Urban Social Movements and the Politics of the Commons in Istanbul – Fırat Genç*

The inhabitants of Istanbul witnessed the regeneration of their city in the 2000s at an increasingly rapid pace. From residential areas to public spaces, and from the transportation infrastructure to natural resources, this dramatic transformation process that affected the urban spaces at large and thus completely redefined the urban experience, has emerged as a consequence of the economic, political, and cultural strategies adopted by AKP (Justice and Development Party) governments during the period (Bartu Candan and Özbay, 2014). This was a national transformation. Yet Istanbul, as usual, was the city in which this process was most intense. At the same time, Istanbul underwent a noticeable revival of urban resistence during this period as well. The sense of inequality and injustice caused by developments that directly affected everyday life eventually led to the emergence of a collective reaction and urban spaces and life gradually became the very subject to the social/political conflict. Triggered by the AKP’s economic growth model, the developments has so far incited the desires of a particular section of the urban population and thus constituted one of the most fundamental elements of the hegemony of the AKP government, concurrently turning miscellaneous issues of urban conflict into an element of the opposition’s political vocabulary. In this way, both the scope and scale of urban politics in the context of Istanbul have undergone considerable changes over the last decade. While new aspects have recently been added to the agenda of urban politics, the actors as implementers of these agendas have, accordingly, also begun to vary (Kolluoğlu, 2014; Yalçıntan and Çavuşoğlu, 2013; Ünsal, 2014; Çelik, 2017).

Notwithstanding the differing actors, demands, and the action repertoire, and discursive strategies for that matter, I am of the opinion that it is possible to identify certain commonalities amongst the numerous acts of resistance that emerged during this period, and we can therefore speak of a specific generation of urban social movements within the context of Istanbul. The core purpose of this article is to both classify and define this generation by focusing on the acts of resistance that have emerged during the AKP’s rule. Conducting a thorough study over such a long period is clearly difficult in a city with so many complex dynamics. Therefore, I would rather focus on a discussion within more clear-cut boundaries, than compile a comprehensive list of various acts of resistance.[1] With this in mind, I would like to set out from a conceptual framework that focuses on urban commons as it seems to me that it would be of more use in describing the recent urban movements and some light on the strategic political path of these movements.

Urban commons and current enclosures

As Begüm Özden Fırat’s article in this book, highlights in detail, the debate on the commons, which seems to be gaining currency in both academic and political literature, is interconnected with the course of the anti-globalization movement that emerged in the 1990s against the destruction caused by neoliberal capitalism. The intellectual and practical efforts of this social/political movement, which seek to direct the reactions caused by the deepening and expansion of the commodification processes in the neoliberal phase of globalization, have led to the revival of the debate on the commons in the field of radical social theory. Attempts to define the increasingly aggressive expansionism of late capitalism and the destruction it has caused on social, economic, ecological, and cultural levels, together with the emergent resistance movements, largely appeal to concepts already existing in the Marxist literature, such as commons and enclosures (De Angelis, 2007; Midnight Notes, 2010; Linebaugh, 2014; Hardt ve Negri, 2009; Dardot ve Laval, 2018). The conceptual set in question has gained ground in current critical studies as it illuminates the mechanism, dynamics, and consequences of marketization and the commodification process (Harvey, 2003; Federici, 2014; Linebaugh, 2009; Kasmir ve Carbonella, 2014; Bensaïd, 2017).

However, it should be emphasized here that there is a second aspect of current critiques in question. The spatial dimension of the logic of the neoliberal stage of capitalism is another factor contributing to explanations regarding the debate on the commons, and these spatial practices and relations need to be included in the analysis (Sevilla-Buitrago, 2015). The understanding of the unique forms of the complex and multi-layered restructuring processes under different localities and historical conditions, which are often simply referred to as neoliberalism, is only possible through the comprehension of the kinds of spatial relations and practices that emerge in the wake of such processes (Brenner, Peck and Theodore, 2010; Peck and Tickell, 2002; Gough, 2002). The realization of spatial reality, such as spatial regimes initiated in cities, the political subjectivities implied by such spatial regimes, and the redefined strategies of the state that is in interaction with such political subjectivities, is critical in gaining more insight into the qualities of the current phase of capitalism. Therefore, we see that the monitoring of the fate of the urban commons and of the enclosure toward them has gained ever more prominence both theoretically and politically in the context of neoliberal urbanization processes.

Based on this literature, if we are to move forward so as to look at the course of urbanization in Turkey back in the 2000s,[2] we see that the urban commons were under constant and comprehensive attack. The capital accumulation regime adopted by the AKP governments following the economic crisis of 2000-2001, together with the economic growth model required by this regime, have been the driving forces of the current cycle of enclosures (Akçay and Güngen, 2014). When we compare this economic model, which assigns a strategic role to the expansion of energy and construction sectors in order to achieve economic growth, with other models adopted in the 1950s (DP’s tenure) and the period of 1984-93 (ANAP’s tenure) in terms of the investments of both the state and the private sector in urban spaces, we see that the current model has expanded them in proportion. 

