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Just about two months ago today I landed in Istanbul for a "work and play" week that would include discussing new visions for cities in the age of climate change at the Ecocity World Summit while simultaneously wandering and cycling through this storied corner of human civilization.

As could be expected, there was as much to learn outside the convention center as there was inside. All the problems and contradictions as well as the beauty and ingenuity inherent in our human settlements could not have been better represented than by the sights and scenes manifesting all around us. So while my left brain was tickled to no end, the information gleaned from workshops and presentations sank in much deeper once my feet hit the street, thanks to the many...  

Where East meets West
Istanbul, perhaps as old as 8000 years, is a city of contrasts, where Europe meets Asia, east meets west, old meets new...

Senses set to overflow

Istanbul is a place for the senses, though it doesn't necessarily "make" sense. Like many old-world cities it is a confluence of flavors, a kaleidoscope of eras past yet not forgotten. Once you're in it you can't help but turn on your god-given inner GPS.

I was seduced by deep texture everywhere

and guided by sights and smells too colorful to describe

Which brings me to...


In a league of its own. Very diverse. A Mediterranean climate allows plants and animals to flourish, and a long culinary tradition has kept the food supply local. I was only able to scratch the surface of this eater's paradise, and I'm hungry just thinking about it....

Okay, have a seat!

For meat lovers, there's köfte, döner, and fresh fish everywhere.

Eggplant, green peppers, onions, garlic, lentils, beans, and tomatoes are staples for veggie lovers.

not to forget, cheese and bread!

Chestnuts on every corner

I really needed to have what these guys were having!

OMG! The best lunch sandwich ever! It's called Üç Parça. Yum!

Istanbul is pretty much completely off the chart as far as rational interpretation goes. It's like a solid stew where all the different ingredients have just been simmering together for long enough that they don't have to compete against each other anymore.

There's spicy and well...spicy

there's bazaar and bizarre

timeless and contemporary

introspection and expression

It all just melts into one

Megacity Istanbul

Just like its food and culture, the urban landscape of Istanbul is a constantly changing amalgam of period styles and settlements. Blending Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods, present-day Istanbul, or what used to be Constantinople, has expanded northwards towards the neighborhoods of Beyoglu, Beşiktaş, Şişli, Nişantaşı, and beyond. In fact, I stayed in Beyoglu, and from an ecocity perspective it had all the important elements of quality high density living.

A lively pedestrian zone on Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue)

Public transportation

A vibrant nightlife scene

The challenges of population growth

According to Professor Ahmet Samsunlu, former public works and settlement minister of Turkey, Istanbul had a population of 1 million in 1950. Today the city has 15-18 million residents, an exact count impossible due to urban sprawl that has created an Istanbul larger in area than the state of Rhode Island and more populous than all of Greece or Belgium. Samsunlu estimates that each year this megacity adds an additional half million people, mostly rural residents seeking jobs in the city. As a result of this rapid growth a significant portion of the city's outskirts consist of gecekondus, meaning ‘built overnight’ and referring to illegally constructed squatter buildings that comprise entire neighborhoods and run rampant outside the historic center. Samsunlu estimates that squatters now make up 60% of Istanbul and pointed out the difficulties in environmentally sound urban planning in the face of such uncontrolled growth.

I did not visit any gecekondus during my stay, but even in the city center the contrasts between the ancient walkable city running up against modern day realities were striking:

trying to fit cars into places that weren't built for cars...

keeping them out versus letting them in...

One rainy day I made the mistake of taking a cab to cover 1 mile from my guest house near Taksim Square to Cevahir Convention Center.

Stuck in traffic...

The cabbie ended up going on the beltway all around the city. An hour and 10 miles later we got to the conference.

For those who argue that it can't be done without cars, well, they did it like this for the first 7900 years of their city's existence...

