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Turkish Gated Communities as Spaces of Upper Class Exclusivity, Escapism, and Stigma

In the last two decades, large cities all over the world were segregated into an endless patchwork of shopping malls, private schools and multi-purpose complexes leading to a neo-medieval age. Gated communities are an important part of this urban process, founded against the general norm of open urban space and a mixed urban culture.

They receive significant attention in academic circles especially in the fields of human geography, planning and housing. Despite the growing attention to gated communities and their impacts on cities, the literature is full of diverse definitions, contradictory to each other, as results of different research perspectives and different contexts of investigation. According to a recent definition, stripped from any socio-cultural and historical context, gated communities usually refer to various types of residential and/or office complexes, closed to outsiders through different mechanisms such as walls, gates, and fences and protected against potential dangers through security guards and CCTV cameras. Gated communities are composed of spatial (walls and gates), social (population characteristics) and legal mechanisms (rules of conduct managing life inside these spaces)1.

A Common Urban Form

Gated communities are not the first development characterised by walls, fences and an exclusive lifestyle closed to the rest of society. Rather, there were similar forms of urban gating seen in different parts of the world reflecting a common trend especially among upper classes, wishing to retreat from the masses2.

Similarly, the contemporary gated communities are usually analysed within a neoliberal urban context which symbolise an upper class wish for status, community life, belonging, and security, becoming more popular since the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, as discussed in the book edited by Bagaeen and Uduku, gated communities do not have the same meaning for all. Rather, the authors demonstrate differences in terms of the factors behind them, their impacts on wider urban realms and meanings across societies: As examples, in developed countries, such as in the USA and New Zealand they mostly reflect a search for a lifestyle, and/or way to share and reduce the costs of common amenities leading to more sustainable lifestyles.

However, in the rest of the world, especially in developing countries, gated communities reflect larger socio-economic issues and concerns about increasing crime levels such as the Latin American case where they are seen to increase socio-spatial fragmentation, inequality, urban sprawl and environmental degradation as well a wish to return to traditional way of life such as the cases of China and the Middle Eastern countries3. In the developing world, gated communities also reflect the wish to imitate Western way of life, regarded as status symbol in that context4.

Turkey and Neoliberal Urbanisation

Turkey, where I did the research for my PhD dissertation, is a country experiencing great socio-political change since the 1980s, a neoliberal period which favours the emergence of gated communities. The literature mentions the importance of several factors during this era: first, the implementation of neoliberal economic policies transformed urban land into a source of profit and a new housing market emerged dominated by large developer companies5.

Second, the emergence of new forms of capital accumulation led to a new and more polarised class structure characterised by the new middle and/or upper-middle classes in search for a new lifestyle bringing status, belonging and community6.

However, gated communities are not caused by only economic factors, but also by symbolic ones, associated with people's perception of the cities they live in and/or the people they share urban spaces.

As discussed by Oncu, during this period, large cities especially Istanbul, acquired a negative meaning for the new middle and upper classes due to a mixed urban culture, causing tensions in public spaces between established inhabitants and newcomers, erosion of a common culture and increasing crime rates. Related to that, cities became associated with environmental degradation due to increasing pollution, density, declining green space, urban infrastructure and general living quality. The changing meaning of cities created a wish to live in a detached house, especially a house far from city centres, which became a status symbol for upper classes7

istanbul penninsula

Istanbul: A city of more than 8,500 years in a shot by Ben Morlok. The spectacular Hagia Sophie in the historic peninsula, is now concealed with greedy, luxurious and soulless business and residential towers being erected all over the city8.

Istanbul: The Global City of Turkey

 More particularly, Istanbul became the first city experiencing this process stronger than any other Turkish city, as the result of its particular features: Istanbul has a history of approximately 8,500 years spanning over pre-Christian, Christian and Islamic cultures. It is the most populated city of Turkey with a population of more than 13 million which corresponds to 18, 2 % of its total population. It has the highest density among other cities in Turkey9 while it is the second most populated city (together with its Metropolitan Municipality) in the world after Shanghai10.

Starting from the 1980s, Istanbul has been projected as a global city by local political actors which favoured large capital to transform it into a marketable city for upper classes. As a result, Istanbul attracts most of the foreign investment and visitors, hosting various international festivals, and is the most important centre of secondary and higher education of Turkey. Istanbul also contains two financial centres on each side of the city, comprising an important white collar population working in the finance, insurance and real estate sectors.

In addition, Istanbul's proximity to the North Anatolian Fault Line and low quality housing make it vulnerable to strong earthquakes, seen in the 1999 Marmara Earthquake. This was a turning point for many changes, including the acceptance of new construction regulations to provide better housing quality and the rise of a desire to live far from the city centre11. For political actors, together with its rich heritage, multicultural population, various cultural events and touristic attractions Istanbul is the perfect global city of Turkey which would generate profit through real estate development and create a new urban space comprising new residential developments, five-star hotels, business districts, and shopping malls.

A Suburban/ Exurban Phenomenon

 Gated communities are not only a suburban/exurban urban form. Rather, in Istanbul's case, the primary developments which can be regarded as the first gated communities are to be found close to the city centre. However, gated communities in this piece are associated with an exurban process accelerated after the 1980s, whenIstanbul's natural beauties, such as the world-known Bosporus, and then the exurbs/suburbs on both side of the city, relatively intact from mass construction, started to be sold to developer companies.