One of the salient factors that has made this expansion possible is that the state has accordingly channelled its legal, bureaucratic, and financial power into it. No development activity could have been implemented if it had not been for a series of interventions: the statutory amendments, facilitating the privatization of state-owned urban land stock, the restructuring of land-use planning legislature enacted in the previous national developmental period, the restructuring of the authority and organizational structures of institutions such as TOKI (the Mass Housing Development Administration), and stretching the laws within the critical legal framework such as the Public Procurement Law.[3]

With this background in mind, if we are to take a closer look at the concrete forms of the development rush in Istanbul, four main topics seem to stand out. Firstly, during those years, incorporating public immovables into the ongoing privatization program so as to increase budget revenues, the public administration put up for sale especially high-value land in the city centre of Istanbul. Secondly, extensive large-scale infrastructure or commercial facility investments have been implemented under the public-private partnership business model. And third, the implementation of urban transformation projects designed to overcome the dynamics of incomplete marketization in poor, ‘run-down areas’ in the inner city, especially under the leadership of TOKI and with the encouragement of local governments. Fourthly, it is worth mentioning that the large-scale housing projects carried out by TOKI, especially for the market, and large-scale infrastructure projects carried out with public funding facilitated the opening of large areas in the city to private sector investment.[4] In brief, the ongoing reconstruction activities within these four aspects have not only transformed housing relations and land ownership patterns inherited from the previous periods in Istanbul but have also cumulatively deepened the commodification of urban spaces.

While there might be variations in their pace or policy and investment priorities over time, it is appropriate to consider these largely uninterrupted practices as elements of a particular spatial regime (neoliberal urbanism) (Bartu Candan and Kolluoğlu, 2008). The main point to underline in our discussion is that this spatial regime, constructed on the expansion and deepening of commodification in urban spaces, unravels the existing commons in the cities. As briefly mentioned above, it is necessary to think of the commons as a mode of social relations that are essentially free of capitalist processes. In this regard, the urban commons correspond to the forms of relations and networks that not only generate such spaces but also in turn evolve within them, transcending the actual physicality of the land or structure.[5]

Therefore, from the past to today, the commons established by inhabitants, who engage in struggles either openly or covertly (the products of the past commoning practices), serve as ‘defence cushions’, which protect them from the excesses of capitalist processes, and at times even allow them to avoid the discipline of capital. Precisely for this reason, the enclosure of the urban commons yields devastating consequences, especially for those sectors of society more directly the object of relations of domination and exploitation. Unravelling deep-rooted solidarity networks in the slums, the privatization of public spaces in the inner city or the closure of them with the help of the state and capital, and the appropriation of social-ecological wealth by capital are just a few of the initial phases of the enclosure cycles brought about by neoliberal urbanism.[6] In the light of these examples, it is fair to say that enclosures tend to have differing effects on different sections of society. Nonetheless, it should be underlined that neoliberal urbanism as a whole is a continuum of strategies that reinforce the enclosures for urban commons, both through the apparatuses of state violence, and also through the functioning of market relations that appear non-violent.[7] For this reason, it is possible to understand the recent experiences of urban opposition as practices principally aimed at both defending and reclaiming the commons in the face of these strategies and also further establishing new ones.

Opposition to neoliberal urbanism before the Gezi resistance

So far I have described the context that essentially determines the resistance movements. In this and following sections, I classify the grassroots movements in Istanbul in regard to the urban commons following a simple chronological path.

The problematic of housing the urban poor and the defence of neighborhood

There is no doubt that the problem of housing is one of the most prominent elements of the urban political scene in Istanbul in the republican period (Erder, 1996; Erman, 2001). During the emergence and expansion of slums as well as their gradual incorporation into market mechanisms with the help of statutes such as zoning amnesties, the question of affordable housing was put at the heart of the political agenda, both locally and nationally. In the 2000s, negotiations and conflicts that took place around slum settlements gained momentum. In the wake of the framework of anti-crisis measures within the Emergency Action Plan announced by the new AKP government in 2003, urban transformation projects in city slums and poor inner-city neighborhoods became a current issue (Kuyucu, 2014). As the corollary of the comprehensive legal and administrative restructuring mentioned above, an urban renewal campaign was initiated by the government. Within the framework of the campaign, led by TOKI, one project followed another in dozens of shanty towns, for example, Ayazma, Başıbüyük, Gülsuyu-Gülensu and Derbent in Istanbul, as well as urban settlements with high levels of crushing poverty, such as Sulukule, Tarlabaşı, Süleymaniye, Fener-Balat and Tozkoparan, which were not technically categorized as slums.[8] Notwithstanding differing implementation principles, it can be argued that on the whole the main purpose of these projects was to fully integrate the housing and land stock in these places into the real-estate market. Of course, due to real-estate trade, there was a market structure in all these settlements, including the slums (Buğra, 1998; Öncü, 1988). However, issues such as the very fragmented structure of land ownership, the legal uncertainty of who owned the land and buildings, and the unqualified building stock would impede the smooth functioning of market relations. As the city continued to grow, the increasing competitive pressure due to economic rents on these settlements and, moreover, the fact that urban space is increasingly becoming the subject of large-scale capital investments rendered the phenomenon of incomplete marketization unsustainable in terms of building capital and public administration. The urban transformation practices, which aimed to demolish the existing housing stock and build high-yield housing while concurrently addressing the statutory ambiguities on property rights, were devised as an instrument in order to overcome the obstruction quickly and without causing any undesirable reaction.

