In one of its earliest reports on the turmoil that is ripping through Turkish cities, CNN highlighted an apparent paradox: How the anti-government protests that are now being compared to the Arab Spring were sparked by a “trivial” matter: The destruction of Gezi Park in the centre of Istanbul. Gezi Park is the last remaining green space in Istanbul’s commercial centre and an initially peaceful sit-in was called when authorities announced their plans to replace the park with a 19th century replica of an Ottoman barracks and shopping mall. While the depth and scope of the backlash against the government is clearly linked to the brutality of their response to the sit-in, there is a critical need to reflect on how the razing of the last green open space in the centre of a major city could possibly be seen as trivial — a view that seems to be shared by both the Turkish authorities and the media.
The resistance to the obliteration of Gezi Park is not an isolated event but links to decade-long Turkish protests against the establishment of gold and coal mines, hydroelectric plants and urban transformation projects that have spawned seemingly uncontrolled construction and development. Laws designed to protect the environment have been systematically undermined: The rules for mandatory environmental impact assessments have been skewed in favour of developers, some forests have been legally re-classified as “non forests” allowing them to be felled completely, and a benign-sounding draft nature and biodiversity conservation law will allow for significant infrastructure investment in some of the country’s few conservation areas.
The pattern is evident all over the world. In Beirut, Calcutta, Ulaanbaatar and too many other places urban green spaces are being sacrificed on the altar of infrastructure investments that will deliver rents to their investors. This privatisation of the last vestiges of the natural commons of course goes together with the far more catastrophic destruction of species and ecosystems in the rural hinterland precisely to maintain the metabolic flows of food, water, energy and consumer items into the insatiable cities and to absorb the masses of organic and inorganic wastes that flow out of them.
South Africa is not immune to these trends. While there have been some gains in urban green space (the hasty attempt to green Soweto prior to the Soccer World Cup for instance), a number of established green spaces are being targeted in terms of densification projects. In already choked Johannesburg Huddle Park and Moffat Park are cases in point. Worryingly, RDP suburbs exhibit poor public green space planning, having higher housing densities and fewer green spaces than both more affluent suburbs and older townships. On a broader scale, and like Turkey ten years ago, we are also on the cusp of a massive infrastructure build programme, and legislation such as the draft Infrastructure Development Bill, 2013, which appears to have been drafted with an amnesia of all constitutional and statutory requirements relating to environmental rights, sustainable development and integrated environmental management, will radically undermine the capacity of organs of state to conduct environmental impact assessments for major projects.
The health, aesthetic and spiritual value of urban green spaces is supported by a mass of scientific research. In March 2013, for example, researchers at Heriot-Watt university in Edinburgh published the results of a study showing that people’s brain waves actually differed in built versus natural environments. Some city planners have therefore been led to conclude that green space isn’t a luxury but an essential component of human well-being. This has led to a movement for “Biophilic Cities”: Cities that care about, seek to protect, restore and grow nature and enable city dwellers to have deeper connections with the natural world.
What Gezi Park demonstrates, however, is that the need for thriving urban green spaces is not just essential for human well-being but also for peace and social order. Just as lack of access to food, water, energy and housing may serve as a social tipping point for violence and unrest, so may lack of access to nature within the city, the latter compounding the misery of material deprivation with the depressed monotony of tarred roads, smoke-stained buildings and the sickening artificialism of the shopping mall.
What is more, the Gezi Park moment may come to stand for a recognition that our relationship to nature and the many ways in which we hide our rape, assault, and murder of her is similar to the relationship we have to the nameless masses who support unsustainable consumerist culture. So after the green stuff is ripped out and the myriad forms of life that had their being in that space take leave, the precariously employed workers will move in to construct edifices of glass, steel and concrete, to be maintained by equally precariously positioned cleaners, garbage collectors, till operators, security personnel, sewage workers, and the many other types of invisible people that keep our suburbs, security villages, offices complexes, and shopping malls wonderful places to work and play.
Gezi Park is a solemn warning that there are social tipping points to the linked trends of wanton ecological destruction, the superexploitation of labour and the suppression of free speech, with the potential to shake governments, no matter how powerful they may be.