Mega Projects and the Limits of Urban Planning in Megacities: The Case of Istanbul in the AKP Era
Sultan Yavuz Selim Bridge - July 2015

This essay series examines the roles that community-based organizations (CBOs) have played as active participants in the process of "governing" megacities whether in service delivery, risk mitigation, or the creation of livelihood and other opportunities. More ...

Istanbul is the demographic, economic, and cultural heart of Turkey. Straddling two continents and bridging East and West, the city of Istanbul has long stood as a critical crossroads for commerce, innovation, and cultural exchange. Currently the fifth largest city in the world and home to more than 14 million inhabitants,[1] the mega-city is predicted to eclipse London as Europe’s largest city sometime between 2018-19.[2] Like many mega-cities, the pace and nature of Istanbul’s population growth pose critical threats to the city’s sustainability—transport congestion, social cohesion, uncontrolled land use development, and environmental risks—and make governance increasingly challenging. We believe that the latter two of these are most urgent and consequential for the city of Istanbul. Thus, this essay will focus on the process and prospects of urban planning in Istanbul, paying particular attention to the issues of growth management and environmental protection.

We begin with a brief description of the Istanbul Master Plan, which was created by the Istanbul Metropolitan Planning and Urban Design Center (IMP) with input from hundreds of academics, senior urban planners, civil engineers, community groups, and other stakeholders. Adopted in 2009, the Plan sought to protect the natural resources of the city and create a balance between conservation and development.[3] In addition, the Plan extensively discussed the city’s vulnerabilities due to risks associated with natural disasters (such as earthquakes and floods) and overpopulation, and offered strategies for mitigating these risks. On the other hand, the Plan did not include “mega-projects” such as the third bridge and highway ring, third airport, or Canal Istanbul, which were announced later and subsequently aggressively pursued by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. Despite the Plan, the massive “Gezi Park” protests in 2013 (ignited by local unrest regarding the ruling AKP’s land use policy), and frequent litigation by organized interest groups like the Chamber of Architects, at present these projects are not only underway, but are moving forward at seemingly lightning speed.

This essay analyzes the politics of these developments, focusing on the role of non-governmental organizations. To what extent have they been involved in the formulation, implementation, and oversight of the Istanbul Master Plan? What form has their activism taken and what has been the response of the AKP government? Finally, what are the prospects for achieving the balance between conservation and development originally envisioned by the Istanbul Master Plan?

Urban Planning and the Istanbul Master Plan

The central government in Turkey has historically wielded considerable control over municipalities, and Istanbul is no exception. However, decentralization and local government reform were a priority of the AKP government in the early 2000s (partly as a result of the acceleration of the EU accession process). Of particular significance was the 2004 Law on Metropolitan Municipalities (no. 5216), which restructured Metropolitan Municipalities (including Istanbul) and devolved responsibility for urban planning to them.[4] This transformed the urban planning process in Istanbul by making the system more open, integrated and decentralized. In particular, the scale of planning was enlarged to include the broader region; new actors such as the IMP were brought into the process and empowered; environmental and earthquake risks, as well as urban transportation became more prominent in the urban planning discourse; and more flexibility was given to local actors (such as district municipalities) via programs such as Urban Regeneration.[5]

After passage of this law, experts under the direction of the IMP spent more than a year developing the Istanbul Master Plan. The Plan was approved by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipal (IMM) Council in July 2006, and subsequently circulated to a wide range of stakeholders.[6] However, partly as a result of criticism regarding both substance and the planning process, the IMM prepared another version of the Plan, this time making greater use of input from district municipalities, university professors, civil engineers, and other non-governmental organizations, and by placing more emphasis on balancing environmental and economic priorities.[7] Adopted by the IMM in 2009, the final version of the Istanbul Master Plan sought to achieve five main goals:

1. Adaptation and orientation in line with the dynamics of globalization and the EU accession process (i.e., promoting sustainable and harmonious growth by taking into account social, economic, and cultural dimensions).