It was foreseen that the legal powers of TOKI would be sufficient to overcome any possible resistance. Furthermore, that the beneficiaries would be those who would own property in the mass housing projects to be constructed by TOKI was designed as the principal mechanism for consent to the projects. Nonetheless, in most of the neighborhoods where the projects were initiated, the process did not progress as smoothly as the public administration had envisioned. Residents looked for ways to take collective action. The basic organization unit was the neighborhood solidarity associations that were founded during this process or that were inherited from previous periods of struggle. These associations brought together those who were entitled to apartments within the scope of the project and those who owned these units, although not legally entitled, as well as, more exceptionally, the tenants. Hence, from the announcement of the development plans, the neighborhood associations tried to become the main negotiating body for dealing with municipalities, TOKI and the contraction firms in order to determine who the legal beneficiaries would be from the onset of demolition to the construction of new buildings,. However, project owners attempted to cut the associations out, and sought ways to establish one-on-one relations with individual beneficiaries, thus controlling the inequalities and disagreements among inhabitants (Kuyucu and Ünsal, 2010).

The opposition to urban regeneration organized among neighborhood associations between 2004 and 2012 can be considered as the most volatile period.[9] During those years, dozens of associations kept trying to broaden their base in their living spaces, while on the other hand they were also searching for ways to create solidarity with each other through common platforms. With the help of the mechanisms for sharing of experiences between the neighborhoods established through informal alliances, such as the Istanbul Neighborhood Associations Platform, legal and technical knowledge necessary to sustain the counterclaims was shared; this is regarded as one of the fundamental tactics of the resistance. 

This revival in the neighborhood associations has over time led to the formation of a broader front against urban regeneration. Professionals, such as city planners, architects, and lawyers, have become involved in this front, occasionally through their involvement in professional societies and sometimes through academia but also by becoming involved in activist groups (for example, One Hope Association/the Solidarity Workshop, A Co-op Society’s Urbanism Movement or Social Rights Association). Even though the Neighborhood Associations Platform eventually disintegrated, such collaborative experiments that seek to bring the urban poor and the urban middle classes as well as professionals together have continued through other initiatives, such as the Sarıyer Neighborhood Associations Platform or the Urban Movements.

Indubitably, the discourse and action repertoire of each element in the struggle cannot be claimed to be fully identical. However, if we focus on the neighborhood associations in this cluster, it is possible to identify some commonalities especially in terms of demands. In many instances, organizers were not categorically opposed to the intervention of the public administration. On the contrary, the unqualified building stock and the feeling of insecurity kept alive by the ambiguity of property rights hampered the total rejection of the urban regeneration projects by community dwellers. For this reason, many neighborhood associations were calling for on-site transformation. In some localities, such as Gülsuyu-Gülensu and Sulukule, demands to develop alternative plans were brought up and gained a great deal of support. However, the projects outlined by TOKI and the municipalities invoked feelings of distrust as such projects ultimately led to mass displacement, as well as on-site transformation. Nevertheless, at this point it is worth noting that the reactions provoked at the neighborhood level were not homogeneous. Even though the community dwellers initially showed a common reaction, the structural differences between rights holders, squatters, and tenants, eventually created splits between them. When project owners took advantage of ambiguities in the legal framework defining the dissimilarities between inhabitants it was pretty enough to deepen such splits to a level that would weaken the movement and end the resistance (Kuyucu, 2014). On the other hand, in neighborhoods capable of sustaining the capacity of collective action, organizers focussed on eliminating the differences between right holders and those who were not recognized as right holders. In cases where this capacity was found to be somewhat loose, various sections of the neighborhood sought to increase their bargaining power with the public administration.

