Istanbul is a hybrid and fragmented city that is best described by its multi-layered historical developments. The inherent complexity of the city’s urban form constitutes a challenge for excavating the layers of history with their multitude of underlying social and political events. Shaped by a constant influence of in-betweenness throughout its history and subjected to rapid urbanization policies during the modern era, Istanbul hardly conforms to a coherent morphological model. An overwhelming body of work examines macro-scale development patterns of the city in the last sixty years, and yet, the existing research fails to provide insights about the constant change of the city’s physical fabric. This paper argues that understanding the operational modes of Istanbul’s urban growth requires an examination at the scale of neighborhood, or mahalle, the fundamental socio-cultural entities of the city.
The organic and irregular fabric of Istanbul has been shaped by the traditional urban social system of the mahalle, the smallest administrative unit of the Ottoman land governance system. Mahalles grew organically around religious cores and social institutions such as kulliyes, hence the strong social ties of the mahalle community was at the center of the organization of private and social life of the city. The irregular street patterns in Istanbul are results of this organic growth, reinforced by the Islamic doctrine of privacy (mahrem) implemented in the form of maximum segregation of individual houses (Celik, 1986). Today, one can still observe the same organization in many contemporary neighborhoods that emerged during the last sixty years of urban growth. During the same period, in parallel to rapid industrialization of the city, many other neighborhoods have also been constructed according to modern planning practices. The main motivation of this paper is to understand these differing mahalle morphologies through a comparative analysis of districts, in contrast to previous studies that overwhelmingly rely on a descriptive approach, focusing on a particular area. I compare the morphology of four neighborhoods that represent distinct timeframes and sociopolitical events from 1950 to present day: Zeytinburnu, one of the first squatter neighborhoods (gecekondu) that emerged in 1950s Istanbul as a result of the first wave of internal migration from the rural Anatolia; Kagithane, another gecekondu neighborhood shaped by chain emigration during late 1950s and 1960s; Bahcelievler, a neighborhood developed through modern urban planning practices in 1970s and transformed from a low-density “garden city” into a high-density settlement as a reaction to rapid population growth
after 1980s; and Sultangazi, one of the newest settlements developed in 2000s Istanbul in accordance with urban sprawl towards the northwest.