Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 42, Fall/Winter 1997
Urban Agriculture in Drylands

Istanbul: Opportunities in urban agriculture

by Paul Kaldjian

"There is no such person as the 'average urban farmer.' He or she may come from any portion of a city's population spectrum....Urban farmers include the wealthy and the poor, recent immigrants and landed gentry."

--Urban agriculture: Food, jobs and sustainable cities,
p. 71


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Among the more vivid memories that any tourist takes back from Istanbul, in addition to the powerful and stunning images of Byzantine and Ottoman era architecture, is that of the food. Even to student travelers and foreign tourists on lean budgets, delicious food is comparatively inexpensive and appears exceedingly abundant. Every guidebook on Istanbul overflows with descriptions of unique local dishes and the areas and restaurants in which they are found. No travel-section article on Istanbul seems complete without praises to Turkish culinary delights.

However, such accounts belie the realities of food acquisition and security for a great and growing number of local Istanbul residents.

With an official population of less than 10 million, and an unofficial population of as many as 12 - 15 million, rapidly expanding metropolitan Istanbul is home to many more people than the available employment opportunities and public infrastructure can sustain. Perceived urban opportunities, in addition to structural changes in rural regions, support ongoing post-war rural-to-urban migration. A debilitating inflation rate of approximately 100%, while creating a brisk business for banks and money exchangers and providing an inexpensive vacation experience for tourists, leaves those paid in Turkish Liras with a constantly declining purchasing power. Further compounding food availability problems for local residents, Turkey's national food production is increasingly targeted toward international food markets. Traditionally, Turkey has been a net food exporter. However, as food exports have increased, so have food imports. As such, locally available foods become relatively more expensive as prices adjust to those offered by international markets and as imported processed foods replace locally grown fresh foods. These events appear to contribute to conditions analogous to what Amartya Sen (1981) might call a boom famine. It is not that food becomes scarce, but that the ability of local populations to command access to food is limited. That is, in the midst of plenty, it is possible for large populations to be hungry, sometimes even to starve.

Under such economic conditions, it is reasonable to expect to find creative local strategies for ensuring household food security, uniquely adapted to the urban resources available in Istanbul. One particular adaptation that becomes evident to any visitor who veers even barely off the tourist path is urban agriculture -- growing crops, raising livestock, and otherwise harvesting edible produce in urban spaces (see resources listed in the accompanying bibliography for more complete definitions and explanations). Throughout Istanbul, many local residents have taken elements of food production into their own hands rather than relying solely on their ability to exchange labor and wages for food. This descriptive article introduces the results of preliminary information gathering in preparation for dissertation fieldwork to be conducted in Istanbul by the author over the 1997-1998 academic year.

Detailed analysis would be premature and still speculative at this point. For example, causative and limiting factors are as yet unknown, as are systematic data on who practices urban agriculture and why, the relevant land tenure systems, the role of the changing national food political economy, gender divisions of labor and so on. Nevertheless, it is evident from initial observations that urban agriculture is widespread throughout Istanbul, is practiced by people from a wide variety of socio-demographic backgrounds, and is practiced for the reasons identified by Freeman (1991; Footnote 1).

Clearly, the availability of a reliable supply of water for crops and livestock is a major constraint faced by urban agriculturalists in Istanbul. One question for future research on urban agriculture in Istanbul is to determine the role that water constraints play on such things as crop and site selection. Istanbul has a Mediterranean-type climate, sharing a Koeppen climate classification of Csa with such Middle Eastern cities as Aleppo and Damascus in Syria; Beirut, Lebanon; Amman, Jordan; and Jerusalem, Israel (Held 1994). Characterized by dry summers and winter precipitation, Istanbul tends to receive more total rainfall, typically with less in the winter and significantly more in the summer, than these other cities. However, water shortages are not uncommon. Bonine (1997) reports that extensive drought conditions in the early 1990s created severe water shortages and disruptions in public water supply in Istanbul.

Istanbul: Geography and history

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[Walls of Istanbul: thumbnail image link]
(This thumbnail links to page with 3 images; file size ~100K)

Metropolitan Istanbul is divided from north to south by the Bosphorus, which flows from the Black Sea into the Sea of Marmara and along which Istanbul lies. The city is further sectioned by the Golden Horn, a "bay" on the Bosphorus created and fed by freshwater run-off. The Bosphorus is the officially recognized geographical divide between Europe and Asia; the Golden Horn further helps define the peninsula on which Old Istanbul (the city built by Constantine and conquered by the Ottomans) lies. A 7-km land wall, built in the fifth century and maintained for 1000 years until the Ottoman conquest in 1453, runs from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara, creating a formidable defense that turned aside Attila the Hun.

