Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In the run-up to June’s general elections, the country’s opposition party announced plans for a new city called Merkez Turkiye that would cost $200 billion to construct.
What Turkey really needs is another megacity. That’s the message coming from the country’s opposition party in the run-up to early June’s general elections. This month, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) announced a plan for a $200 billion new city and major transport hub called Merkez Turkiye—“Center Turkey” in English—that would ultimately have three million inhabitants. Probably located somewhere in Malatya Province, the urban center could boost growth in Turkey’s less developed East and help open up a faster corridor between the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
As sketched by the CHP, the new city sounds like the stuff of sustainable development fantasy. It would, they claim, be powered by renewable energy, come packed with R&D hubs, production plants, and cultural institutions, all glued together with smart city infrastructure. According to the Hurriyet Daily News, the party predicts that within 20 years, the city’s residents will “have annual income per head of $3,000 more than the national average of $30,294.” These are pretty big promises for a city that doesn’t yet even have a site.
So is the project ever likely to get off the ground? An opposition plan on its own doesn’t add up to much, but massive projects like this still have far more purchase in Turkey than in most countries. Indeed, the current government’s reaction to the proposal is telling—it’s complaining that Center Turkey is both a fantasy and its own idea in the first place.
There’s good reason why Turks might very well give the idea of building the city a hearing. They’ve done it before and it worked. When Ankara replaced then-Constantinople as the capital of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, it was little more than an overgrown village. Its transformation to today’s city of over 5 million may have taken time, but it has been successful. Not only did moving the capital create a vital urban center, it also shifted some of Turkey’s focus eastwards and away from the Mediterranean seaboard. It’s hardly far-fetched for politicians to consider repeating the trick once more, 400 odd miles further east.
The eastern location is significant as the country is attempting to partly reorient itself. Turkey’s ongoing overtures towards joining the EU have been largely rebuffed, a snub that must smart less now that their neighbors to the west are still waist-deep in crisis and looking to Turkey for possible investment. Neighboring Syria and Iraq may be torn apart by violence, but now that sanctions have been lifted, Turkish trade with Iran could double. Gas already flows into the country from Russia and (more expensively) from Iran. Furthermore, Turkey possesses a mass of business interests in largely Turkic-speaking Central Asia.
This makes the megacity plan somewhat plausible, but there’s still a problem with the notion of boosting the East with new streets and houses. The idea is extremely similar to projects already in place or proposed by the current government—projects whose benefits remain deeply controversial.
In Istanbul alone, Prime Minister Erdogan’s government has planned a massive new channel linking the Black Sea to the Aegean, a third bridge across the Bosphorus, a huge airport, and a monorail system. He has also already opened a (fiendishly difficult to construct) subterranean railway linking the city’s European and Asian sections. Elsewhere in Turkey, the government is effectively building a new highway system and constructing a network of dams. To add an imperial frosting to the whole cake, President Erdogan moved into a $350 million Ankara residence last year that looks like a cross between an airport terminal and a sultan’s palace on steroids.
Some of these projects have been more than worth it—the sub-Bosphorus railway, for example, has long been overdue. In many places, however, the development steamroller has been highly destructive. Critics see these projects as rewarding government cronies with speculative opportunities rather than helping out ordinary Turks. They also see such construction as environmentally detrimental. The defense of these projects has brought out the ugly, authoritarian side of the current government. It was another grand plan—the proposed destruction of an Istanbul park to build a shopping mall—that sparked Turkey’s Gezi Park demonstrations of 2013, which the authorities put down with a brutality that shocked both local and international observers.
There may be a slightly more human side to the megacity plan since, unlike a bridge or a shipping channel, it’s something people can actually live in. But if Turks were hoping for a less pharaonic model for their country’s future development, they may have to wait a while longer.