ISTANBUL, Turkey — From his balcony, Yasin Kenar looks down on the neighborhood where he grew up.
“This one is not safe,” he says, pointing to a five-story apartment building in Sumer. The top four floors jut out like a rib cage over the foundation. “And that one and this one.”
Yasin says that, if a major earthquake struck Istanbul, one-third of the buildings on his street would collapse. On the walls of his own balcony there are deep cracks left over from a 7.6-magnitude earthquake that struck the neighboring province of Kocaeli, 43 miles from Istanbul, in 1999. That quake killed more than 17,000 people.
“My building is not safe. I am a million percent sure that the building is not strong [enough for an earthquake],” Yasin said. “If we will not be ready for an earthquake, too many buildings will fall down and too many people will die.”
City officials know how dangerous neighborhoods like Sumer are, where buildings are far from up to code and the streets are so narrow that in the event of a disaster, a fire truck couldn’t drive down them.
So now, after several failed attempts, authorities are attempting to reconstruct many of Istanbul’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. But the plans are not without controversy. Many residents will be forced to give up their homes and human rights groups worry the plan is designed more to enable more valuable re-development than to ensure the safety of residents.
For the past several decades, buildings across Turkey’s largest city have been constructed with little to no regulation. In Zeytinburnu, a district that makes up dozens of neighborhoods, including Sumer, officials estimate that 2,300 buildings, or about 15,000 apartments, would be destroyed in an earthquake.
And Zeytinburnu is only one of Istanbul’s 39 districts. In all, civil engineers predict that some 2 million of Istanbul’s 3 million residential buildings are at risk.
Repeated attempts to demolish buildings and remake the neighborhoods have failed, after residents went to court to protest the decisions. For the city’s newest redevelopment program, Sumer is set to be its poster child.
In a bare conference room with a rooftop view of the city, Akif Levent, an engineer with Istanbul’s Metropolitan Municipality, clicks through PowerPoint slides of his urban transformation plans. This, Levent says, is a map of Zeytinburnu. The map is covered with red, orange and yellow dots, denoting high, medium and low earthquake risk. In the corner, bordering the Sea of Marmara, the map fills with red.
“That is Sumer,” Akif says.
Istanbul lies 20 kilometers north of the North Anatolian Fault, the intersection of the Eurasian and Anatolian plates. An earthquake of magnitude 7 or greater has struck the city every century for the past 1,500 years. The last one was in 1894, so by some calculations the city is overdue.
Seismologists say earthquakes have historically been moving west along the fault line, slowly creeping toward Istanbul. After the 1999 earthquake in Kocaeli, city officials began to worry.
Estimates of Istanbul’s population vary widely, from 12 to 19 million people, an exponential rise from only 2 million 50 years ago. During the mass migrations to Istanbul in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the government gave residents free license to expand their homes. Single story residences mushroomed into four or five story buildings on unstable foundations.
Following Kocaeli quake, the city solicited engineers and universities to survey buildings and create a plan of what Istanbul could do to withstand an earthquake.
Metin Ilkisik has been working with the government on earthquake preparation for more than a decade. He was one of the engineers who helped develop the original plan for Istanbul — known as the “Earthquake Master Plan.” Ilkisik says the plan was well done, but when the government tried to implement it, everything stalled.
“We tested a neighborhood, and we found that one of the buildings was in a bad situation,” Ilkisik said. “So [the government] must tell people that you cannot use that building as a home, you must go somewhere else. So if this is one building, it's okay. But if it's 3,000 buildings like Zeytinburnu … then it s a huge political problem.”
Ilkisik pulls a sheaf of papers out of his briefcase. The pages are highlighted in orange; the margins annotated in black pen. This is the new disaster law, he says.
“Now new progress will start in the city, and it will start from Zeyntinburnu.”
Depending who you speak to, the new disaster law will either save lives or infringe on the human rights of families in neighborhoods across the city.
The law states that if the government judges a neighborhood to be at risk for an earthquake, or any other natural disaster, the owners must either rebuild according to new construction standards or sell their building to the government — at a price set by the government.
The government has promised residents new, although smaller, apartments in the same neighborhood. The old, unsafe buildings will be bulldozed and the land resold.
Activists worry that as the land and housing in high-risk areas increases in value, residents will be priced out to distant suburbs.
The government would only need 70 percent of owners to agree to sell in order to secure a building. The law makes it illegal for dissenting owners to challenge the government’s decision in court; they can only battle over price.
Ilkisik says this is a good thing.
“If I go to court it means, I do not want to sell. And if you live in the same building, I am risking your life [by not selling].”
But Cihan Baysal, an activist who worked for the UN’s Advisory Group on Forced Evictions, disagrees.
“According to geological reports, 92 percent of land in Turkey is under earthquake risk. So, according to law the government can intervene all over Turkey,” Baysal says. “And opening up cases against implementation is against the law. You can only [argue] for the price, but your house will still be demolished.”
She worries that this law will be used to clear out poor neighborhoods to make way for hotels and towering apartment buildings. Her concerns may be real. Local governments have already begun to smooth the way for contractors to make their proposals.
The office of Zafer Alsac, one of Zeytinburnu’s four deputy mayors, is in a constant state of movement. Every half hour, groups of men arrive for meetings with the deputy mayor, and dozens of tea glasses are quickly emptied, washed and refilled.
Alsac says that as the first neighborhood to be transformed under this new law, Sumer would be an example for the rest of Turkey.
He assures that they have “90 percent of residents’ support,” though he does not talk much about earthquakes. Instead, he prefers to discuss investment in Zeytinburnu.
“Projects get approved in about three days, whereas it takes other municipalities about one month,” he said, proudly. “Our purpose is to increase the price of land to its real value."
According to Alsac, Zeytinburnu’s redevelopment is a long-term plan that includes the construction of a port for cruise ships and seaside commercial complex, which will be built over a 30-year period.
Around the borders of Sumer, construction has already started. An apartment building that will house the first batch of relocated residents is nearing completion. The municipality says that 400 of the 750 new apartments will be given to relocated residents in September.
On the street abutting the project, women sitting on their stoops say they have not heard when or where they will move, only rumors.
“No one knows what is going to happen,” said Nargis Salcaoglu, who has lived in Sumer for 15 years and owns her own apartment. “We believe whatever we hear. No one has come to tell us anything.”