But there are some positive trends. Dr. Samsunlu pointed out that people are swimming in the Golden Horn again, something that would have been unthinkable not too long ago. Environmental action is very much on the radar, as climate change may redraw Turkey's coastal map. A report presented to a parliamentary commission by the Electrical Power Resources Survey and Development Administration (EIEI) predicts that by 2030 global warming may have caused an up to 18-centimeter rise in sea levels in Turkey. It was great then to see not only officials and planners talk about the need for change at the lectern, but citizens taking matters into the streets.  

From people marching down Istiklal Caddesi demanding climate action...

to Murat Suyabatmaz and the Turkish Bicycle Association taking to the streets...

it's a steep climb but the greenroots are popping through the pavement...

A beacon of paradoxes, it only makes sense that Istanbul would embody the challenges as well as the solutions for a sustainable existence of humanity on planet Earth. While its current rate of population growth poses tremendous challenges to sustainable city planning, its embrace of religious and ethnic multiculturalism also shows how rich and well-functioning dense urban living can be. And despite all the problems of congestion and pollution, much of the infrastructure to support a more livable city is already there, having proven itself to be well-functioning for much of Istanbul's history.

Or as Murat Suyabatmaz of Bisikletliler, the Turkish Bicycle Association, said to me in an interview:

We used to eat nutritious black bread that was baked fresh and locally every morning. Then, about 30 years ago, everyone started to buy and eat cheap white bread. We're just now realizing that the black bread is not only much healthier but tastes better, and people are willing to spend a little extra money again to eat right. The bicycle is like black bread, it's making a comeback in Turkey for the same reason: It's good for everyone.

I'll leave you with a few more Istanbul Inspirations...


crossposted at A World of Words

Originally posted to Ecomusings by Sven Eberlein on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 11:59 AM PST.

Also republished by Ecocities Emerging.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Don't forget the dondurma! (9+ / 0-)

    Turkish ice cream is the best. My oldest daughter and I took a LONG cab ride to find some out of season, but it was worth it.

    Thanks for this diary. The photos are lovely and brought back many good memories (though not the one of the very crowded spice market, where I should have slugged the groper...rrrr!). Our hotel was near the Haggia Sophia and waking up to the 5 am-ish call to prayer from the mosque just down the street was an amazing experience in and of itself.

    •  oh, I didn't have any ice cream (7+ / 0-)

      it was winter and rainy. But dondurma sounds delicious!

      I thought the spice market was amazing, if nothing else just a feast for the senses. And yes, the prayer calls are very cool, while some folks hate them I thought it really added to the whole flair. I did some nice audio recordings and hope to post them in a future diary.

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 12:14:31 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wonderful diary, thanks (7+ / 0-)

    Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official... ~Theodore Roosevelt

    by Pam from Calif on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 12:09:48 PM PST

  •  Gorgeous diary! n/t (10+ / 0-)

    I've never claimed to be a leader of the DK eco community

    by RLMiller on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 12:14:32 PM PST

  •  How wonderful! (7+ / 0-)

    We lived in Izmir for 2 yrs in the 70s. Doner was my absolute favorite, with kurfta not far behind.

    There was nothing better than a kurfta sandwich for lunch.

    I can still hear the yoghurt seller calling out his wares, still can smell the kurfta grilling.

    Maybe some day I'll go back for a visit.

  •  Beautiful diary..thanks Sven! (6+ / 0-)

    I can feel the textures, smell the aromas of the spices and taste the food. Just wonderful :)

  •  a great, great city (7+ / 0-)

    I was only in Istanbul for a couple of days, but found it utterly fascinating and wonderful.

    Thanks for this great diary!

    grok the "edku" -- edscan's "revelation", 21 January 2009

    by N in Seattle on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 12:30:06 PM PST

  •  Great one (4+ / 0-)

    It is dinner time and you made us hungry for Dolma, Kabab and all the other delicious dishes they do

    "Cherish your visions and your dreams as they are the children of your soul, the blueprints of your ultimate accomplishments." - Napoleon Hill

    by dibsa on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 12:31:51 PM PST

  •  You did such a wonderful job of capturing (4+ / 0-)

    the beauty and texture of Istanbul, which is not an easy thing to do. Thank you!

