Friday, January 15, 2010


Like many countries in the midst of development, Turkish migration from the rural regions into the metropolitan areas has, over the last few decades, created an assortment of burdens on urban centers, such as poor infrastructure, a lack of clean Gecekonduwater, and problems with mass transit. In Turkey, you see the "gecekondu."

Gecekondu, which means "put up in night", is one result of this unrestricted movement of people. Basically, village residents that have come to the city in search of employment and opportunity,  build homes without proper permission, against building or zoning codes or any legal standing. There are large neighborhoods in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir where homes- often little more than shacks for squatter families- are hastily constructed, using stolen electricity and water from whatever source available. Like many problems in Turkey, the origins of the gecekondu problem go back in Ottoman history.

Ottoman Origins

According to the Ottoman laws, if a person could find unused government land and build a home within 24 hours, it became the property of the settler, hence the name.  Added to this were vast ethnic population migrations following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, making the problem of legal property ownership  a nightmare. Later land reform laws did nothing to curb illegal seizing of government (miri), private (mulk) or charitable and religious (vakif) lands. 

For example, laws regarding the problem of gecekondu were passed in 1966, which in effect, gave the government the necessary legal power to demolish such neighborhoods for the sake of urban development projects. Unfortunately political partisanship in Turkey has done little to find a equitable solution.

Little Sympathy

Long time residents of these cities  generally have very little sympathy when shanty homes are bulldozed and police escort hysterical families from their dwellings. They see these neighborhoods are breeding grounds for crime, disease  and political extremism and, more importantly,  an obstacle to urban development.  Undoubtedly, villagers from the eastern regions are seen, by the elites and  as illegal invaders, bringing into the cosmopolitan city their  backward culture.

On the other hand, life in the gecekondu communities cannot be considered much better than the village life they left behind. There is, however, the opportunity for improvement and the potential for a change in the living standard.  This source of cheap- but untrained labor- drives down costs but also wages for all workers.

In addition to the problems that gecekondu brings to the city, there are also zoning problems. Homes built illegally are often located in zones prone to flooding, landslides or are, themselves, unsuitable for habitation.

Watch Turkish news and, on occasion,  you may see virtual riots between families, trying to save what little they have and police, trying to prevent the illegal seizure of land and carry out the law.  I suppose it makes great news footage for television, of course, crying children, wrecking equipment, fathers standing on roofs with knives, threatening to off himself.  Certainly it is  genuine and it is heart-breaking.

According to  Robert Neuwirth in his book, Shadow Cities, "half the residents of Istanbul - perhaps six million people - dwell in gecekondu homes."

Until life in the city becomes so unbearable or life in the village offers more incentives for residents to remain, then the problem of gecekondu is likely to remain.

You can also find more information on gecekondu in the links below:

and a fine scholarly study on this problem:

1 comment:

  1. The gecekondu sound very much like the villas of Buenos Aires. People come from all over Argentina to the capital with dreams for a better life, but they often find just as much misery (or more) in Buenos Aires. The villas are rife with crime, drugs and despair, with living conditions that would make most people cringe.


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