Turkey’s prime minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, today revealed what he’s been plotting since 2008 when he first mentioned that he had a “crazy project” in mind for Istanbul. It turns out that he intends to build what in effect amounts to a second Bosphorus—a canal running north to south out on the western outskirts of the city, which would take much of the transit shipping that currently clogs the Bosphorus.
Viewed from a certain angle there’s no doubt that this is a bold undertaking. But for all that, I’ll confess that I’m a little underwhelmed.
Part of this reflects the expectations that Mr Erdoğan has kindled about this project. The prime minister is very much a six-crazy-things-before-breakfast kind of politician. So when he gives himself a three-year lead-in to formulate the outlines of a piece of monumental, legacy-scale craziness, it’s not unreasonable to expect something a bit more thoroughgoingly crazy than a waterway.
This brings us to a more substantial problem. Istanbul is already all about the water. There’s the Bosphorus obviously, but the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea too. That’s a pretty crowded market into which to pitch another waterway. And let me make this very predictable prediction right at the outset. If Mr Erdoğan’s canal is ever built, it will have none of the aesthetic charm, the overwhelming magnetic pull, of Istanbul’s other bodies of water.
The idea of celebrating the 2023 centenary of Turkey’s founding with a major project is not a bad one. But where one would have hoped for something stirring, and something rooted directly in the lives of the city’s inhabitants, Mr Erdoğan’s plan feels brutally functional.
It is true that the new canal would have significant indirect effects on the city’s population through its alteration of the volume and profile of the vessels permitted to use the Bosphorus. But that’s not what we’re being asked to marvel at. We’re being asked to stand in awe at the prospect of a 40km-long trench being dug between two seas. Perhaps I’m missing something, but surely this isn’t quite the stuff of which centennial dreams ought to be made?
Istanbul is no stranger to major feats of engineering which involve the city’s relationship to the water that surrounds and runs through it. The two bridges over the Bosphorus are the obvious examples. There are also the bridges over the Golden Horn and the long-planned tunnel under the Bosphorus. We could extend this list if we wished, and we can stretch it back in history to the early Ottoman era—in the Belgrade Forest and its surroundings you can still see the dams and aqueducts which were used to take water from what was then a village far outside the city and transport it into its heart.
Importantly, each of these previous projects involves a careful balance and an ongoing interaction between the city’s natural geography and the technological wherewithal of its inhabitants. By comparison, Mr Erdoğan’s plans display a blunt disdain for the city’s geography. A strip of land to the west of Istanbul will simply be erased. Should the focus of a national celebration not be charged with just a little bit more romance? This has all the subtlety of semtex.
Mr Erdoğan clearly wants to present himself as a visionary leader who is ready and willing to stamp the power of his imagination on the most significant city in his country. But there are many more imaginative things that he might have chosen to do, many other ways in which he might have sought to improve the lives of the city’s millions of inhabitants had he wanted to.
How about a serious attempt to remedy Istanbul’s criminal unpreparedness for the major earthquake that everyone knows is coming and that everyone knows will kill thousands upon thousands? How about an overhaul of the planning system to incorporate some awareness of the fact that the built environment isn’t an end in itself, but a means of furthering a wide range of human needs? How about overcoming the insanity that passes itself off as driving on Istanbul’s roads? How about a public library worthy of one of the world’s great cities? How about a commitment to retain what little green space is left here and perhaps recover some that has been lost? How about a concerted attempt to deal with the various countrywide factors that are driving crippling and unsustainable increases in the city’s population?
There is any number of legacy-scale projects to embark upon in Istanbul between now and 2023. A more interestingly crazy leader might have opted for something a bit more meaningful than digging a trench and filling it with water.