    We are about to be attacked by Al Qaeda. Wave flags if you have them. That always seems to scare them away. I'm kidding. - Kurt Vonnegut

    by not a cent on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 12:37:15 PM PST

    •  thanks for the compliment not a cent (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      trashablanca, DBunn, not a cent

      The pictures were literally taking themselves, I just had my little point and shoot and it just kept coming out of my pocket from all the beautiful impressions and images arising. It's a really easy place to get good pics.

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 12:39:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for this diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, trashablanca, DBunn, citisven

    and for pointing out Charlotte Lucas' diary, too.  They are perfect complements to each other.  I'll be sure she's aware that you've posted.  I know she'll want to read it. Your pictures are awesome! Now I'm hungry....

    -7.62, -7.28 "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." -Langston Hughes

    by luckylizard on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 01:02:16 PM PST

    •  thanks for doing that (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      trashablanca, DBunn, luckylizard

      I wanted to drop Charlotte a line but she doesn't have her email listed, so thanks for doing that luckylizard. Now go eat! ;-)

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 01:03:35 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I noticed that (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        trashablanca, DBunn, citisven

        you'd promised this diary in the comments to hers.  I know she'll want to read and see the great pics.  

        I'm going to eat, just as soon as I get the energy to actually fix something.  It's still several months until the grape leaves are ready to harvest, so I'll have to settle for 'American' food.  ;-)

        -7.62, -7.28 "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." -Langston Hughes

        by luckylizard on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 01:09:40 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Wow! Beautiful! (5+ / 0-)

    Well done citisven, how nice!  A love letter to one of my favorite cities in all the world.

    The Golden Gate in my native San Francisco (that is, the two outcroppings of land that form the harbor mouth--not to be confused with the bridge of the same name) was named after the Golden Horn in Istanbul.  Many Turkish people tell me that they love SF, because it reminds them of Istanbul.

    If not for the air pollution, I'd want to live nowhere else but Istanbul.  Have the borek--kaymali borek with meat, ispanakli borek with spinach and feta, or cigara borek (shaped like a cigar) with just fried feta.  Or Pishmaniye, which looks like sushi but is made with something like cotton candy, and pistachios on top.

    I got one of the Special License hotels during my stay.  The government renovated all these old Ottoman mansions, so you get (for $60 a night, when I was there in winter 2001!) a room in a beautiful, old-timey mansion.  It was just across a narrow street from the Haghia Sophia/Aya Sofya, and it was winter, so I could just look right out on the minarets, with the snow swirling around them (Note: don't go to Istanbul in December, though--even bundled up with winter clothes, it was a major decision, standing at the door, to go outside each day).

    I'll never forget that wonderful trip.  And (although women have told me they do get harassed), for me, the Turkish people were, as Rick Steves says: "among the nicest people I've met anywhere."

    "Arguments are to be avoided. They are always vulgar, and are often convincing." -- Oscar Wilde

    by Villagejonesy on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 01:05:26 PM PST

    •  I saw a lot of similarities to SF, Villagejonesy (5+ / 0-)

      not only geographical, but attitudinal. I live in SF, too, btw, in the Mission. The coolest thing was when we went on a bike tour with the Istanbul bike club, they were all so ecstatic about San Francisco. They had this old  photograph of the Bay Bridge when it was closed to traffic and filled with bikes and pedestrians, and that's what inspired them to start their bicycle club. It was really funny because I don't even remember when that could have been, but it really left an impression with them, so that they have more of an affiliation with San Francisco than even Amsterdam or Copenhagen. So, yes, I think Istanbul and SF are like family, I can't wait to go back there. The pollution didn't feel so bad when I was there, but it might be worse in the summer time.

