Habitat II in Istanbul: Dispatch from the U.N. SummitSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Throughout Habitat II, the World Summit on Cities held in Istanbul in June of this year, people in the host city held their breath in anticipation of some adverse incident that might mar the proceedings.
Habitat II was among a series of such global summits organized by the United Nations to define the targets of international mobilization in the 21st century, and, for two weeks, Istanbul was in the limelight of the international media.
During those two weeks, there were no bombings in Istanbul, no heavy-handed police violence, no prison hunger strikes, no street actions by Kurdish nationalists. The feverish renovation activity in the city's 19th-century core, designated as the main conference venue, was, to the astonishment of all, completed on time for the opening ceremonies. After months of having to painfully scramble over mounds of debris while sidewalks were re-laid with brick, streets covered with asphalt, buildings freshly painted and flowers planted, people's complaints about the inconvenience and expense were forgotten when Istanbulites discovered, along with their foreign guests, how beautiful their own city was.
To be certain, this was, to translate from the Turkish, little more than a question of "make-up hastily applied." The people of Istanbul know from experience that the very same sidewalks and streets will soon be dug up again, in the course of piecemeal repairs to the city's deteriorating infrastructure. Walking or driving in Istanbul is a process of learning to negotiate with open pits: no sooner are burst water pipes repaired and the debris removed, than sewage pipes begin to leak, or electricity or telephone cables collapse.
It bears pointing out that each of these repairs falls under the domain of a different public agency, with its own network of private subcontractors who demand payment on schedule; thus work begins, stops, and resumes depending upon the availability of funding. Twice each fiscal year, when money is released, tasks are farmed out to contractors and the digging crews get to work. A single backhoe can dig miles of asphalt in one day, then simply disappear. Thereafter, the pace of repair work depends on how soon the money runs out, which in turn depends upon inflation, which in turn depends upon the amount of new banknotes the Turkish state mint prints, which in its turn is contingent upon possibilities of renewed borrowing in world markets, and so on.
All of this would come as common sense for Istanbulites who have to pay 15,000 Turkish lira to buy a single loaf of bread at the corner bakery, or 83,200 Turkish lira for one U.S. dollar, knowing their prices are interdependent. The best way of beginning a new day in Istanbul is to find out yesterday's closing exchange rates for U.S. and German currency before leaving the house in the morning. For the majority of Istanbul's inhabitants — literate and illiterate, street vendor and homemaker alike - - the ability to think in terms of at least three different national currencies is a matter of survival. The daily papers publish regular advice columns for the small saver, offering tips on which currencies are most likely to yield the best profits.
Such daily calculations lie at the very heart of the substantive concerns of Habitat II, which focused on issues facing the inhabitants of gigantic and unmanageable metropolises, an estimated half of the world population in the coming century. Symbolizing the accelerated momentum of globalization are the glossy facades of megacapital which have changed the skyline of major cities around the world. Office towers housing multinational corporations, transnational banks, world trade centers and five-star hotels — once the exclusive hallmark of a small number of world cities — now signify the integration of almost every major metropolis into global capitalism. The extension of information technologies and travel possibilities have created a network of global spaces within the interstices of metropolitan life inhabited by a growing coterie of transnational professionals and specialists. From the top of this high-rise corporate economy and culture, the city down below appears to be inhabited by a swirling mass of immigrant populations, competing for low wage jobs in an increasingly informal urban economy as the state retreats from its welfare functions. The combined economic and political imperatives of globalization seem to sweep away particularities of time and place to generate common outcomes everywhere: growing ethnic, racial and cultural heterogeneity, coupled with social and spatial polarization. The daunting prospect of gated-communities as the universal phenomenon of the next century no longer seems far-fetched.
It is the relentless drift toward economic polarization and ethnic fragmentation, which local and national governments seem unwilling or unable to redress, that the World Summit on Cities proposed to tackle through global initiatives and action. Where then were the fresh insights and innovative solutions proposed to face the new crises? The answers seemed to reside in a series of buzzwords circulating throughout the numerous official forums and documents of the Summit: sustainable development, preventing social distress, promoting social justice in cities, citizen participation, democracy, decentralization, and partnership between private and public sectors.