Aside from the fate of individual resistances, when we take a closer look at the discursive strategy of the anti-urban transformation movement as a whole, we see that the notion of the neighborhood itself tends to have a rather unique place. In the eyes of the insurgents, the neighborhood forms the very basis for making sense of the collective memory of the difficult conditions of the past and thus legitimizing the claims on the urban space (Özuğurlu, 2010). The fact that the settlements in the shanty towns were established by the inhabitants of the neighborhood from scratch, and even some of these areas were only gained after fierce struggles against the state, makes the neighborhood one of the founding elements of the collective identity. 

This importance attributed to the neighborhood can be interpreted as a stylized expression of the social solidarity networks that the urban poor and the working class hold under the conditions of challenging urban life. If this proposition is valid, in other words, if the neighborhood is considered as a set of practices in which social reproduction relations that provide relative protection to the working class in the face of the destructiveness of market relations can be produced, then it would be appropriate to think of the defence of the neighborhood as the defence of an urban entity ¾ of course, without ignoring the structural dynamics of inequality that the neighborhood itself contains. From this point of view, it would be appropriate to interpret the neighborhood movements of the period I have been focusing on as defensive movements in urban spaces against enclosures, whether their organizers prefer to use this terminology themselves or not.[10] On the other hand, it is fair to say that the fate of the neighborhood defences is defined by the very limits of this strategy. Likewise, as seen in many instances, the desire that the commodification processes in urban space created in the residents of the neighborhoods themselves (the desire to gain a share of economic rents as a means of social mobility) won out against attempts to re-establish the neighborhood.[11]

Resistance to the expropriation of public spaces

The urban transformation projects found in Istanbul today are just one of the quintessential examples of Harvey’s (2003) conceptualization of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ in which he emphasizes the continuity and timeliness of the attacks by capital on the commons. The abandonment of one of the most pivotal elements in the field of social reproduction, for example, housing, to market dynamics produces devastating consequences for the urban working class. The fact that this social layer was deprived of the protection of the solidarity networks that it was able to establish in the past and were eventually scattered around peri-urban areas due to mass displacements creates a dynamic that reinforces the fragmentation experienced in city domain (Fırat and Genç, 2015).

Nonetheless, it would be misleading to portray the enclosures in the context of neoliberal urbanism as if they were restricted to the field of housing. Likewise, the fact that the interest of the urban opposition in Istanbul in the period before the Gezi Resistance was increasingly directed to the public spaces in a way confirms this fact. As physical spaces such as parks, squares, coasts, and streets were increasingly the subject of the interventions of capital and political power during those years, controversies around the defence of such areas have also gained momentum with more determination. Renewal projects such as Galataport, Haydarpaşaport and Haliçport, for instance, caused such protests to evolve, over time, into opposition campaigns. These projects aimed at transforming valuable industrial structures and sites in the historic centre of Istanbul through public-private partnerships and including exclusively commercial activities. Thus, it increasingly rendered these physical spaces, such as the coasts, which are by definition characterized by public ownership and public use –even though it is not always the case on a daily basis– inaccessible. On top of that, due to such projects, the collective knowledge accumulated by urban dwellers over the years and the collective memory around these products/spaces were appropriated (this is much more evident in the objections raised to Haydarpaşa and the railway station). In other words, the urban commons, which were both the tangible and intangible products of the collective production of Istanbulites, were enclosed by capital through the interventions of the state. Although so many of us tend to focus on the enclosure of coastal areas to the use of the public or the privatization of public goods in a way that would harm the state budget, in fact the firm implications of these enclosures endure in more multiple embedded layers than they seem to be.

Seen in this way, it is not possible to say that the debates on the fate of public spaces and even campaigns have taken full account of the complex consequences of the enclosures of the commons. In the examples I have presented so far, the mainstay of the campaigns encompass the notions of accessibility, public interest, and cultural/urban heritage. These campaigns, which began with initiatives of professionals working in related areas (mainly architects and planners) and their corresponding professional societies, predominantly targeted the whole public rather than appealing to a more defined group that would be directly affected by such developments, as in the case of the opposition of neighborhood movements to urban transformation. 

They conducted the campaign with reference to the aforementioned abstract values as well. This discursive strategy, which aims to communicate the truth that the public’s rights and interests are appropriated to the public itself, envisaged taking its legitimacy from the values ​​and orientations that the disciplines such as law, design, and planning have accumulated over the years. The campaigns’ repertoire of events was also shaped according to this discursive strategy. Press releases and counter-claims for cancellation plans were the preferred methods. As a matter of fact, the limits of resistance were determined according to the constraints of this very strategy. This is because the AKP’s reckless moves to undermine the occupational ideologies that have been built step by step through the years of national developmentalism and the professional ideologies behind it, have largely, and inevitably, rendered the campaign efforts void. Hence, this discursive strategy could easily be framed by the circles of power as if it were mere rhetoric that appealed to the concerns of the urban middle classes and did not address the real problems of the poor. However, as of 2013, the association of Haliç (Golden Horn) Solidarity attempted to show that the enclosure of these physical spaces is neither an attack that solely focussed on urban middle class areas, nor a concept of cultural heritage that can be considered independent of the current the social stratification of the city.  

