Issue 01 / Managing Risk

Managing Risk


Groundhem Initiative

Turkey is sitting on a complex structure of tectonic collision, causing it to be a highly seismic active area. Because earthquakes are Turkey’s most common natural hazard, it has become a global “risk reduction leader”1 over the last decades, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Following the devastating Marmara earthquake in 1999, which caused the death of ca. 18,000 people and the demolition of ca. 113,000 buildings,2 Turkey introduced major legal changes in order to enhance architectural earthquake resistance. As plausible as these adjustments may sound, “risk” has since become a driving factor of lucrative development projects throughout the country.3

Typically, such real estate projects involve Turkey’s Mass Housing Administration (TOKI), which over the years has become a governmental profit-driven venture despite its positioning as a non-profit organization invested in social housing.
4Between 2005 and 2012, various Laws were passed, giving the government, in cooperation with TOKI, the authority to expropriate and transform any area under risk of natural disaster. These gradual changes culminated with the Law No. 6306, which allowed the municipalities to arbitrarily designate any area as a disaster risk area, irrespective of the officially defined risk zones.5 This created a legal basis for the use of “risk” as a pretext to expropriate neighborhoods for real estate development. A striking example of the profit-driven urban transformation justified by a discourse of risk mitigation is the historic city center of Diyarbakir, called Sur.

Sur, Diyarbakir

Due to its geostrategic position in the south-east of Turkey, Diyarbakir has been an important location since ancient times. For around 2,000 years, it has been inhabited by a variety of civilizations and is therefore home to numerous cultural sites and a heterogeneous population.6 In 2015, the old fortified walls of Sur and the adjacent Hevsel Gardens were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Apart from its historical significance, it has also been at the center of ethnic conflict throughout the history of the Turkish Republic.

7 The state violence against Kurdish communities resulted in the displacement and dispersion of nearly half a million people. Many of them were detained and tortured, others completely disappeared. The destruction of up to 3,000 villages, carried out to prevent their residents’ return,8 forced many to settle in cities, such as Diyarbakir.

In Sur, internally displaced people (IDP) created a communal neighborhood culture, shaped by the old city’s traditional narrow streets and multi-family houses.9 They also transformed Sur’s traditional fabric by building additional, unlicensed structures called gecekondu in Turkish.10 Because this built environment existed on the margins of the formal institutions, residents often relied on an informal economy and solidarity networks, which fostered support for radical Kurdish politics.11
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Turkish state initiated rural counterinsurgency campaigns in order to suppress the support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish guerrilla group founded in 1978

Courtesy Groundhem Initiative

The Uncivil Object

The project of urban redevelopment, affecting several neighborhoods in Sur, was initiated in 2008 by the centrally appointed governorship of the Diyarbakir province in partnership with TOKI.12 The proclaimed objective was to turn Sur into a trade and tourism center by replacing the informal housing (gecekondu) with standard TOKI multi-storey buildings and relocating its residents to the outskirts of the city. Faced with local contestation against these plans, the state declared the entire Sur an earthquake risk area13 based on a photographic survey that, according to local practitioners, did not live up to the standards of a technical examination.14 This was followed by an expropriation decision for the neighborhoods to be redeveloped.15 Thus, the conjunction of geological contingency and irregular building stock was instrumentalized to convert the inhabited built environment into a potentially dispossessed object of transformation.

Gecekondus, from the state’s perspective, are “uncivil objects”16 and are therefore extremely vulnerable to the enforcement of expropriation and transformation. Unlicensed and “unplanned,” their legitimate status as property is tenuous and their civilian construction is often cited as risky. In the case of Sur, the gecekondus, mainly built by the displaced Kurds who fled to urban spaces in the 1980s and 90s, are deemed by the state to be unhygienic, unsafe, and noncompliant with the historical texture of Sur.17 These are politically-charged characterizations that tend to be levelled against those built forms that express opposing political histories and form spaces of civic practice unassimilated into projects of national development. The pronouncement of such characterizations claims the bureaucratic right to dispossess and transform the troublesome “irregularity” of the spaces they designate. Similar to the processes described by James Scott in his influential Seeing Like a State (1998), the Turkish state acts to reorganize an asymmetrical landscape into a readily legible and programmatic one.18 The dispossession, demolition, and transformation of Sur’s gecekondu are justified as a service to civil society and the common good, which by definition do not extend to those forms of life on whose erasure they are predicated. Due to the residents’ opposition to being moved to the outskirts of the city, as well as the contestation by local institutional actors, the Turkish authorities were unable to complete the project of urban redevelopment.19 However, the situation of forestalling the demolition of the gecekondu housing changed drastically in 2015.