The opening of these lands to construction has been related to the transformation of housing market through the introduction of large developer companies into domestic market, as well as neoliberal urban regulation leading to the gradual removal of mass urban planning, once the guarantee of the protection of urban heritage and resources. These intact areas became full of gated communities and related facilities, including shopping malls, café and restaurant chains and private schools and universities.

instanbul map

Istanbul from Google Earth: The north of the city, covered with native forests, facing with the threat of destruction due to the construction of new developments, such as gated communities, private universities and business and shopping facilities. Gated communities are located in all parts of the city, especially the suburbs/exurbs.

As noted by Genis, at the moment, almost all housing developments in Istanbul are built in the form of gated communities targeting mainly middle and upper classes, including those built by the public bodies operating in the housing market12.

Gated communities are regarded to provide everything a city lacks: community and belonging due to culturally-similar neighbours, good-quality homes built by prominent developer companies and designed by well-known architects and provision of various amenities reducing the need of using public services.

While the primary examples of gated communities inIstanbul reflect an elitist secession from city centres, since the beginning of the 2000s, they started to be built in different sizes, styles and in all parts of the city. This reflects the effect of the emergence of new forms of capital accumulation which led to a more diversified and segregated class structure, including the upper classes. The diversity within upper classes are of economic, social and cultural origin, which is reflected on the identity of each gated community having particular names, architectural styles, amenities, size of the land and housing units, and advertising campaigns.

Gated Communities: Environmental Degradation and Upper-Class Stigma

Gated communities in Istanbul create two main problems:

The first is their damaging effect on environment and natural resources such as forests and arable lands, once owned by the locals which also destroy the soul of the exurbs in large cities. In this respect, they also lead to voluntary eviction of the locals who sell their lands off to developer companies expecting high rent value. However, as seen in other Turkish cities, the locals either became impoverished and started working in those communities in low-skilled jobs or left their homes because of losing their lands.

This creates the irony that the residents in gated communities who abandoned city centres due to concerns of urban pollution, degradation and density, complain about the same problems in the once-beautiful exurbs now facing dramatic growth because of them. More particularly, Istanbul's northern suburbs experience this process stronger due to the area's relatively higher status for the new middle classes, which altered the topography of the area, covered with native forests.

Once a symbol of escape, the north of Istanbul faces tremendous change due to the construction of gated communities as well as the infamous Third Bosporus Bridge and Airport.

The second is the stigma associated with gated communities, which are regarded as neoliberal spaces of upper-class elitism and retreat from urban life and problems. The irony is that upper classes move into gated communities, in order to eliminate the stigma of large cities, symbolizing mixed immigrant culture, as well as environmental degradation. However, by closing themselves off from the rest into "hated communities", residents take the stigma on their shoulders due to their individualised lifestyles excluding the rest of the society.

They try to eliminate this stigma either by helping the local populations, found poorer, through aid campaigns and free courses given through volunteer work, and finding jobs for them13 and/or accusing their richer neighbours to rely on illegal sources of income and reserved relations and non-friendly attitude14.

In addition, despite being regarded as ideal and problem free-zones, gated communities lead to disputes between residents emerging from common resource sharing, as well as visitors coming from the outside15. These indicate that gated communities in Istanbul can be regarded as an urban dilemma which are against the ideal of an open and democratic urban space shared and accessed by all.

[1]ROITMAN, S. (2010) Gated communities: definitions, causes and consequences, Urban Design and Planning, 163 (1): 31–38.

[2]BLAKELY, E. and SNYDER, M. G. (1997) Fortress America, Washington DC: The Brookings Institution Press; Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

LOW, S. (2003) Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America.New York, Routledge.

SASSEN, S. (2012) Urban Gating: One Instance of a Larger Development, in Bagaeen, S and Uduku, O. (eds.) Gated Communities: Social Sustainability in Contemporary and Historical Gated Developments, Earthscan: London.

[3] BAGAEEN, S. and UDUKU, O. (2012) Gated Communities: Social Sustainability in Contemporary and Historical Gated Developments, Earthscan: London.

[4] SUAREZ CARRASQUILLO, C.A. (2011) Gated Communities and City Marketing: Recent Trends in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Cities, 28 (5): 444-451. WEBSTER, C., GLASZE, G. and FRANTZ, K. (2002) The global spread of gated communities, Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 29 (3): 315–321.

WU, F. (2010) Gated and Packaged Suburbia: Packaging and Branding Chinese Suburban Residential Development, Cities, 27 (5): 385-396.

[5] ONCU, A. (1988) The Politics of the Urban Land Market in Turkey: 1950-1980, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 12 (1): 38-64.

[6] GENIS, S. (2007) Producing Elite Localities: The Rise of Gated Communities in Istanbul, Urban Studies, 44 (4): 771-798.

[7] ONCU, A. (1997) The Myth of the Ideal Home Travels Across Cultural Borders to Istanbul, in Oncu, A. and Weyland, P. (eds.) Space, Culture, Power: Struggles Over New Identities in Globalizing Cities, London: ZED.

[11] TANULKU, B. (2012a) Gated Communities: From Self-Sufficient Towns to Active Urban Agents, Geoforum, 43 (3): 518-528.

[12] GENIS, S. (2012) Takdim, Ozel Sayi: Guvenlikli Siteler: Sosyo-mekansal Ayrismanin Yeni Bicimi, Idealkent, (Special Issue: Gated Communities: The New Form of Socio-spatial Fragmentation), May (6): 5-9.

[13] TANULKU, B. (2012a) Gated Communities: From Self-Sufficient Towns to Active Urban Agents, Geoforum, 43 (3): 518-528.

[14] TANULKU, B. (2012b) "Moral Capitalism" and Gated Communities: An Example of Spatio-moral Fragmentation in Istanbul,, 27 November.

[15] TANULKU, B. (2013) Gated Communities: Ideal Packages or Processual Spaces of Conflict? Housing Studies,