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Land Matters: At Stake in Gezi Park

As we were putting together the July issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine, which is all about fun, a familiar theme about civic involvement kept appearing in the stories about public spaces—parks, playgrounds, neighborhood squares. This thread wasn’t planned. It comes up pretty much every month in so much of what we, and you, do for a living. The public engagement process can be taxing; it involves people who are quite practical and straightforward and others who seem to be patched through from Mars or simply in need of attention with an irrelevant two cents. Engaging the public can be frustrating, as Adam Arvidson, FASLA, reported in the Now section last month, for public-sector professionals who are simply trying to locate their constituencies, particularly the younger people who don’t have land lines and don’t read newspapers. It is, in most cases, a job of its own apart from whatever else designers are trying to accomplish in the ever-contested public realm.

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In case anyone needed fresh validation for all this labor, or for the idea of promoting open space, public space, green space, period, it has been quite amazing to see people rise up in Istanbul at the end of May and the weeks afterward around a park they love. They rose up elsewhere in Turkey, because, it turns out, there are many reasons the Turkish people are mad at their government. But the flash point of the unrest was unmistakably the arrival of construction equipment to begin implementing a plan by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to destroy an important commons, Taksim Square, and with it, Gezi Park, the last and much beloved green space at the center of the city. And Erdogan would not only destroy these spaces but would build a colossally depressing revival of an Ottoman fortress and the most inhumane plaza you’ve ever seen in their place. (Our staff writer, Dan Jost, ASLA, has posted a chilling fly-through of the proposed project on LAM’s blog. Don’t let the lilting string accompaniment fool you.)

A common complaint among those who began occupying Gezi Park in protest has been the total lack of a public process to decide the future of the space, which is Erdogan’s preferred style. The prime minister has all sorts of outsized projects on his agenda, none of which seem open for debate by the people. Oh, but yes, nearly two weeks into the Gezi Park protests, Erdogan met with protest leaders in Ankara to offer a “referendum” on the park, at the same time he was calling a 24-hour deadline for protests to end. This was seen by his opposition as a way to headline the park and divert attention from problems in the larger political backdrop—the rising religious conservatism and corruption in government not least; not to mention the deployment of riot police and tear gas against largely peaceful protesters and the death of a protester hit by a rubber bullet.

Perversely, the whole thing has been troubling but exhilarating for people who invest hope in the public realm. Anything is preferable to violence, especially given that righteous protest often tends to conflate at some point with unseemly opportunism. In any event, it is uncomfortably reassuring to see such proprietary offense taken by a wide swath of Turkish society toward an autocratic encroachment on a space the people value for their ability to share it equally. It hits at the very heart of decency and democracy. In this line of work, you can only hope the people prevail.

Speaking of Dan Jost, we on the staff are seeing him off with this issue as he heads to the University of Washington to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture. Dan came to LAM five years ago with a golden combination of deep landscape knowledge (for someone so recently out of Cornell) and a tireless drive to translate it into solid and highly skeptical journalism. You will undoubtedly see his work in LAM down the line, but we will miss him (and the 3:00 a.m. e-mails) quite a lot around the office, and wish him the best of times in grad school.

Bradford McKee
Editor

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