A Divisive Bridge

Planners, environmentalists and residents of central Istanbul complain that a third bridge over the Bosphorus will destroy precious green space, and draw even more migrants to an already overcrowded mega city. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ignores them.

Story and video by ZIHAO YANG

Despite angry public opposition, Turkey is moving forward with a controversial project to build a third bridge across the Bosphorus, a centerpiece of the country’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan argues that a new bridge across the strait that connects Europe and Asia will ease Istanbul’s severe traffic congestion. The span, begun in May, will connect the villages of Garipçe on the European shore and Poyrazköy in Asia.

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Though the third bridge across the Bosphorus strait threatens the laid-back lifestyle of Garipçe, a fishing village nearby, residents say they welcome the project. Photo by The Istanbul Project 

Most villagers in Garipçe seem to support the project, saying it will bring more business and prosperity to town, and help them travel more easily around the city, as explored in in the short documentary, “Garipçe: A Town and a Bridge”:

 

But environmentalists, scholars and residents of central Istanbul tend to be powerfully opposed, complaining that water contamination, unregulated population explosion and even more traffic lie ahead.

“Eighty percent of settlements that were built after the building of the second bridge … are gecekondu (squatter settlements). The  third bridge will bring more unauthorized settlement, and immigrants from Black Sea region and Anatolia” –Planning professor Hüseyin Kaptan

According to research by the Istanbul Metropolitan Planning Center (IMP), an urban planning and development agency, unauthorized settlement and growing industrial areas between E-5 Highway (the first bridge over the Bosphorus) and Trans-European Motorways (the second bridge) have already put water containment areas in danger.

Akif Burak Atlar, secretary of the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners, argues in a 50-page report that a third bridge could “increase the pressure to establish new settlements around the city’s drinking water resources, forest and rural areas, water basins, and agricultural regions.”

Arzu Handem, who with her husband owns a small grocery store in Garipçe, was among few in town who expressed her dissatisfaction with the project. “It will do damage to our environment, and I don’t want to see that happen,” she said.

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Istanbul’s population has exploded over the past two generations, from about 1.5 million in the 1950s to some 13 million today. Photo by Zihao Yang

Rapid population growth in metropolitan Istanbul has spun out of control over the past 50 years: the city ballooned from some 1.5 million residents in the 1950s to about 13 million today.

“Eight million people have poured into city, and settled down along the second Bosphorus bridge since its completion,” said Hüseyin Kaptan, a faculty member of Department of Urban and Regional Planning in Yıldız Technical University, the co-founder and former director of the IMP. Kaptan suggested that the government had done little research on how the bridge – to be named Yavuz Sultan Selim, after a sultan accused of murdering Alevi Muslims – would affect the population of the city.

“Eighty percent of settlements that were built after the building of the second bridge in its vicinity are gecekondu (squatter settlements),” said Kaptan, “and the building of a third bridge will bring more unauthorized settlement and immigrants from Black Sea region and Anatolia.”

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Builders broke ground for the third Bosphorus bridge in May. Pictured: View of the bridge foundation on the Asian shore. Photo by the Istanbul Project.

Atlar likewise warned that the third bridge would attract even more immigrants to Istanbul.

“I will lay the foundations for the third bridge, inaugurate Marmaray on October 29th, and the other tunnel will be ready by 2015.”– Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 

“You cannot just tell people to stop coming to Istanbul,” he said. “The investments don’t go to small cities, so people keep coming to Istanbul. That’s the main problem.”

The highway to the third bridge will run directly across one, and pass by at least two, reservoirs on the European and Asian shores. So it will pose environmental threats to the purity of Istanbul’s drinking water resources, Besim Sertok, chief of Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Forestry Engineers, told the Hurriyet Daily News in 2009.

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The route of the second bridge over the Bosphorus (lower black line) and the planned route of the third bridge (upper black line). Graphic courtesy of the Istanbul Metropolitan Planning Center

Vociferous objections to the project notwithstanding, Erdoğan has pressed forward.

“I will lay the foundations for the third bridge, which is my third move, inaugurate [the under-the-Bosphorus rail tunnel] Marmaray on October 29th, and the other tunnel will be ready by 2015,” said the premier, at the May 29 groundbreaking ceremony for the bridge near Garipçe.

“It is manifest that the third bridge will bring plenty of tourists and business to Garipçe and Istanbul,” Kaplan said. “But in the long run, our ecosystem is more important than economy.”

The 1.17-mile bridge is to be completed by 2015, and is closely intertwined with Turkey’s bid for the Olympics, whose slogan, “bridge together,” promotes an East-meets-West theme.  Will the bridge ultimately succeed in easing traffic, and in creating even greater fortune for Istanbul — or will it wreak havoc on the diminishing green space and water resources, and swell the population even further? Only the developments of the next decade will show.

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