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ALMA Reviews Blog: The Refugees’ Right to the Center of the City and Spatial Justice: Gentrification vs Commoning Practices in Tarlabaşı-Istanbul

Charalampos Tsavdaroglou; University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Published in 2020 in Urban Planning

Available at:  https://www.cogitatiopress.com/urbanplanning/article/view/3098

Istanbul has been experiencing a redevelopment frenzy since the early 2000s. Most of these projects of urban renewal and regeneration first targeted run-down old neighbourhoods that had experienced an increase in their potential land value. Tarlabaşı is one of these historical neighbourhoods located in Beyoglu district, Istanbul. The paper “The Refugees’ Right to the Center of the City and Spatial Justice: Gentrification vs Commoning Practices in Tarlabaşı-Istanbul”, written by Charalampos Tsavdaroglou, looks at this neighbourhood in particular: by the 2000s, Tarlabaşı had become a neighbourhood populated by the most disadvantaged segments of the population, including Kurdish people from the southeast, Roma, foreign immigrants and refugees, as well as a transsexual community. Under Law 5366 enacted in 2005, which enables regeneration in historic areas, nine lots in Tarlabaşı were declared as “urban renewal” areas in 2006, with the intention to convert the buildings into hotels, shopping spaces and residences. This initial stimulus was expected to trigger a complete physical change and gentrification of the area. In 2007, Gap Insaat (a construction company) won the tender to prepare a project for the area.

These legal changes and the project prepared by the construction company proposed the demolition of the entire area, effectively resulting in the displacement of all those who had lived there. Tsavdaroglou skilfully describes the processes of state-led gentrification that were triggered with the start of this project and the implementation of the law from the perspective of one group of the neighbourhood’s inhabitants, refugees. Tsavdaroglou uses the methods of ethnography and participatory observation to artfully describe the notions of the right to the city and spatial inequality in the case of Tarlabaşı and the mobilisation of the right to the city by refugees who had come to view this neighbourhood as their new home.

There have been many scholars (including myself (see Can, 2020)) who have examined and described the processes of gentrification in the Tarlabaşı neighbourhood. These studies also focused on the vulnerable urban population that was affected and displaced as a result. However, what this particular study contributes to the literature is that the author takes a perspective of commoning and micro-resistance by the urban poor and especially the refugees. As the author himself puts it:

Beyond and against the gentrification policies and the mainstream stigmatization rhetoric of Tarlabaşı, there is a plethora of less visible social relations, gatherings, and gestures of daily commoning practices as well as self-organized refugees’ and locals’ solidarity groups and community centers that claim the right to the center of the city and spatial justice. (p. 235)

This notion of survivability and of creating common spatialities to continue urban practices has not been much studied and it offers a fresh perspective of looking at gentrification and how to resist it.

The author defines commoning in his paper as “those collective social relations that maintain, resist or claim material or immaterial territories outside of the market-led or state-led management and are constituted by the triad: common-pool resources, commoning, and community” (p. 232). In other words, practices of commoning include (but of course are not limited to) networks of mutual aid, any kind of solidarity exchanges, practices that are exercised outside of the private market with no profit-making purposes and activities of mutual sharing, caring and support in a community. This term has gained traction recently, especially in the field of radical critical geography. The author goes into detail in the paper to explain the practices of communing, such as collective kitchens and social gatherings, communities created by the refugees and the locals, and how their experience of stigmatisation and exclusion allows them to come together in a way that creates social and political bonds. This practice and notion overlap perfectly with the right to the city and being an urban citizen regardless of one’s tenure.

The author presents three conclusions. First, he concludes that the processes of gentrification in Tarlabaşı work almost as an invasion and prevent the refugees from even trying to assert their right to the city because of demolition, police control, increased stigmatisation and criminalisation and finally the touristification of the area. Secondly, he concludes that the concept of open space can be used as a tool to emphasise spatial justice. He uses openness in this context as a way for refugees and other communities to come together with the intention to contest the stigmatisation and injustice that prevent them from exercising their right to the city. Third, the author argues that these everyday and silent networks of solidarity that are rooted in the need to survive (especially in the case of Syrian refugees who fled their country because of civil war) can be considered as a way to mobilise the right to the city and spatial justice. The author states, and I concur, that the practices of commoning through the values of caring and sharing to survive can be used as a catalyst to mobilise notions of spatial justice and is a perfect example of the right to the city on the ground.

Reviewed by: Aysegul Can

Works cited:

Can, Aysegul. 2020. “A Recipe for Conflict in the Historic Environment of Istanbul.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 19 (1): 131–62.

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