In this regard, the upheaval of resistance concerning the Emek Cinema (‘emek’ means labor) stands as an effective counter-example because the public debate provoked by this resistance shows us that urban memory and heritage are, in effect, commons formed by active, contingent, and conflicting processes rather than given and fixed content (Fırat, 2011). As a matter of fact, the Emek Cinema movement is a practice of resistance that was triggered by the concern of defending the rights of the public against the privatization of a public property. The basis for the conflict between the organizers of the resistance and the project owners is the contradictory claims on the property in question. The question of whether the decisive criterion was the change value or the use value in the process of renovating the city block where the cinema was located lies at the heart of the conflict. The aspirations of the district municipality in pushing through this renewal project on highly valuable real-estate were its contribution to Istanbul’s central position in international tourism. Be that as it may, the sole demands of the movement were for the cinema to remain as public property and open to collective public use.

Undoubtedly, this contrast is a conflict as regards the concrete forms of ‘urban entrepreneurship’ adopted by local governments in the context of Istanbul in the 2000s. And yet, what is even more momentous is that, as Harvey has justly claimed (2002), the collective cultural capital that the residents of the city had accumulated over the years was monopolized and thus converted into economic benefits. The enclosure of the material and intangible means of urban collective creativity plays a key role in the functioning of neoliberal urbanism, at least as much as commodification of the land. The second dimension of the antagonism behind the resistance of the Emek Cinema was the reaction to the enclosure of such urban commons. This is because of the way both lifestyles and cultural practices that derive from them in a given place are framed in accordance with the trends of the global tourism industry, and thus transform them into mere commercial elements so as to increase the attractiveness of individual locations, paradoxically, causes them to lose their originality and in time lead to uniformity.

Nevertheless, the main point not to be overlooked in this reaction is the fact that the rising upheaval against uniformity per se has redefined the urban memory. As the movement expanded the narratives about the position of the cinema in the cultural and political history of the city so as to justify its demands, and in parallel, the practices of re-using the concrete space in accordance with these narratives (organising film screening events on the street where the cinema is located, forums, street parties, concerts, May 1 celebrations, and so on), the Emek Cinema has been, in turn, redefined as an element of cultural heritage.

However, it would be appropriate to think that this redefinition is a form of remembrance-in-movement rather than a sole portrayal of a fixed content with a nostalgic tone. Memory is built through and during a collective act (commoning). In this way, the social sections that mobilized the resistance (the urban middle classes at a glance) have built a discursive system through which they can express the implicit reaction concerning the forms of spatial injustice and domination they experience owing to the dramatic regeneration of the urban space as a whole. The fact that this discursive construction cannot be ignored by the ruling circles as well as in the discussions of cultural heritage occurring in other venues of the city is the fact that this active memory construction has successfully been able to connect with the concrete forms of exploitation and domination. Now, if we take all this into consideration, it should essentially be possible to say that the resistance seen in the case of Emek Cinema is an exceptional example of the opposition that extends from the defence of one urban common to the establishment of new ones.

Last but not least, it should be emphasized that the conflicts emerging over the appropriation of public spaces have a certain dimension exposing the overlapping dynamics of domination in such spaces. In addition, space is not only experienced through class exploitation but also through day-to-day relations in regards to gender and ethnic identities (Gonen, 2010; Alkan Zeybek, 2011; Alkan, 2012; Yonucu, 2014). The expressions of articulations between various relations of exploitation and domination are indeed an integral aspect of the construction of social identities. For this reason, even the most rudimentary use of the street at a basic level tends to construe one of the critical agendas of urban politics. In this respect, the tactics and improvization practices developed in recent years by the feminist movement and the LGBT movement in order to take back the streets (night marches, street parties organized after major actions, street workshops, the use of central city parks such as Maçka or Moda for forums and meetings, and so on) are examples that need to be kept in mind with respect to the expanding platform of urban politics. The interest in night marches organized by feminists can be interpreted, for instance, as an expression of the response to the provocation of male-dominated rhetoric and practices, as well as an outpouring of the emotive reaction in respect to the day-to-day violence to which women are exposed triggered by the transformation of urban spaces. Similarly, the efforts of the LGBT movement to reclaim these spaces in the face of homophobic violence, which determines the access criteria of some commercial as well as public spaces, should also be seen as a form of opposition to the multiple domination dynamics incorporated into the use of space.

