Last year's protests sparked by the plans of the Turkish Government to turn Gezi Park in Istanbul into a shopping mall, were partly due to the fact that Gezi Park is one of the few green areas in the city. Istanbul is extremely lacking in terms of accessible, well-managed and well-maintained public parks. The 1.5 m2 area of green space per person in Istanbul is far below the minimum standard of 9 m2 the World Health Organization. In fact, green areas are so sparse that a lot of people are forced to have their weekend picnics and barbeques by patches of greenery next to roads.
This phenomenon was well documented by artist Osman Bozkurt, in his video “Auto-Park/ Highway Parks of Istanbul”. The video features various families spending their spare times in leftover green areas next to highways. The proximity of these areas to their houses, and the promise of some natural calm, urges people to risk their own as well as their children's lives crossing across fast buzzing highways.
In the past few years, especially during trips back and forth from the Ataturk Airport to the Istanbul city center, I have noticed more and more of these roadside landscapes being carefully maintained. These landscaped areas typically consist of large expanses of grass, with flowers and shrubs planted in various compositions to form ornamental shapes or objects (such as tulips, letters that spell out “Istanbul”, etc.) At first I was amused by the tackiness of such arrangements; however, after doing more research on the subject, I was alarmed by their implications.
Described as “traditional landscaping”, such maintenance practices merely exist to serve aesthetic purposes. They involve clearing out of natural habitats through urban growth, and the subsequent planting of lawns, dispersed with arrangements of ornamental plants in the remaining areas. Such landscaping requires a lot of maintenance, and uses up vast amounts of water. Even though the floral arrangements and lawns might appeal to some while driving by, a lot of resources go into maintaining such a look.
Going back to the roadside landscaping in Istanbul, I looked into the website of the “Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Park and Green Areas Department”. The website boasts of the successes of the Department in beautifying the city’s parks, roadways, water fountains, etc.
An article (2.), written by Nuri Yuksel, head of “European Side Park and Gardens Department,” titled “ The Advantages of Lawns” is featured on the website. The article lists numerous advatages of lawns, which, according to the author, include absorption of CO2 and water, prevention of erosion and air pollution, mitigation of the heat island effect and global warming. Other advantages listed include “softening the stark look of concrete buildings”, “increased joy of life in people”, as well as providing natural safe play areas for children. Considering the facts about the unsustainable nature of lawns mentioned earlier, one thinks that the author believes that lawns equal natural habitat, which is far from true. Landscaping which is not sustainable, and which requires the use of multiple natural resources can be more harmful than beneficial to the environment. Instead, all landscaping practices, including roadside applications, should be sustainable.
Another article (3.) on the Deparment’s website, by Hulya Demirkol, talks about “ Vertical Landscaping Implementations in Istanbul”. Its intent is to answer questions about such a special practice. Vertical landscaping done by the Department consists of modular planters placed on lightposts and roadside railings, and “wall gardens’ on walls next to highways. The flowers to be placed in the planters need to be driven by vehicle to each post and railing, need to be placed properly, and then watered and fertilized between 23:00- 06:00 everyday for 8 months of the year. The watering needs to be done by special vehicles that can reach the planters. The frequent use of fuel burning vehicles to maintain the visual affects of the flowers is unfortunate. The “vertical gardens” at least use “drip watering”, which does not require vehicle use, however, they are short lived and need to be discarded and replaced twice a year. Such arrangements also make a good example of unsustainable landscaping which only serve aesthetic and short lived purposes.
Sustainable landscaping, on the other hand, should first of all be fit to adapt to local conditions. Rather than ornamenal designs which merely form “Turkish” motifs, landscaping needs to include native plants. These plants need to be selected and grouped carefully, to minimize irrigation. Also, they should provide a proper habitat for local birds, insects, butterflies, etc. As little pesticides and chemicals need to be used as possible. In general, such arrangements should require minimal maintenance.
I found an interview (5.) with landscape architect Kongjian Yu by ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects) very insightful. Conducted after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Kongjian Yu highlights the need for a sustainable landscaping approach. He states that landscaping in China is unsustainable because mayors try to mimic the US and Europe through ornamental, and baroque landscapes. He says that local and vernacular methods need to be grasped. Most importantly, he insists that landscape should lead the way of urban planning. In conventional planning, economic development leads the way, and certain areas are left over for landscaping. However, “storm water management systems, flood areas, biodiversity conservation, cultural heritage sites, green corridors, etc.” should all combine to form an ecological infrastructure, which should lead any sort of urban development. This infrastructure secures “ecological services, including clean water, clean air, biodiversity, …recreation and cultural heritage”.
A similar case of lack of transparency and poor management seems to be prevalent in the capital Ankara, as well. Burcu Cansu’s piece in Muhalefet includes statements by KIRCEV director Ahmet Demirtas and board director of Chamber of Forest Engineers Ali Kucukaydin. Ahmet Demirtas complains that 39 out of 119 nurseries in Turkey were closed down by the Department of Environment and Forestry following the year 2005. KIRCEV filed a lawsuit against this decision and won, however 6 of these nurseries ended up being sold to be used as building sites. Meanwhile, the Ankara Metropolitain Municipality was importing trees from abroad, claiming that there wasn’t enough nurseries in Turkey to buy trees from. Demirtas complains that the imported trees were much more expensive than the locally grown ones, and their compatibility to Turkey’s habitat was questionable. Ahmet Demirtas stated that while thousands of trees in the Ataturk Forest Farm was being town down to make space for government palaces, millions were being spent on imported trees for the so called greening of cities. He complained that the Chamber was not consulted at all, and that the selection and planting of these trees throughout the urban areas were done with little knowledge, and resulted in the death of most trees. (8.)
The manicured ornamental landscaping in Istanbul is not much different than the spray painting of grass green in major streets of Beijing before the IOC (International Olympic Committee) inspection, or ensuring clear skies through inducing artificial rain by firing silver iodide into the air. They all try to mask the severe environmental damage lying beneath the surface.
1. Images from Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Park and Green Areas Department website
3. http://www.avrupaparkbahceler.com/makale.php?baslik=istanbul%E2%80%99da-dikey-peyzaj- uygulamalari&yazar=3&no=2
4. Red Ribbon Park, in Qinghuangdao City, Hebei Province, China by Konjian Yu