Changing the Risk Narrative to Terrorist Threat

After a long history of violence, peace talks between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish government began in 2013. However, when two years later the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) surpassed the 10% parliamentary election threshold, the Turkish state shifted its discourse of ending the armed conflict back to the designation of the Kurdish opposition as a national security threat.20 As the clashes between the PKK and the Turkish army resumed, the armed Kurdish youth declared autonomy across the predominantly Kurdish cities of the south-east.21 This was met with a large-scale urban campaign by the Turkish military. In contrast to the past conflicts, which led to the displacement of rural communities, the 2015 operations affected the urban sites that housed many of the same population who had fled to Diyarbakir and other cities in the 1980s and 90s. As a result, urban landscapes were destroyed and turned into war zones. Diyarbakir’s Sur was one of the most severely affected sites.
The 2015 military campaign came on the heels of Turkey’s tightening of its National and Public Security Laws. Just a few months before the operations, the controversial Package Laws No. 6638 and 6639 were implemented, extensively enhancing police powers and governmental media regulation.22 Some argue these new laws were prepared in response to the 2014 Kurdish protests against Turkey’s refusal to protect the Kurds in the Syrian city of Kobani against the Islamic State and were intended to prevent such protests in the future.23 The so-called “Legal Package to Protect Freedoms” has been severely criticized by human rights organizations24 as marking a further development towards a police state in Turkey.25

With the declaration of autonomy by the Kurdish youth, the state used the long-standing discourse of terrorist threat26 and declared curfews in the majority-Kurdish cities of the south-east, which sometimes lasted months. With the cities under a virtual blockade from the outside world, the military operations involved the use of heavy artillery and tanks. Despite the claims of “neutralizing” the terrorist threat and restoring public safety, the state forces deemed all residents a potential security risk and committed severe human rights violations against civilians.27 Ultimately, the curfew-evacuation dyad functioned as an instrument of forced displacement and dispossession, resulting in the eviction of 40,000 residents in Sur alone.28

Violent Gentrification

In Sur, the mass displacement set the stage for the erasure of the built environment once the operations were over. While the state blamed the “terrorists” for the destruction inflicted during the blockade,29 a new line of justification was produced for the continuation of demolitions afterwards.30 The post-war destruction was justified by the presence of explosives, allegedly planted in the buildings by “terrorists”; yet, the demolitions were also carried out in the neighborhoods far beyond the conflict zone.31

Courtesy Groundhem Initiative

In order to give the dispossession of the displaced residents an appearance of legality, the state issued another “urgent expropriation decision” for the entire city center after the end of the operation, based on the same natural disaster law that served as the legal basis for the previous expropriation of the gecekondu housing.32

The post-war risk narrative also underlies the ongoing process of reconstruction, unilaterally implemented by the centrally appointed state institutions. Guided by security considerations, the new urban design functions as a defense tool against any potential political resistance in the future.33 The widening of Sur’s traditional narrow streets has been, for example, justified by the need to enable the passage of security services, fire department trucks, and ambulances. This new discourse is strikingly reminiscent of the period of urban regeneration before the operations; the state is securitizing the city, while at the same time restoring its historical features to turn it into an “attraction center.”34 Seizing the opportunity presented by the military incursion, the state also completed the unfinished urban transformation plan from the pre-operations period that had begun in 2008, even though those neighborhoods were not affected by the military operations.35 Besides serving the state’s political agenda, the reconstruction of new houses also satisfies its profit motive; the market price of new houses, owned by TOKI, is estimated to be several times higher than the cost of the destroyed housing.36 The case of Sur is thus a striking example of both politically and economically-driven urban transformation, centrally imposed and justified through several intersecting discourses of risk.

Counter Narrative

Under these circumstances, the irony of Turkey’s designation as “International Risk Reduction Leader” becomes clear. As we sought to show in this article, the state instrumentalized two discourses of risk to carry out a large-scale urban redevelopment that would leave thousands of people displaced, expropriated and traumatized. The way safety and security risks are being politicized and instrumentalized suggests an underlying strategy to legitimize the reinforcement of national institutions. Intertwined with the Turkish state’s long-standing policies of ethnic marginalization and oppression, profit-driven projects of urban regeneration have particularly affected communities already exposed to systemic violence.37 Thus, risk narratives have contributed significantly to an increasingly authoritarian system capable of arbitrarily dispossessing any land and criminalizing any person.

The aftermath of this 2015 conflict is still ongoing as the process of displacement and urban transformation continues to threaten more neighborhoods in Sur, and the displaced residents have not been allowed to return to their neighborhoods. There is, therefore, an urgent need to bring to light the counternarratives that challenge and undermine the risk narratives produced and instrumentalized by the state. Toward that end, our team is developing an open-source web platform that will counter the information provided by the state and visualize the link between urban planning and military destruction, demonstrating how various risk narratives converged to enable real estate marketization at a massive and otherwise unachievable scale. We seek to reveal the contradictions in the state’s discourse by visualizing in space and time the interactions between the narratives of the state, opposition actors, and victims. Working between visual journalism and research, we are developing a set of methods and procedures to enable new ways of approaching the interrelated dynamics of contemporary urban warfare, population displacement, and urban planning.

Courtesy Groundhem Initiative

Groundhem Initiative
is an independent collective of eight members working between research and visual journalism to examine the correlation of asymmetrical warfare and planned urban regeneration. In response to the 2015 military conflict in Diyarbakir, Turkey they have developed a set of methods, which are designed to enable new ways of approaching the dynamics of war and its aftermath.