Urban renewal in Diyarbakır: A tool for gentrification and assimilation?

Eylül Deniz Yaşar – Diyarbakır (Amed)

Successive urban renewal projects in Diyarbakır’s (Amed’s) two strategic districts, Sur and Bağlar, might be designed to achieve hidden objectives of the Turkish state. These are the sentiments expressed by a number of urban specialists and residents, who suspect that under the discourse of ‘modernization’ and ‘economic revival’, there might be a secret agenda aimed at gentrification, assimilation and displacement of poor Kurdish citizens.

Poor neighbourhoods in Turkey have often been criminalized and ghettoized. When it comes to Kurdish cities, this marginalization becomes even more extreme, and ‘urban renewal’ can and often does have devastating consequences on the poorest residents. It was only recently that the new urban renewal project in Diyarbakır’s Bağlar district was approved by President Erdoğan himself. Today, huge billboards in the city centre of Diyarbakir can be seen, announcing the “gospel” of urban renewal in Bağlar, alongside images of a smiling Erdoğan.

The previous example of urban renewal in the city is Sur and it is well-known that it displaced poor Kurdish people who had lived there for years. A recent Medyanews report uncovered how the urban renewal strategy in Sur provided little opportunity for longtime residents to reap the benefits of the new housing schemes and developments. Cultural and physical displacement, in this instance, came hand in hand with the loss of the social fabric of Sur. Kurdish residents living in the urban renewal areas were crudely swept aside to make way for wealthier newcomers.

MedyaNews interviewed urban specialists regarding the urban redesign of Sur and the proposed redesign project for Bağlar, the details of which remain unclarified by the state authorities.

Urban renewal in Sur: Destruction of culture

“We should first talk about Suriçi (Sur) when we talk about any urban renewal project in Diyarbakır. The destruction of Sur, such a wicked destruction that turned a historical site into a plain field, reveals the true intention behind it”, states Nevin Soyukaya, who was the Head of Diyarbakir Museum. He was also the director for the Field Coordination of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) during the time when Sur (the area within Diyarbakır Fortress) and Hevsel Gardens were successfully assessed and became a world heritage site.

Soyukaya was demoted and transferred to another city in 2013 due to her dissent against the various propositions that were being made by the authorities. She retired in order to continue her dedicated work to ensure that the Diyarbakir Fortress and Hevsel Gardens would be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then she began to work as the Head of Cultural Heritage in Diyarbakır Municipality, which was then under the governance of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). When the HDP was displaced from power in the municipality by the centre and replaced by a trustee, she was purged from her position.

Soyukaya calls the urban renewal design policy in Sur “a copy-paste imitation of Diyarbakir”. As she explains: “The real distortion, the annihilation of Sur, occurred during the destruction policies and practices of the state after the clashes ended. The city was extinguished. After this, they said that they would begin an urban renewal based on the conservation development plan, but they revised the plan twice in 2016 during the time when the states destructive policies and practices were in operation. Via these revisions, they completely ruined the historical urban fabric of the area. The new constructions are so superficial, they have nothing to do with historical texture or traditional Diyarbakir architecture”.

From the dimensions of the houses to the sizes of the streets and blocks, the urban re-design in Sur is a technical and cultural fiasco, Soyukaya concludes: “The town was transformed into some unrecognizable form. Now, we cannot call Sur a town, because the life in this town, which has witnessed life for thousands of years, has been interrupted since 2015 via the depopulation and blockade policies of the state. The entrances to those areas are still closed off and we are not allowed public access. The continuity of the culture has also been massively interrupted here. The carriers of this culture have been forcibly displaced. Their living space has been transformed into a touristic trading area, but a town remains a town as long as it serves as a living space for the needs of its citizens”.

With Kurdish village evacuations during the 1990’s, many Kurdish villagers settled in Bağlar
“Bağlar has a history of migration going back to the 1990’s. Many residents of Bağlar are the people whose villages were forcibly evacuated by the state during the 1990’s”, explains Doğan Hatun, the Secretary of The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) Diyarbakır Coordination Board. This is the context in which the unplanned settlement of Bağlar took place.

“They had no homes in the villages. Actually, some people lost their villages as a whole. So they found themselves in the city centre, with no home and no money. This is how the unplanned urbanization of Bağlar took place. It has a historical background, which is connected to the state’s policies”.

Hatun also notes that the urban design project for Bağlar was first proposed in 2012 during the time that Osman Baydemir was mayor: “There are many buildings in a critical condition, in many parts of Bağlar and also Kaynartepe, which constitute a risk should there be a possible earthquake. So, Bağlar actually needs an urban redesign. However, the criteria for the urban redesign must be based on public benefit and the local people’s rights must be reserved and respected in each phase”.

Hatun states that there has been no attempt or call from the state authorities to cooperate with TMMOB at this stage. TMMOB’s main concern and appeal to the state authorities is for cooperation and transparency. “There is no zone plan announced as yet. Project details remain unknown. If they do not target gentrification, if urban renewal is not a project based on profit and security policies, then the state must manage a process that allows for public participation and cooperation with us and other civil society organizations, especially in the fields of law, education and public health. We want to be a part of this process. With all our technical expertise, we wish to assist for the benefit of our people”.

According to Hatun, it is impossible to evaluate Bağlar without considering the example of Sur: “In Alipaşa and Lalebey (neighbourhoods of Sur), the urban renewal process was conducted based on security policies and the profit motive. The urban renewal process of gentrification in Sur resulted in the dispossession of residents. Gentrification and forced displacement is a part of the assimilation policy that targets the citizens of this city. This shines a light on what might happen in Bağlar”.

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Urban renewal in Diyarbakır: A tool for gentrification and assimilation?

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