Such organized, defined reclamation attempts to redefine the conventional use of public spaces, as determined by the public authority, or even more undefined, improvised interventions,[12] give a clue to the scope of the notion of the right to the city as conceptualized by Lefebvre (1996). The right to the city, in the sense of Lefebvre, refers to the desire of the inhabitants to transform life through the revitalization of the city as a whole, not a simple sum of the individual rights of inhabitants. Hence, it is fair to say that commoning activities are both the concrete expression of this aspiration now as well as the experiments embodying certain implications for the future.

The Gezi Resistance as an urban event

A massive literature on the very nature, actors, and consequences of the Gezi Resistance has been produced. I do not hereby intend to address all of these discussions here. Instead, I would like to define this multi-layered resistance as an urban event and assess it within the context of recent urban social movements. However, in order for this somewhat limited reading to be understood more clearly, it is necessary to take a closer look at two opposing ideas postulated in the literature in question. The first one elucidates the anger that emerged during the Gezi Resistance with respect to the demand for democracy and freedom of the young middle class urbanites, who have the means to access educational opportunities and who can seamlessly be absorbed into the economic activities defined by the new capitalism and also who are capable of following global cultural trends closely (e.g. Keyder, 2013). Accordingly, this social section, defined as the ‘new middle classes’ by Çağlar Keyder, was a social explosion that reflected the pressure felt with respect to the restrictions on freedom and rights brought by an increasingly authoritarian political regime. From this point of view, there is also a historically internal connection between the Gezi uprising and other examples of such social attempts (for example, the Arab Rebellions) because the evolution of neoliberal capitalism defines a contradiction between the social and political orientations of the new middle classes and the out-of-date administrative practices of the political elites, especially in developing countries. What is of pivotal importance within the context of our debate is that the formulation of this thesis hereby seeks abstract democracy and freedom, completely excluding urban dynamics or, at best, degrading the notion of urban conflict to a secondary phenomenon.[13] Another interpretation that I would like to emphasize is a more articulated notion in political literature than the academic one. In this regard, the Gezi revolt should be seen as the apex of subsequent urban resistance practices that I previously addressed, as well as the movements prior to the Gezi revolt itself. In other words, the Gezi revolt was the culmination of the urban movements with regard to the housing problem and public spaces. Nevertheless, this kind of reading ascribes purposefulness to resistance, and does not give a satisfactory answer to the question of why the people living in districts suffering from urban regeneration, for example certain Alevi and Kurdish quarters of the city of Istanbul, did not participate in the resistance as would be expected.

In contrast to these readings, when we look at the case of the Gezi from a perspective that focuses on urban commons,[14] we see that it is an urban event in the true sense of the word, and yet this is not just about centring urban issues at the heart of the political agenda, as is often claimed. In this respect, three distinct layers are worth mentioning here. Firstly, Gezi, above all, refers to the defence of a public park that was open to the use of general public, i.e., an urban common (Akbulut, 2017). In this respect, the resistance, was the ‘Enough is enough!’ response given to such lawlessness and recklessness inherent in the intention of converting a park, which is categorically a public property, into a shopping centre through the means of privatization. 

Undoubtedly, it is quite difficult to give a decisive answer to the question of why the reaction that arose here emerged in the Gezi Park but not in similar preceding cases. Nonetheless, at least it may be argued that the surprising vehemence and unexpected magnitude of the response of the Gezi protests was due to the lack of legitimacy of the attacks of capital and power on a social-ecological asset. With this in mind, it is necessary to take the image of the ‘just three to five trees’ seriously, as the dissatisfaction of large social groups felt in the face of the gentrification of Istanbul in the 2000s has found its expression and came to light.

On the second layer, we must read the Gezi Resistance as a counter-reaction to the rapid disappearance of the common spaces that serve as a meeting point for diverse social groups living in the city. In today’s Istanbul, the rapid disappearance of such physical areas (common spaces), where practices independent of the relations determined by the market and state can be sustained, in effect means that the anonymity, the possibility of meeting one another, which is perhaps one of the most important elements of modern urban experience, is lost. As it is quite clear in the case of Gezi Park, the fact that the common areas are gradually being enclosed and appropriated by capital and political power means that while Istanbul is expanding in terms of physical spaces, it is in effect fragmented into an increasing number of plots with regard to social spaces. With that in mind, it is possible to interpret the Gezi Resistance as a manifestation of the longing for a city open to daily encounters and the desire to create such a suitable city through the withdrawal of an urban common (Genç, 2018).

However, trying to define the case of Gezi with its counterpart is doomed to end up an incomplete effort (Fırat, 2016). For this reason, we must include the nature of the practices implemented during the two weeks when the Gezi Park and its environs were occupied by the insurgents into our efforts so as to make more meaningful sense of the Gezi Protest. From this point of view, it may be regarded as certain that the way in which ordinary practices of daily life are organized from nourishment to shelter, or from security to leisure activities, per se, harbours potential and longing. 

