Istanbul through the reconstruction of an historic army barracks which would include a new shopping mall located inside. Massive demonstrations have erupted against both the project and the resulting heavy handed response by the state.
This event represents the importance of one of the most fundamental pillars of urban planning and development, Civic/Public Participation. Turkish urban planners and scholars have been at the heart of the protests since the beginning expressing their anger towards how the government has approached its planning practices and has historically neglected public participation. Turkey’s lack of public participation through urban planning does not simply create weak and unpopular planning projects but has fermented into an all out insurrection of the masses of the people against the Turkish government. Although police violence has been what has escalated the protests, poor urban planning policy is at its heart.
Social media has been at the core medium of communication during the protests. Facebook groups, twitter feeds, and images of police violence have galvanized a message of solidarity against the government both within Turkey and across the world. But the revolutionary spirit of the Turkish population isn’t an isolated case but rather is the nature of our historical moment across the world. In the past several years, while social media is being credited as the mechanism of organization and communication for these recent revolutionary movements, urban planning policy has often been the catalyst; it began with street vender regulations in Tunisia and most recently public transportation policies led by Movimento Passe Livre in Brazil.
Protests developing out of an urban planning crisis is nothing new. The Mexican student protests and resulting deadly crackdown by the military in 1968 where in reaction to the Olympic games and the government spending a disproportionate amount of funds on the games.
What separates the protests of today from the protests of the past is the new mechanism of communication through ‘new (social) media’ and how the population can more effectively organize and petition the government. Furthermore, government can potentially use these social media outlets and the massive engagement to promote reform.
A new age of governance is emerging in recent years which embraces new democratic elements that are an innate product of these new media outlets. These outlets help to facilitate and challenges against existing power structures through the massive exchange and collaboration of people and ideas.
Many scholars discuss the possibility of using mobile/social media as a mechanism in facilitating the empowerment of the populace into a massively engaged urban citizenship. (Iveson 2011). Turkish civil society should focus on resolving its crisis through this form of ‘Deliberative Civic Engagement’. The authors of Democracy in Motion define this process as the “process that enable citizens, civic leaders, and government officials to come together in public spaces where they can engage in constructive, informed, and decisive dialogue about important public issues.”
But, is the Turkish political establishment a part of this new political paradigm?
During the first weeks of the protests, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan referred to Twitter as a ‘Pest’ and said, “The thing that is called social media is the biggest trouble for society right now.” This is a clear illustration showing how Turkey’s political leadership is completely unaware and unwilling to participate in this new age of democracy and civic engagement.
It is imperative that the current momentum of civic participation be captured and implanted into the mechanisms of urban planning within the Turkish government.
Urban planners have a strong desire for civic participation but are many times unsuccessful in capturing participation from the public using traditional methods of engagement. Today, Turkey has a truly amazing opportunity to seize the unprecedented level of civic engagement to improve it’s urban planning practices and develop a truly democratic politic. As a result from the protests against the Gezi Park project, people from all walks of Turkish society are becoming active participants in the urban planning process.
Without any political leadership capturing this social momentum, Turkey will lose a great opportunity of institutionalizing strong and progressive planning practices.