2. Protection of the ecological balance and fostering of sustainable and disaster resistant development (e.g., taking appropriate steps to decrease the pressure of urban growth on protected areas).

3. Help Istanbul achieve status as a world culture city (e.g., by protecting historical, cultural, and natural values of Istanbul; reducing pressure of construction in historical areas).

4. Develop tighter economic relations with other global cities and establish Istanbul as a global city (e.g., by modernizing the economy and making it more competitive globally).

5. Improve quality of life in Istanbul (e.g., by developing spatial strategies).[8]

... it is reasonable to ask whether the Istanbul Master Plan has had any meaningful effect on Istanbul’s growth and development, particularly in the natural and historic areas that the Plan most clearly earmarked for preservation and protection from growth.

While most would agree that the Istanbul Master Plan marked an important turning point in the city’s attempt to balance land use development and environmental protection, implementation has been incomplete, and over time, the gap between the Plan and actual land use policy and practice by the IMM and other governmental entities, including the central government, has grown increasingly wide. Indeed, it is reasonable to ask whether the Istanbul Master Plan has had any meaningful effect on Istanbul’s growth and development, particularly in the natural and historic areas that the Plan most clearly earmarked for preservation and protection from growth.

Mega-projects and the Limits of Urban Planning in the Era of Globalization and Neoliberalism

Anyone who has visited Istanbul in the past decade cannot help but have noticed the tremendous amount of construction underway. From high rise office, retail, and condominium developments such as Maslak 1453, Zorlu Center, İstanbul Finans Merkezi, to sports stadiums like the Beşiktaş Vodafone Arena, to colossal new mosques (e.g., Çamlıca Camisi), to large-scale urban transformation projects such as Tarlabaşı Kentsel Dönüşüm Projesi, Sulukule Kentsel Yenileme Projesi, to name just a few. Massive construction sites are everywhere and cranes dot Istanbul’s skyline in every direction. But the largest and most environmentally significant developments––the third bridge and highway ring, the third airport, and the “crazy” Canal Istanbul Project––are out of sight for all but the most intrepid of tourists and residents. None of these projects was included in the Master Plan, each is located in outlaying “preservation” areas of the city to the north and northwest, and each occupies a vast land area.

According to extensive data compiled by the Independent Architects’ Association (SMD), the third airport (located along the Black Sea) will cover an area of 76,500,000 square meters, while the third highway ring (Kuzey Marmara Otoyolu) will include 421 kilometers of roadway.[9] Compared to these two mega-projects, Canal Istanbul, which will create a second waterway connecting the Black and Marmara Seas, looks quite modest at 42 kilometers. All told, these three projects will not only make a sizable imprint on the topography of Istanbul, but will collectively have a tremendous impact on the nature and direction of residential development, commuting patterns, and urban sustainability in the Istanbul of the future.

The question of how these mega-projects, not to mention the 100 plus other major development projects in various stages of completion or implementation, came about in light of the Istanbul Master Plan is important, though largely overlooked by political scientists and urban politics scholars.

Implementation of Mega-Projects and Violation of the Master Plan

The Istanbul Master Plan, referred to as the “Constitution of Istanbul” by the mayor, Kadir Topbaş, initially received serious criticism, including lawsuits by local non-governmental organizations. However, its emphasis on the protection of water basins and forests in the north was highly appreciated, even by the same organizations. Despite this consensus, the AKP government became the first party to violate the Plan (which it essentially created). In 2011, the AKP announced the creation of several mega-projects aiming to solve the long-standing problems of Istanbul (traffic and transportation) as the centerpiece of its electoral campaign. Although the projects appealed to many citizens, they also created tension between the AKP government and the opposition groups, including political parties and non-partisan organizations. However, due to the AKP’s unified control over central and local governments, opposition parties were relatively powerless when it came to limiting or stopping the pursuit and implementation of mega-projects. As a result, the participation of community groups and non-governmental organizations became more vital.