The fact that the insurgents were able to provide for these kinds of needs following such values ​​and principles as freedom, equality, reciprocity, solidarity, trust, and self-governance in a space where the state and capital were excluded for a temporary period contrasts with current urban life that is constructed on the basis of competition and cruelty. The commoning of the social reproduction area, albeit for a temporary moment, involved not only the longing for a different kind of city but also the potential practices within that city. With regard to this layer, the Gezi uprising does not only refer to the transgression of the city but also further emerges from it as the envisagement of its reconstruction. It should be kept in mind that this moment of infringement and construction provides a means of self-governance for the resisters, giving rise to the opportunity to bend the dynamics of disempowerment caused by neoliberal urbanism. The concrete utopias established through commoning, that is, the momentary and temporary practices that can be realized as of today on the verge of a different kind of life and city that is much longed for, displays a sense of ‘doability’ with regard to the activists. What makes the Gezi Resistance an urban political experience is not that issues concerning urban life have been raised more powerfully, but simply due to the manifestation of the moments of creativity and the potential of encounters inherent within urban spaces.

Concluding remarks: the moment of crisis and possibilities

In this paper, I essentially argue that the individual practices of urban resistance observed in Istanbul during the 2000s ultimately constitute a generation of urban social movements. Yet, it should not be contemplated that this delineation relies solely on a temporal phenomenon. On the contrary, notwithstanding the varying underlying reasons for these resistances in question, we can clearly discern internal connections between the distinct layers of this generation if we focus on the fundamental attributes of the full-scale restructuring that the city has undergone in this period. The conceptual framework for the urban commons presented in such a reading bestows us with intellectual and political means because the spatial regime established in the regeneration process, the forms of political subjectivity defined by this regime, together with the spatial power strategies framing them, confront the tangible and intangible resources that exist in the urban space via an unprecedented total attack that has not yet been seen in the modern history of the city. From a wealth of urban ecosystems such as the city’s forests and water basins to urban infrastructure systems, or from community meeting spaces such as the sea front or squares to living spaces, urban commons are rapidly falling under the rule of capital and state with the help of neoliberal urbanism. In this regard, the urban movement that I have portrayed in this article should be read as the defence and reclamation of the urban commons, as well as of course the efforts made toward the generation of new ones.

Looking back on the past, it is fair to say that this generation has managed to expand the scope of urban politics. Leaving aside the issue of squatters and housing, today if we are capable of looking at a series of issues that have not yet become the subject of political struggles in the urban sphere in a conventional fashion, we owe it to the pernicious efforts of the participants of the movement. Furthermore, the very extension of the scope should not be merely limited to the new items added to the agenda. The dynamics of urban politics and the diversification and complexity of their actors are the consequence of the activeness of this generation. Likewise, as seen in the Gezi Resistance, the implications of the struggles in the urban space with this new pattern contain dramatically shaky and transformative potentials. It must be recalled that the Gezi Resistance, apart from everything else, put forward a different kind of image/scope/idea of the city blended with the anger provoked by the dissatisfaction of urban life. In this way, it managed to blur the boundaries of corporate politics, albeit for a short time.

We know that the political potential that becomes more visible with the Gezi Park resistance – the possibility of re-arranging the boundaries of the politics when facing the other, and in this way the possibility of establishing a new city – has greatly diminished in the meantime. Even though the imagination and the practice of Gezi have succeeded in dislodging the cornerstones of established politics, it did not yet survive in the accompanying harsh conditions of the political conjuncture. And yet, it is still necessary to explore the recesses left behind the moment of uprising.[15] This is because the practices blended in these spaces tend to gain more gravity in the face of dynamics of the crisis that are increasingly becoming more and more multi-layered. In the face of the scope and destructiveness of the crisis, the potential for self-governance embodied within such recesses, as well as the palpable kernel of the envisagement of another kind of future, continuously gain new meanings.

Today, Turkey seems to have submerged into a moment of multiple crises. The signs that the shocks endured in the economic sphere will make life even more troublesome, especially for the laboring classes as well as other oppressed groups, are becoming clearer with each passing day. The effects of the ecological crisis, especially on climate and food, are becoming more and more evident day by day as if they prove the fact that ecological destruction is not just a dystopic scenario of the future. The recent democratic crisis, to crown it all, denotes the dismantling of the political institutions established within the last century. Undoubtedly, the analysis of such crisis processes, which have their counterparts on a global scale, necessitates lengthy discussions. Nevertheless, it may easily be said that: Urban spaces are the most principal areas where the dramatic consequences of the articulation of these multiple crises are experienced on a daily basis.

