A New Spring

I have a recurring dream:

A hundred years work is accomplished in one brief night. Istanbul wakes to find the cars, the trucks, and the roads which convey them swallowed by an unstoppable force. A forest. The corridors and hills of broken asphalt are gone. While we all slumbered the parked cars and roads have been broken into their constituents by an inexorable patrol of ivy, to nourish the earth. And from their ruins have sprouted trees—the kind that take a hundred years to grow to their full splendor—who are now the city council, all interconnected and communicating through a network of roots. The forest is king and holds sway within the city confines. It has commissioned foxes to sweep the city of its rats and falcons to cleanse the sky of its pigeons. Every rooftop is an island rising above a swirling sea of green. From outside the city traffic grinds to a halt. The noise and blare of horns is replaced by birdsong and the soft wash of wind through the fragrant trees. Meanwhile, the human inhabitants have been given a second chance. We rise in wonder to find there is fruit aplenty, gardens to feed everyone …

Then I wake up. That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this city and my dream recently. I’m not sure when it started. Perhaps when my father-in-law described Istanbul before the population explosion began in the 1970s. Perhaps it’s when a Kadirga resident kicked a still living rat into the air which nearly hit me. Perhaps there’s probably no single moment.

Cities aren’t going away. If you believe the projections — and there’s no reason not to — they’re only going to get bigger. In the 70s nobody could easily see where Istanbul was going. Now we have an idea. This particular city is at a critical juncture in its history. Its latest conqueror, in a long line of conquerors, isn’t human though.

It’s the automobile, a beast that isn’t content to steal every square inch of walking space, but also our breathing space. And so great is the automobile’s tyranny that just about everyone needs to get into one to be granted a breath of fresh air. How bitter an irony is that?

Before my daughter was born we made a conscious decision to leave the city center for the hills above the Bosporus. Not everybody has that luxury, which is why it’s probably time to start thinking about how this metropolis will work. I’m excited about the Marmaray Project which will convey humans and commerce through our city and lessen our dependency on the automobile. It’s not enough, though.

When I first came to Istanbul, it use to stagger me that people would picnic on the narrow grassed-in triangles between highways and on-ramps. But when you think about it, where else are they supposed to go?

I don’t want to diminish the hard work that’s going into this city. Often, in fact, I want to congratulate those in charge with how well it functions considering the enormous forces exerted upon it from within and without. It’s a magnificent place. But what would Istanbul’s heroes like Fatih Sultan Mehmet, or in more modern times, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk say?

Would they marvel at its size and progress, or pause to ask what happened to the blessed trees? The decision to tear out the last slender trunks from Istiklal Caddesi some 5-6 years ago seemed to me to be a tragic indicator of the value of trees in this city’s plan.

What do you think? Are green spaces, wider sidewalks and the opportunity to be safe from the constant assault of traffic a human right. Should they be?