Istanbul, Turkey, has stood at the center of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It has acted as a central hub of political history and artistic creation for some 20 centuries, with remnants of the city dating as far back as the 7th millennium BC. Its place as a nexus of diverse cultures and eras has added incredible richness and depth to the architecture of the city. Yet, as more people have sought to live in the city congestion has crippled movement and threatened residents’ quality of life. The city sought an urban development solution that could simultaneously meet the needs of current residents while maintaining the rich culture of the city.
In 2010 a group of stakeholders including EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) and the architecture practice Gehl Architects, along with Istanbul’s Fatih Municipality, and UNESCO, proposed a pedestrianization project to expand sustainable mobility and create a more accessible area in Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula. In January 2011 their efforts culminated in a significant street closure within the majority of the peninsula, with the goal of creating a safer, low emission zone.
But Gehl Architects and EMBARQ Turkey did not want to stop at reshaping the peninsula. They wanted to quantify the impacts of the redevelopment on public life within the peninsula, both to better understand the urban design principles underpinning vibrant places, and to help develop guidelines for other cities around the globe that are simultaneously grappling with creating vibrant urban spaces while preserving cultural heritage.
The hidden benefits of public spaces
EMBARQ Turkey and Gehl Architects chose to help the city through a pedestrianization project because they knew that walkable spaces have multiple co-benefits, and that Istanbul could be an iconic city inspiring other cities around the world. There are numerous benefits to returning city streets to pedestrians: improving public health by providing opportunities for physical activity while improving traffic safety, decreasing the number of cars on the road, and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. When done in partnership with local businesses, pedestrianization – as see in New York City’s Time Square – can increase foot traffic and benefit business, helping build thriving and prosperous urban communities. These changes combine to create cities that provide a sustainable, high-quality life for urban residents.
Reports such as “Istanbul: An Accessible City” documented the challenges EMBARQ Turkey and Gehl Architects would face in pedestrianizing the peninsula. For example, places like the Galata bridge saw 105,260 cars pass through it each day, and the majority of this traffic needed to be converted into walking, biking, and boat travel. Since 2011, Istanbul’s Fatih Municipality has pedestrianized 295 streets throughout the historic peninsula – the area between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. 2.5 million people have been impacted by the project, and it was vital for the city to understand whether this pedestrianization has been a positive impact or not.
Safety and sustainability: the many components of pedestrian access
To meet this need for research on the impacts of the project, EMBARQ Turkey released a study, entitled “The Istanbul Historic Peninsula Pedestrianization Project” that found an 80% approval rate from the students, residents, and local businesses in the Historic Peninsula. The study also found an increased feeling of safety around local businesses. The perception of safety is vital for local businesses seeking customers, since people who feel safe are likely to linger longer in these areas, which might prompt more purchasing.
Changes in Traffic Safety as perceived by local businesses
55% of people think the initiative has increased the accessibility by foot to other transport modes. These new connections to trains, ferries, buses, and bikes create more opportunities to get jobs and education, and more dynamism within the city itself.
The pedestrianized streets led to a strong perception that streets are safer from traffic crashes (76% of the respondents). The project also impacted aspects of the city unrelated to transport, with residents feeling that the pedestrianization of the peninsula’s roads increased the visual quality of surrounding areas by 58% and strengthened the attractiveness of historic buildings by 56%. Residents noted an impact on the day-to-day experience in the neighbourhoods, as fewer cars used meant less noise, and fewer carbon emissions. Levels of trash on the streets, with more people on the streets, remained unchanged.
The pedestrianization effort has so far been focused on the Historic Peninsula district of Istanbul. While other municipalities of the Turkish capital have similar plans, they have not yet materialized. With the data from the Historic Peninsula and the public support monitored in the survey, the hope is for other municipalities and also for world cities to embrace approaches that place people at the center of the city’s development. For now, walking the Historic Peninsula shows the pride the people of Istanbul have quickly grown for this place, and the potential for the city as a whole to embrace people-oriented mobility for a more sustainable, liveable future.