It is precisely for this reason that the political meaning of the commoning experiments implemented by the urban social movements has gained new currency. While such experiments may not completely overturn the social systems that have induced these crises, they can still strengthen the struggles in determining the direction that may make it possible to overcome such potential crises. Today, in a conjuncture in which there is a danger of a more destructive, aggressive, and authoritarian forms of capitalism on the horizon, the provisions and means of steering toward a more egalitarian and emancipatory social life will be reproduced through such experiments. Just as the commons, which are passed down to us from previous generations, are the accumulation of collective creativity that is revealed by past experiences of struggle, the common good life of the future will also be blended in the experiments of the present – that is, the present determined by the moment of crisis.


* I am deeply indebted to Zeyno Pekünlü and Begüm Özden Fırat for their invaluable comments and suggestions.


[1] I would like to clarify the fact that the examples I have dealt with here are mostly relate to the practices that occur in a certain, somewhat defined, collective action. Moments of collective creativity that emerge in the course of our daily life together with commoning practices that pan out from them, all of which I consider to have a rather crucial place in the context of the politics of urban commons, do not fall within the scope of this article.

[2] When we speak of the commons, natural resources such as water, air, and forests are the first ones that come to mind. Nevertheless, I basically use the concept here to address the practices that are autonomous from the processes of marketization and commodification and those in which new relations through social reproduction are established/maintained, as well as the areas and spaces in which such practices occur implicitly. Such a definition does not necessarily exclude natural resources, of course, but neither does it always include them. Furthermore, it makes it possible to incorporate into the analysis both tangible and intangible products of our collective creativity –information, cultural heritage, physical public spaces such as parks or squares, and urban infrastructure systems, to name but a few, which is more difficult to identify but also is an indispensable element when it comes to urban spaces. For a study that outlines the commons literature, see Adaman, Akbulut and Kocagoz, 2017. For a comprehensive theoretical analysis of the differences between these paths, see Dardot and Laval, 2018.

[3] For a review of legal and administrative regulations in this period, see Balaban, 2013.

[4] For a comprehensive review of this multi-dimensional process, detailing the context of Istanbul, see Yalçıntan et al., 2014.

[5] Indisputably, lands or structures can at times also be regarded as commons in terms of ownership (e.g. coasts). In most cases, however, it is their uses that render them common rather than their legal categories as properties.

[6] For a more detailed discussion, see Fırat, 2011, and Akbulut, 2017.

[7] In an article elsewhere, we address the conception of neoliberalism from a much wider perspective as a continuum of strategies that seeks to abate the capacity of social and political actions of the working class. See Fırat and Genç, 2015.

[8] Urban transformation has so far been one of the most prominent areas of focus in the literature of recent urban studies. For just a few of dozens studies on the subject, see Bartu Candan and Kolluoglu, 2008; Kuyucu and Unsal, 2010; Lovering and Turkmen, 2011; Türkün, 2014.

[9] For a detailed discussion on the neighborhood movements during this period, see Unsal, 2014.

[10] However, this proposition does not necessarily mean that the neighborhood is, in any case, immanently an urban common. Indeed, the commons and socialization forms other than market relations cannot be regarded as identical categories (cf. Gough, 2002). It is a separate question that needs to be answered in terms of which processes affect the commons in regard to equitable, emancipatory, or sheer oppressive socialization forms and to what extent they cause the commons to differentiate. Yet, I would like to leave this discussion for now since it requires a much more detailed conceptual unearthing. However, it is important to emphasize the following: it is of utmost importance to take into account the very limits and conditions of the neighborhood either in respect to the urban commons defence or its re-establishment so as to understand the hindrances of resistance practices that emerged advocating the neighborhood in the period in which I am concerned.

[11] For a study discussing the construction of the neighborhood and the identity of the neighborhood resident through a sample of mainly urban middle classes, such as the case of Kadıköy, in the context of post-Gezi urban activism, see Gülen, 2016.

[12] To name some of the numerous examples: the protests against the turnstiles mounted at the seafront in Bostancı, the outdoor meetings that started with the ban on the consumption of alcohol in public spaces, the street demonstrations following the enclosure of Galata Tower by the municipality, likewise the pavement gatherings after the ban on using tables and chairs in the entertainment places in Beyoğlu, as well as the use of Gezi Park as a concert venue and forum or picnic area prior to the Gezi Resistance.

[13] For a detailed review of this view, see Kuymulu, 2018.

[14] It should be noted that this point of view is a perspective that merely focuses on a certain moment in time and place rather than the whole of the Gezi Park process.

[15] It is not possible to prepare an exhaustive list; and yet, some of the examples that still exist today and some fading away are as follows: food cooperatives, collective school and nursery initiatives, urban gardens, urban orchards, squatter experiments, neighborhood forums and assemblies, defences of parks such as the recent cases of Ihlamurdere or Validebağ, or formations such as the Northern Forests Defence fighting for forests and water basins all of which are of pivotal significance for the city.


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