These organizations, including professional associations, environmental advocates, and citizen and neighborhood groups, primarily focus on increasing public awareness regarding the perils of governmental development projects, organizing press conferences, public discussion panels, academic lectures, and even street protests. They also use social media and the Internet to disseminate their concerns regarding the environmental impact of these projects and the government’s violation of laws and legal standards. Two very important websites created for this purpose are (which includes a network analysis of AKP affiliated business owners who hold large construction projects), and (which simulates the Istanbul of tomorrow, with all mega-projects completed). Community and non-governmental organizations also use the legal system to block the implementation of these governmental plans. The Chamber of Architects and the Chamber of Urban Planners are the most active in this respect. For example, from 2007 to 2012, the Chamber of Architects filed some 75 lawsuits against development projects initiated by the government.

One of these cases involved the historic and symbolic Haydarpaşa Train Station/Port and the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s plan to transform it and the surrounding neighborhood into a massive business center. This case was resolved in favor of the Chamber. In another case, the Chamber sued the Beykoz district municipality in Istanbul for violating the public interest by granting a construction license to Acarlar Inşaat to develop an upscale residential community in protected forest areas.[10] Although the local court decided against the Chamber, after the appeal process, the higher court (Danistay) resolved the issue in favor of the Chamber and canceled the municipality’s implementation plans.[11] The Istanbul Chamber of Architects has also attempted to use the courts to block mega-projects. For example, it filed a suit against the government for the Kuzey Marmara Otoyolu (the highway ring project associated with the Third Bridge), which was prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization in direct violation of the 2004 Law on Metropolitan Municipalities and Boğaziçi Law No. 2960.[12] Although the court canceled the highway ring plan on May 25, 2015, based on fieldwork we conducted in March 2015, the harrowing pace of construction had already yielded substantial progress, and reports indicate that despite the decision, construction has not halted.[13] The status of the Third Airport project is similar. Lawsuits were filed in 2014 by both the Chamber of Architects and a group of residents. Istanbul’s Fourth Administrative Court ordered a stay of execution mandating the suspension of all construction. However, this ruling was annulled by a higher court in March 2014. While the case is still in progress, construction continues.

... rather than working with the government, [NGOs'] involvement has been primarily a response to governmental non-compliance with the Istanbul Master Plan and other laws promulgated by the central government. 

As these examples illustrate, non-governmental actors have played a significant role in urban planning and the politics of urban growth management in Istanbul. However, rather than working with the government, their involvement has been primarily a response to governmental non-compliance with the Istanbul Master Plan and other laws promulgated by the central government. In the face of this activism, the AKP-led government has pursued several different strategies. First, it has used the courts to appeal decisions that were not in its favor. It has done this in roughly half of the cases where lower courts ruled against it. Second, the AKP has also introduced new legislation in parliament to make future litigation more difficult. For example, the Environmental Impact Evolution requirement (which is a regulation based on Environment Law No: 2872, passed in 1983) was a very important obstacle since it slowed down the implementation of mega-projects by mandating that projects demonstrate that environmental impact has been minimized. In May 2013, the party amended the Environment Law to exempt mega-projects from this requirement, thereby expediting their implementation.[14] A third strategy pursued by the government is continued non-compliance. As we have already seen in the case of the third highway ring, when faced with court decisions that call for it to stop construction or cancel development projects, the AKP may simply ignore the rulings and forge ahead, unfettered, with its plan. The construction of the Third Bridge and Third Airport are also exemplars of this strategy.

