Law and planning have long been the principal instruments of controlling urban populations. In an urban millennium their combined impact, especially on the lives of the poor, is enormous, as illustrated by the analysis of urban governance in Istanbul below. With city planning focusing on winning the competition for national and global investment, and urban land becoming a magnet for finance capital, urban governance risks dispossessing, displacing and penalising the poor. Moreover, as experience in many cities (including Istanbul) has shown, those living in informal settlements with complex and precarious property structures— making up more than half the total housing stock in many cities—are especially vulnerable. Coupled with legal regimes that offer scant protection for tenure rights, such policies greatly aggravate housing insecurity and undermine the human rights of the poor, treating them as roadblocks on the path to ‘world-class, ‘competitive’ or ‘profitable’ cities.
In Turkey, these threats have become both real and visible in the last decade, with radical changes in government policies towards low-income settlements, most of which are either informal, or were built as informal but formalized at a later date. Since the 1950s, both local and central authorities of the Turkish government have openly and actively supported informal settlements for several reasons - including vote-seeking, provision of cheap labour to industries, and fortune-making by selling unauthorized land to migrants. In 2002, however, these policies came to an abrupt end. The new low-income housing policy of the Turkish state now aims to put a definite halt to the expansion of informal settlements, and to relocate their inhabitants to subsidized mass housing in the peripheries of cities constructed by a central state institution, the Mass Housing Administration (MHA). The neighbourhoods people leave behind, which for the most part are centrally located, are to be regenerated and redeveloped by either the MHA or by public-private partnerships.
These radical interventions into the built environment and the social and economic geography of cities, or ‘urban transformation projects’ (UTP) as they are known as in Turkey, now threaten millions of poor urbanites who are faced with forced relocation into formal mass housing estates. Since 2004, approximately 250 such UTPs have been implemented throughout the country, displacing tens of thousands of citizens. Not surprisingly, Istanbul has been at the epicentre of these large-scale demolish-and-rebuild projects due to its remarkably profitable real-estate sector. Since 2005, 13 large-scale demolish-rebuild type projects have begun in the city, 5 of which are in historical inner-city neighbourhoods and the rest in low-income informal neighbourhoods, directly impacting more than 100,000 people. In most cases, the immediate consequence for people living in the ‘transformation zones’ is relocation to a different neighbourhood. The neighbourhoods that have already been cleared for redevelopment, such as Sulukule (with a predominantly Gypsy population) and Ayazma (inhabitated mostly by very poor Kurdish households), show us that the new dwellings built in the areas target a very different demographic with much more economic and human capital. Given the profitability of the projects both for state actors and private developers, neighbourhoods targeted for regeneration will only increase in the near future. Another indication of the rather frightening magnitude of likely planned displacement of the poor in Istanbul is the stated commitment of the government to renew the city’s existing housing stock by demolishing and rebuilding 1 million homes. In fact in 2010, the government revised the existing legal basis of urban transformation and renewal to enable such a massive remaking of the city’s housing stock.
In addition to planned displacement and forced relocation, another problem the urban poor face as a consequence of the new policies of the Turkish government is the decreasing stock of affordable housing. In Istanbul, for example, the subsidized housing units constructed by the MHA for those displaced from their homes as a result of UTPs are still beyond the reach of many. Studies conducted in a mass housing estate built for people displaced from an informal settlement in Istanbul found that of the approximately 1100 households that were relocated there in 2006, close to 30% have already left the area due mostly to the greatly increased cost of living in formal dwellings. Added to economic hardships, they also experienced problems of adaptation to high-rise blocks, disruption of social relations and vital support networks, and intense ethnic tensions and polarization between the Kurdish households who were relocated and the existing Turkish groups in the area. All this has resulted in a narrowing of social spaces, with increased confinement of women to the domestic sphere. While privatization has proved lucrative for a handful of real estate speculators, as well as the better off inhabitants, a far greater number of the poor who were moved have suffered from ‘double displacement’: they were first forced out of their neighbourhoods by the state, and then out of the formal housing estate by the market, with the local or central authorities taking absolutely no preventive or mitigating measures against such an eventuality.
An important dimension in the construction of a neoliberal urban regime is the central role that law plays in this process. Many of these discriminatory, disciplinary and segregationist anti-poor policies have the full backing of administrative, property or criminal law. However, because the laws seem on the surface to be non-discriminatory, they attain a cloak of formal legitimacy. In the Turkish case, the Justice and Development Party passed numerous new laws in the aftermath of the 2001 economic crisis that institutionalized the neoliberal urban regime, fundamentally restructuring the country’s public governance system and the regulation of its land and housing markets. These included the Municipality Law (2005), Metropolitan Municipality Law (2005), and various amendments to the Mass Housing Law (2005-2010) and a new urban renewal and regeneration law (2005).
These legal reforms greatly empowered local governments to implement ‘entrepreneurialist’ urban policies, declare parts of cities as ‘obsolescent’ or ‘risky’ and to regenerate these areas in a highly authoritarian and top-down fashion. The new legal framework also gives very favourable tax breaks to developers and investors in these areas. Equally important is the creation of the all-powerful MHA, equipped with extreme legal, administrative and financial powers to remake the land/housing regime in Turkey. In addition to complete planning and zoning authority and the right of eminent domain in transformation zones, the MHA also acquired the power to sell all public land to developers to generate revenues for its various housing projects. Given that all of these powers are protected by law, it renders them very difficult, if not impossible, to challenge or change.
The role that the planning profession plays in this process is crucial, not just in enabling the smooth functioning of the neoliberal urban regime, but also in providing the scientific/technical legitimacy that it needs. Planning is, by nature, an authoritarian practice which privileges ‘expert’ knowledge. Due to their technocratic orientation, institutional structures, engagements and professional aspirations, most planning authorities worldwide have been complicit in the neoliberal project of spatially, socially and economically disempowering disadvantaged groups and individuals, Segbers, Raiser & Volkmann (2005). One clear manifestation of this complicity can be seen in the increasing privatization of planning practices. In a growing number of cities, planning and zoning decisions are taken by private bodies that protect the interests of real-estate and finance capital. For example in Istanbul, the Metropolitan Municipality commissioned Bimtaş, a subsidiary private firm of the Municipality, to create the Master Plan of the city in 2006. As law and planning have come together to accelerate the inclusion of Istanbul into the global political-economy, the Plan will lead to the displacement of thousands of low-income inhabitants living both in informal and formal neighbourhoods. It will open more and more low-income settlements to speculative investments, thus turning the city into a playground for capitalist investors and resulting in the exclusion of people in poverty from the city.