Arguably one of the first World Cities, Istanbul recorded a population of nearly 1 million already in the 9th century; in 1921, and again immediately after the Second World War, its total population was still only about 1 million. In the past four decades, however, explosive population growth has begun to significantly change Istanbul's cultural fabric. Outlying villages regularly become incorporated into the metropolitan system; at the same time, migrants establish communities within the metropolitan area, bringing with them characteristics of their migratory origins. Throughout Istanbul, informal systems have developed where publicly provided infrastructure is inadequate. For example, informal housing (the gecekondu) and transportation (the dolmus) systems throughout Istanbul are well-known and integral parts of the city's fabric. In a similar spirit, urban agriculture can be thought of as an informal and practical response to inadequate food systems and opportunities.

Agricultural production in Istanbul

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Urban agriculture in Istanbul appears to be every bit as cosmopolitan as the city itself, reflecting a wide variety of opportunities, resources and skills. Economically, it ranges from household gardens to commercial greenhouses, from harvesting for household consumption to harvesting for sale.

Clearly, the availability and accessibility of land and water are two critical factors to which urban agriculturalists must adapt. In particular, land ownership, location, quality and proximity to accessible water are some of the factors that must be considered. When production is for commercial rather than household consumption, accessibility to markets also becomes a factor. Other resources, including seeds, fertilizers, tools, and knowledge, are also important. The remainder of this article is a descriptive and pictorial documentation of some of the urban agricultural activities that will make up part of the author's field research.

Resource use

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The nexus of two very generalized natural resources (i.e., land and water) and a broadly defined set of social resources (ranging from knowledge, labor and social welfare programs, to the availability and accessibility of imported or manufactured inputs and capital) determine the viability of urban agriculture as a livelihood strategy. For raising crops and livestock, land is required, though the necessary quality of land is contingent upon the particular mix of crops and livestock desired.

For example, chickens may only require a flat surface -- for which a rooftop or gravel lot will do -- whereas vegetables require varying amounts of fertile soil. The necessary water may be obtainable from precipitation; from municipal supplies, streams and rivers; or from private deliveries by truck. In some cases, such as that of fisheries, a land resource is not necessary per se; however, as an agricultural activity fishing and aquaculture, both practiced in Istanbul, require a healthy water resource.

To begin to understand the extent, variety, and potential of urban agriculture throughout the world, it may help to think in terms of the various types of spaces in which it occurs, keeping in mind that these vary by city, society and environment. In Istanbul, preliminary evidence indicates that urban agricultural activity is carried out in many different types of spaces (Footnote 2).

1) Balcony or rooftop production -- While this category represents a meaningful use of urban space for individual and household scale agricultural production the world over, covering many socio-economic and demographic levels, the extent of this activity is difficult to ascertain from simple visual observations at ground and street levels. Therefore, the incorporation of such activities into a more comprehensive evaluation of urban agriculture in Istanbul must wait. Interviews and rooftop visits are necessary to obtain this information; such practices will be difficult to identify from remotely sensed imagery with low resolution sizes, though aerial photographs may be useful if they are available.

[front-yard garden thumbnail link]
(link to 2 images, file size ~80K)

2) Interstitial plots and gardens -- This category includes farming on irregular-sized and small plots in between houses and apartment complexes, such as unused portions of property left over after the properties have been built and front/back yards of apartment complexes. Such plots may be very small when considered individually, but they are extensively distributed throughout the city and across neighborhoods. Thus, their total area may be very large, and it will be informative to estimate how the total area of this category compares to the total area used for all categories of urban agriculture proposed in this article. Ownership of these interstitial plots appears variable and cannot be generalized from simple observations.

[household garden thumbnail link]
(link to ~44K file)

3) Household gardens -- This category comprises larger plots that appear to have been planned for crops and livestock use at the time of property construction, seen, for example, in gecekondu neighborhoods with lower population densities than the above.