Conclusions and Implications

As we have tried to highlight in this brief essay, the politics of urban planning in Istanbul are complex and characterized by a considerable degree of controversy and conflict. This is to be expected given the Istanbul Master Plan’s goals of promoting economic development and Istanbul’s status as a global city on the one hand, and increasing growth management strategies and environmental protections on the other. However, in the last several years ‘politics as usual’ appears to be increasingly unusual, even by Turkish standards. With corruption scandals at the highest levels of the AKP government, more aggressive censorship of the media by the government, the scaling back of free speech rights and protections to ordinary Turkish citizens, and a President whose tone and actions appear increasingly authoritarian in nature, it is not difficult to imagine how the small-scale protest about green space and trees in Gezi Park erupted into a full scale, nationwide social movement.

Yet, in this era of globalization and neoliberal economic policy, a lot is at stake. The increasing commodification of land and the need to attract larger and larger sums of foreign direct investment make the politics of growth extremely attractive and the lure of mega-projects almost impossible to resist. And, let us not forget the pressures of staying in office. After winning successive general elections (in 2002 and 2007), local elections (in 2004 and 2009), and two constitutional referendums (in 2007 and 2010), the AKP succeeded in establishing itself as the dominant political power in Turkey. However, maintaining its hegemonic position required resources and new strategies. Based on the dramatic shift in the AKP’s policy platform and campaign rhetoric during the 2011 election, it is reasonable to argue that it saw mega projects as means to hold onto and re-energize its electoral base.

In the end, while the Istanbul Master Plan may not have achieved all of the goals it set out to, it has also not proved to be completely irrelevant. In particular, it has served as an important focal point and given non-governmental groups like the Chamber of Architects something concrete to rally around. Indeed, there is something inherently powerful and worth fighting for when it comes to the rule of law. And from a planning perspective, in the absence of the Master Plan, the strategic vision of the main priorities for planning Istanbul’s future would be considerably murkier.

[1] “Results of General Population Censuses, 1980-2000 and Results of Address Based Population Registration System, 2008-2014,” Turkstat (2014),

[2] Euromonitor, “Datagraphic Cities: Snapshot of Urban Western Europe in 2020,” Euromonitor International (blog), January 9, 2014,

[3] James Steele and Rania Shafik, “Tensions and Transformations in the Master Planning Process of Istanbul.” Urban Transformation: Controversies, Contrasts, and Challenges, 14th IPHS Conference, July 12-15, 2010, Istanbul, Turkey.

[4] Gérard Marcou, “Local Administration Reform in Turkey: A Legal Appraisal based on  European Principles and Standards,” Working Paper (2006),

[5] OECD Territorial Reviews, OECD (2008), Istanbul, Turkey.

[6] Gökhan Günaydın and Ahmet Atalık, TMMOB Ziraat Mühendisleri Odası (Chamber of Agriculture Engineers) Report, İstanbul Çevre Düzeni Planı ve Çevreye Etkileri (2007).

[7] James Steele and Rania Shafik, “Tensions and Transformations in the Master Planning Process of Istanbul,” Urban Transformation: Controversies, Contrasts, and Challenges, 14th IPHS Conference, July 12-15, 2010, Istanbul, Turkey.

[8] Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi, 1/100.000 Ölçekli İstanbul Çevre Düzeni Planı- Yönetici Özeti Istanbul Metropolitan Planning and Urban Design Center (IMP) (2009). For the English version, see The Istanbul Master Plan Summary. Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (pp. 97-99).

[9] For more details see the projects website:

[10] For more details, see the news coverage at Zaman Daily (November 26, 2006) Acarkent, mahkeme sürerken inşa edilmiş.

[11] For more details, see TMMOB Mimarlar Odası İstanbul Büyükkent Şubesi, Hukuk Calişmaları, Saip Molla Özel Ormanı (Acarkent) Ruhsat İptal Davası,

[12] For more details, see the news coverage at Sabah Daily (June 11, 2015) 3. Köprü'nün yolları mahkeme tarafından kesildi. 

[13] For more details, see T24 online news source (July 29, 2015) Mahkemenin iptal kararına rağmen 3. köprü yolları inşası devam ediyor.

[14] However, in 2014 the Supreme Court canceled this law.