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 01:15:00 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well it just warms my heart (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        trashablanca, DBunn, citisven

        I've never stopped raving about Istanbul, and all the rest of Turkey.  Really one of the greatest times I've ever had on vacation.  I went to Izmir, Ephesus, and Pamukkale on that trip.  What great people, what a great countryside, what a great city.

        How fantastic that your friends got such a great feeling from San Francisco!  Well you know how proud I am of our city as well.  How great.

        I'm sure you were wowed by the Topkapi Palace, the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque.  Maybe you saw the -- I think it's called the Yerebetan Saray?  That's the Basilica Cistern, which provided water to the palace.  All these columns were re-used Roman columns, with carvings like the Medusa's head on them.  In Pamukkale, you can have a hot-tub (really, big, hot mineral baths) and play footsie with the old Roman columns there, too.  The water is like a narcotic.  And I loved, back in Istanbul, the Kariye Cami (the Church of St. Saviour in Chora).  It was a beautiful church, with all these Byzantine frescoes from 800 years ago or more.  Really wonderful.

        Thanks for letting us take a vicarious trip back there.

        "Arguments are to be avoided. They are always vulgar, and are often convincing." -- Oscar Wilde

        by Villagejonesy on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 05:00:05 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  thanks for the awesome diary! (4+ / 0-)

    I visited Turkey in 96 and was just knocked over by the sense of history, the smells, the way families took care of each and every member--in Istanbul.  I actually cried as I took one parting glance at the city line, miniarets and all, getting into the taxi going to the airport and home.  I also saw Bursa, Konya, Smyrna and many other places throughout the month I spent there.  As I went by myself, I did not always see Turks at their best, and it reminded me how similar the Greek and Turkish cultures think and behave because of the hundreds of years of connection between them.

    ...just remember to turn on the LIGHT!

    by boomerchick on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 01:19:49 PM PST

    •  sounds like an amazing journey (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      trashablanca, DBunn

      you were on! I wish I could have seen more of the countryside but time didn't allow for it. I grew up in Germany amongst a lot of Turks and Greeks, and it always amazed me how much they had in common and yet also there was this animosity between them, even just teenagers, who seemed to have embellished the entire history between their countries and cultures. Thing is, I love both cultures, some of the nicest people I've met.

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 01:35:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  it is verrryyy interesting, isn't it? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        My grandmother was a total extrovert, and made friends with everyone in the neighborhood.  One day, a Turkish family moved in, and she decided to let the past be  the past, and went over to meet them.  She and the woman in the family were thirty years apart in age, but became fast and close friends.  They would say, "oh let them fight over it all over there, we are friends here!"  I figured if my giagia could get over it, I could, and never again thought of Turks in a negative light.  Now that I'm an adult, I find myself really proud of her!

        ...just remember to turn on the LIGHT!

        by boomerchick on Fri Feb 19, 2010 at 04:28:55 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Greeks and Istanbul (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      trashablanca, DBunn, citisven

      I think my visit was in 1995, as part of an Aegean Sea cruise.  Istanbul was one of two ports in Turkey.  We also stopped in Kuşadası to see Ephesus.

      The ship was Greek-flagged, but shipwide announcements were made in many languages -- English, Spanish, French, German, and of course Greek.  I recall with combined amusement/sorrow that as we arrived on the Bosporus, the announcement of our schedule talked about "Istanbul" in the first four languages noted above ... and "Constantinople" in Greek.

      grok the "edku" -- edscan's "revelation", 21 January 2009

      by N in Seattle on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 03:14:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wow. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    trashablanca, citisven

    Just beautiful!

  •  Beautiful , awesome, amazing (5+ / 0-)

    My little rural life seems so parochial in comparison .  Thank you for showing me such a lovely portrait of another part of the world!

    When you're born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front row seat. George Carlin

    by smileycreek on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 08:54:40 PM PST

  •  Spent some time in Istanbul (5+ / 0-)

    ...back in the mid-90s. Two trips, several weeks each, working on a computer game for the Discovery Channel.

