In Turkey, environmentalists struggle to preserve the city’s remaining green spaces

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Validebağ Grove is among last remaining green spaces in Istanbul

Originally published on Global Voices

Local residents cleaning up the park. Screenshot from Center for Spacial Justice video. September 23, 2021.

Validebağ Grove (Validebağ Korusu) is among the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul. Situated on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, the grove is home to unique species of trees, migratory birds, and several historic buildings. It has been named a Grade 1 Natural and Historic Site. And yet, since 2014, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been fighting to allow development projects in the grove, much to the ire of community environmentalists. The most recent bid involves the AKP backed local municipality of Üsküdar, which entered the grove on September 21, with construction equipment dumping sand and debris, according to a report by Gazete Duvar. The protestors are calling the most recent attempt a “massacre of the law and of nature.”

But the municipality claims it is simply carrying out the “landscaping and rehabilitation project” launched by the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ‘s Üsküdar Municipality.

This is not the first time the grove has become a heated topic of disagreements between the local environmental groups, volunteers, and the ruling party. In 2014, residents held protests and filed a lawsuit after the municipality proposed building a new mosque in the green space. Opponents argued that the area was already home to 26 mosques at the time. Eventually, the municipality ordered construction to halt — but only briefly. The ruling was ultimately lifted following an appeal from the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, according to a Hurriyet Daily News report at the time.

In 2018, a new project, “Nation's Garden,” was proposed for the area. With efforts from the volunteers, the project was stalled. Then in 2020, the Üsküdar Municipal Council allocated 261 thousand square meters of the grove's territory to the municipality for alleged purposes of care and maintenance.

In June 2021, following a visit to the grove, the Minister of Environment and Urbanization Murat Kurum announced plans for the “landscaping and rehabilitation project.” The project involved turfing  88 decares to make way for parking, hiking trails, open-air theaters, and food stalls at the entrances, among other attractions. There were brief victory celebrations after the administrative court issued a decision in July that the project would cause “irrecoverable damages” to the grove. Three months later, the municipality went ahead with the construction plans anyway.

The Validebağ Volunteers and Validebağ Protection groups have been guarding the park and sharing updates via their social media accounts. It was these two groups that informed the public that the municipality had entered the park, dumping debris on September 21.

Dawn raid on Validebağ! Üsküdar mayor Hilmi Türkmen, accompanied by police, slaughters nature and the law! We won’t allow the mentality that is turning the grove into a garbage dump. Not on our watch!

Eventually, the municipality removed the equipment from the park. Meanwhile, volunteers continue to call for support. Speaking to Bianet, Arif Belgin from the Validebağ Volunteers said, “We call on everyone who is on the side of nature and green to come here. This is a murder. We expect everyone to defend Validebağ.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party has never prioritized green spaces or environmental policy. The crackdown in 2013 against a group of environmentalists trying to prevent the destruction of yet another green space in Istanbul, Gezi Park, was the litmus test for the ruling government, marking the AKP's anti-environmental turn. 

In 2013 it was Gezi Park, in 2021, it is the Validebağ Grove, not to mention all the smaller places and habitats that have been destroyed or damaged in between. But the struggle to preserve the remaining green spaces and the environment continues. The question is, will the government finally start listening?