[Vakif garden thumbnail link]
(link to ~44K file)

4) Foundation (vakif) and public land farming -- This category may include spaces associated with mosques, or park/public land which the municipality wants to preserve but on which it appears to tolerate small-scale agricultural production. These can be found even in very old and densely populated regions of Istanbul.

[urban fringe thumbnail link]
(link to ~53K file)

5) Urban fringe communal farming/residual rural land use -- Expanding urban areas throughout the world often encroach upon agricultural areas. The growth of Istanbul has systematically incorporated many villages into the metropolis. Until land rents increase to where village lands are appropriated for urban uses and development, spaces on the urban fringe may offer significant opportunities for urban agriculture due to their extent and availability.

6) Leftovers -- Problematic lands, difficult to commercially develop because of steep terrain (ravines, for example) or other factors of inaccessibility, fall into this category. Such land may consist of a labyrinth of open spaces, even paved stretches, that are used to herd goats or as holding regions for sheep that are to be sold during sacrificial holidays. Soil quality may be very poor to non-existent, and use of these spaces is sufficiently tenuous to preclude any kind of improvements.

7) Informational spaces -- Such spaces include nurseries and seed or gardening bazaars, commercial settings from which urban agriculturalists can obtain seeds, seedlings, tools and other inputs. Among the most impressive in Istanbul is the seed bazaar in Eminonou that carries a very extensive assortment of seeds and plants, and even some livestock such as chickens.

[aquaculture thumbnail link]
(Link to ~38K file)

8) Private land for commercial agricultural ventures -- Not yet investigated in Istanbul by the author, this category is directed primarily at commercial greenhouses, but could include aquaculture and other small- and neighborhood-scale commercial operations. While the extent of such lands and activities in Istanbul is unknown, one example of where they exist is in the community of Turabya, just off of the Bosphorus on Istanbul's leading northern edge.

[fisherman thumbnail link]
(Link to 2 images, ~73K file)

9) Other -- This category is set aside both because there are undoubtedly other categories not yet evident to the author and because this categorization scheme is still very preliminary. For example, fruit harvesting (e.g., plums, mulberries, cherries, figs) from public and private spaces, where fruit trees are grown as ornamentals, appears common. Though the degree to which such harvesting systematically takes place is uncertain, trees in parks, cemeteries, on government property, etc. are a source of seasonal produce. Water bodies such as the Bosphorus, Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara contain fishery resources that provide a significant bounty at the household level. Non-commercial aquaculture also needs to be incorporated into the overall schema presented in this paper.


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Though this paper reflects only preliminary observations in preparation of dissertation fieldwork, it begins to identify the broad extent to which urban agriculture plays a potentially significant role within the greater urban food system, reflecting a creative approach to ensuring household and community food security within a rapidly changing and often uncertain regional and national political economy. It only begins to ask questions about resource use, land tenure, social relations, and political ecology that are the target of ongoing research. As such, the author welcomes comments and encourages feedback on the issues raised in this paper. Please address your comments to him at the address given below.


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Bonine, Michael E. 1997. Population, poverty and politics: Contemporary Middle Eastern cities in crisis. In Population, poverty, and politics in Middle Eastern cities, ed. M. Bonine. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Freeman, Donald B. 1991. A city of farmers. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Held, Colbert C. 1994. Middle East patterns: Places, peoples and politics. Boulder: Westview Press.

Sen, Amartya. 1981. Poverty and famines. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


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1. Freeman has found that, at the local scale, the primary motives of the poor to participate in urban agriculture are basic subsistence, diet supplement, supplemental cash income and fungibility (freeing up scarce cash income).
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2. It is important to state that this is based on visual and preliminary evidence rather than on interviews and in depth research. Further, the land tenure relationships are, as yet, unknown. That is, issues of who owns the land vis-à-vis who farms it will be part of the author's fieldwork. With a more complete understanding of the various land tenure relationships, other and more helpful categorizations of urban agricultural spaces may become evident. The author also theorizes that land-use patterns will differ according to population density, location relative to city center/urban fringe, age of neighborhood, migratory origins of urban agricultural community and other such factors.
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Author information

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Paul Kaldjian is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography and Regional Development, The University of Arizona. He spent the summer of 1997 in Istanbul on a Foreign Language and Area Scholarship in preparation for fieldwork funded by the American Research Institute in Turkey. You can reach him as follows:

Paul Kaldjian
Department of Geography and Regional Development
The University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
Tel: +1 (520) 621-1652

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