    In the game we used a kind of pseudo-3D technology, 360 degree photo-panoramas which we called "nodes", to show parts of the city. Players could navigate from one node to another and thus travel thru the city. We couldn't have people in the panorama shots because a) they would have looked 'frozen' into the background, and b) we intended to populate the backgrounds with (a limited number of) video sprites that players could interact with. Hope that nugget of obsolete tech-babble made sense. Anyhow... you know how crowded Istanbul is, point of this comment is, imagine what it took in the way of crowd control to clear folks out of the camera's view long enough to get the shots.


    New topic. It amazes me how exotic, unknown, invisible Istanbul is to Westerners, considering that it is a city of 15 million, right there in Europe. It's like there is an impenetrable cultural boundary, wide as an ocean, between Christendom and Islam. And this is now 4 generations after Attaturk, the determined Westernizer, set out to dissolve that boundary from the Turkish side. Something to think about.


    Cool bit of etymology... the name "Istanbul" is actually a Turkicized, vernacular form of "Constantinople", the polis (city) of Constantine. You can see the key syllable "stan" in both words, and "bul" is a morphed form of "polis". So what happened to the "Con-" of Constantinople? All I know is, the Turks seem to have had an occasional habit of dropping the first syllable but adding an "i" when bringing words in from Greek, so that, for example, the name Alexander comes into Turkish as "Iskander".


    I came back from Turkey having learned two important things. One, there are more ways to cook eggplant than I had ever imagined. Two, you can grill vegetables! Barbecue has not been the same since.


    Great diary, thanks so much for the vivid presentation!

    •  DBunn, great comment (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sberel, JanetT in MD, trashablanca, DBunn

      how fascinating, the computer game with the Istanbul backdrop, so cool!

      Yes, there's still a weird prejudice in Western Europe which also shows in the debate over whether Turkey should join the EU. Personally I think it has to do with the Islam part, even though it's so mellow in Turkey (or at least Istanbul), no different than church bells ringing in cities around Western Europe. But I think it's also from stories like Midnight Express that have etched themselves into our collective consciousness. But hopefully the stereotypes are changing with a new generation. For example, my own country Germany is starting to shed its Nazi image quite a bit because the younger generation just isn't as cramped up about it and more open to the world. That's how I felt about Istanbul, like they're really starting to flourish and reach out to the world, show they're open to everyone and everything.

      Thanks for the etymolgy, this is something I love about daily kos, any time you post a diary you end up with so much more cool info that you started out with.

      And eggplant? Holy cow, they sure know what to do with it, it was pure eggplant paradise, and I'm not even that big of a fan...

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Fri Feb 19, 2010 at 11:44:31 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Magnificent city, magnificent diary! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I went to Istanbul in October, thereby realizing a lifelong dream.  It was amazing -- huge, chaotic, polluted, and yet . . . unforgettably beautiful.  It is a city like no other, and despite the crowds, the people are warm and welcoming.

    The air posed a challenge for my asthmatic lungs, but I forced myself to walk all over the city.  I did the length of the walls from the Marmara to the ruins of the Blachernae Palace.  I walked from the gates of the Topkapi to the tiny Orthodox church of St. Mary of the Mongols, traversing the length of the former Constantinople.  It was breathtaking in both senses of the word.

    Thanks for bringing back so many wonderful memories.

  •  Thank you, Thank you.....Your beautiful (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, LaughingPlanet

    diary is a pleasure to read and enjoy.

    Love is the lasting legacy of our lives

    by princesspat on Fri Feb 19, 2010 at 09:45:07 AM PST

  •  Lovely, Sven! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I saw you'd posted this right as I was out the door yesterday...

    If it's OK with you, I would like to add the Dkos Travel Board tag to this diary. If you ever want to do a similar effort, it would be great to have it as part of that series officially.

    Great job.

    The best way to save the planet is to keep laughing!

    by LaughingPlanet on Fri Feb 19, 2010 at 11:28:04 AM PST

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