When translated from English into everyday Turkish, most of these terms sounded familiar, yet oddly contradictory in their political connotations. "Metropolitan autonomy" and "citizen participation" have a history of association with the progressive, democratic left in Turkey, as distinct from the state-centered, bureaucratic and authoritarian platforms of both the conservative right and the radical left. Moreover, increased responsiveness to citizen demands was the political rationale for the adoption of a new model of metropolitan governance in 1983 — a two- tier system with directly elected metropolitan and district mayors. With the hindsight of the past ten years however, the major outcome of Istanbul's experiment with decentralization appears to have been to widen and increase participation in clientalistic networks. Particularistic, individualized demands of citizens are now channeled through district municipalities, captured by different political parties, without necessarily reducing the total sums of money spent or received in bribes. The 1994 campaign promise of Turkey's Islamic Welfare Party to combat corruption and introduce "a just order" to "alleviate social distress" served to broaden its appeal beyond its hard-core religious following, and allowed it to capture the metropolitan mayoralty of Istanbul, as well as the majority of district mayoralties. At the time of Habitat II meetings, Istanbul's first-time-ever Islamic "metro-mayor" had been in office for more than a year, and the Welfare Party's potential coalition partnership in the Ankara government — not yet a fait accompli — was, given its slim majority in the recent general elections, under heated discussion. Thus the translations into Turkish of such phrases as "promoting social justice" or 'relieving poverty and social distress" were already part of the vocabulary of political Islam in contemporary Turkish politics.
What became apparent during the Habitat II proceedings is that the same terms and phrases have very different connotations in English. In the present global political-economic juncture, when states have begun to retreat from their welfare functions, such key phrases as "citizen participation," "generating urban vitality by mobilizing community resources," "empowering the marginal and the oppressed," no longer seem to denote countervailing mechanisms against the omnipresent national states and their monolithic bureaucracies. Rather, they imply that in an increasingly borderless world in which nation-states have been reduced to irrelevance, inhabitants of cities in the coming century will have to find ways of helping themselves. This was at least my understanding of the Summit's main message, conveyed through such statements as "Pessimists who see nothing more than metropolises beset by crises forget that cities are also places where human resources abound and where creativity thrives unceasingly"; or, "In times of economic crisis, those who are determined to work for a more coherent city will most certainly discover in them new sources of support." This would require, more than ever, cooperation between transnational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local citizen groups in metropolises around the world toward a common aim: promoting social cohesion and urban vitality.
Neither the pessimistic scenarios or urban strife and malaise outlined by individual speakers, nor the woeful inadequacy of the global initiatives proposed seemed to detract from the mood of festivity, celebration and unity which pervaded the World Summit meetings. A peculiarity of the term "global" is the ease with which it conjures a sense of a single humanity. Instead of perceiving the world as divided by the East/West or North/South axes, ranked into First and Third World categories, we now have the hope, expressed in the term "globalization," that we can abandon the common tendency to perceive the "not-us" as the repository of our imagined opposites. The social imaginary of a single world, and of one-humanity, was not only ceremonially enacted and confirmed throughout the official proceedings of the Summit, but generated a sense of emotional bonding among participants in the NGO forums, including myself.
The exact number of foreign participants in the Summit has not been disclosed. While the precise number remains a matter of politically-biased conjecture, it clearly represented a wide spectrum of domestic groups, organizations and academics, as well as innumerable university students who filled the NGO forums. Within Turkey, the largest category of people for whom Habitat II's success was vital were Istanbul's passionate sports fans, for whom the summit was merely a dress rehearsal, well worth the expense, as Turkey positions itself to compete for hosting the Olympic Games in the year 2004. Sports authorities concur that the prospects for 2004 are much brighter since Habitat II proved to the whole world that Istanbul can successfully organize global events. Indeed, the same public relations firm in charge of Habitat II will handle the world-wide publicity campaign for the Olympics, and with a larger budget. "Istanbul 2004" stickers and T- shirts were already on the market during Habitat II meetings.
The ways in which a global event such as Habitat II becomes inscribed in local memory could be variously characterized as highly complex, profoundly contradictory, or fundamentally paradoxical. Yet, I am reluctant to resort to any of these phrases by way of conclusion. Perhaps the most recent joke circulating among Istanbulites may serve as as an appropriate ending: Turkey applied for membership in the European Economic Community — Istanbul was accepted.
Ayse Öncü is professor of Sociology at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul. She is co-editor, with Petra Weyland, of the forthcoming Space, Culture, Power: Struggles over New Identities in Globalizing Cities (London: Zed Press)