Thursday, 23 June 2022

Atatürk Airport National Garden - The Green Lung Of Istanbul

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
It's no surprise that Istanbul is at the top of so many people's travel lists. From historical sights to atmospheric cafés and restaurants, there's something for all tastes and budgets. As they are more likely to visit an abundance of centrally-located tourist attractions, most visitors are unlikely to learn about two facets plaguing everyday life for İstanbullular: the city's traffic congestion and lack of green spaces (not to mention the economic turmoil). Istanbul is the city with the least amount of green space in Europe, amounting to just 2.2% of its total area (compared to 40% in Helsinki). [1] [2] In fact, only Middle Eastern cities like Baghdad, Cairo, Dubai and Riyadh have less green space. [3]

When in May 2013 the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality announced its plans to replace Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park with a replica of the Ottoman-era Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks that was formerly located on the grounds of Gezi Park until 1940, protests erupted that eventually escalated into the nationwide Gezi Park protests. While these protests quickly expanded to include a broader range of issues and concerns, it showed that the İstanbullular were not about to give up the little green space Istanbul currently possesses without a fight. Conversely, the construction of new parks like the Atatürk Airport National Garden has been met with fierce resistance from opposition parties.

From the 1970s onwards, the population of Istanbul began to grow exponentially as new factories on the outskirts of the city attracted workers from other parts of Türkiye. The sharp rise in the city's population caused an increasing demand for public housing as previously outlying districts quickly became engulfed by metropolitan Istanbul. With most of Istanbul's space reserved for extremely dense housing, there was very little attention for the construction of parks and green spaces. Though Istanbul is surrounded by lush forests and parks, these all necessitate long car journeys or multiple transfers with public transportation.

In an effort to return (at least a part of) Istanbul to the İstanbullular, Türkiye's government announced its plans to construct a giant park on the grounds of the former Istanbul Atatürk Airport (whose operations are transferred to the new Istanbul Airport) in 2019. [4] The park is part of a larger urban transformation plan that seeks to correct some of the haphazard urban planning that characterised most major Turkish cities since the 1970s. [5] Due to the little space available to construct or expand green spaces, new parks are often constructed on spots formerly occupied by factories or other major facilities.
The Atatürk Airport National Garden will be constructed on and around one of the two runways of Atatürk Airport. This runway was already rendered unusable after it was chosen as the site for Istanbul's pandemic hospital in early 2020. More than 132.500 trees are to be planted in place of the asphalt runway and taxiways that will also help to keep the city cooler. The other runway is set to remain in use for select cargo and private jet flights, aviation fairs (such as Teknofest) and for use with the air force (which still maintains a small training base and museum here).

It wouldn't be Türkiye if the planned construction of the Atatürk Airport National Garden wasn't met with fierce political resistance. The leader of the main opposition party CHP Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called the proposed construction of the park ''treason'' and threatened to hold those responsible to account. [6] The CHP opposes the project on the grounds that it's still a working airport, despite the fact that one runway and dedicated cargo tarmac will remain open (for example to allow the fly in of relief goods during a major earthquake) and that Kılıçdaroğlu previously announced his own plans to build a park at the airport. [6] All other arguments aside, it can certainly be argued that the park's location is a major advantage since all the infrastructure to make it easy accessible by car or via the existing M1A metro line is already there thanks to its former role as the city's international airport.

Parks and green spaces make cities more livable. Atatürk Airport National Garden could become a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul's hectic urban life. Though not without its opponents, in time the weary traveller and the city's inhabitants alike will surely come to appreciate this little chunk of peace and quietude, this green lung of Istanbul.

[1] Discover Istanbul : The green city
[2] A view into Istanbul’s “greenness”: Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Solid Waste Data
[4] Ataturk Airport from a Global Airport to a Beach Park
[6] Istanbul’s old airport set to get green makeover amid opposition