The term gecekondu derives from the Turkish words “gece”, meaning “night” and “kondu” – meaning “placed” or “landed” (infinitive: konmak) and can thus be translated as “placed overnight”.

According to urban researcher Orhan Esen, it describes various forms of informal housing, originally built on public land in urban peripheries, close to larger factories and industries. Large gecekondu areas sprung up during the first waves of rural migration and rapidly developed into self-sustained  garden cities that helped newly arriving migrants to decrease costs of urban living. Esen continues:

“Residents organised their communities and their own economic networks: the construction, transport and distribution of consumer goods, and sometimes even the infrastructure needed for water and electricity supply for their households. Demolitions and conflicts with authorities were not unusual but when demolition did occur, new homes were frequently reconstructed on nearby land, with former lots taken over by migrant groups backed by more influential political actors.”

Kadir returns to his former "gecekondu" or illegal "overnight" home for the first time in 2 months since it was knocked down by the authorities. Turkey, 2009 (Jonathan Lewis)

Kadir returns to his former gecekondu home for the first time in 2 months since it was knocked down by the authorities. Turkey, 2009

Later on gecekondus were tolerated, and sanctioned, by subsequent Turkish governments who saved themselves the trouble of having to provide cheap mass housing for rural migrants.  The same politicians were also able to secure themselves votes by providing land and issuing amnesties to existing squatter communities. The legalisation of gecekondu neighbourhoods often led to former squatters becoming real estate entrepreneurs, demolishing small garden houses and building multiple-storey apartment blocks in their place – at a profit.

While Tarlabaşı is not a gecekondu area per se, informal additions to existing apartment blocks and illegal demolitions and constructions have partly occurred.

 (Jonathan Lewis)

Further reading:

Neuwirth, Robert (2006): Shadow Cities. A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, Routledge

Esen, Orhan; Lanz, Stephan (2007): Self-Service City: Istanbul, b_books (in German)

Tekin, Latife (2000): Berji Kristin. Tales from the Garbage Hills, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd. (Novel)


TOKI stands for Toplu Konut İdaresi Başkanlığı” – the Housing Development Administration of Turkey. The institution was founded in 1984 through the Mass Housing Act and the subsequent establishment of a Mass Housing Fund, in order to provide affordable housing to lower income families and to extend credit to individuals who would otherwise be financially incapable of paying for a house in the private housing market. Starting in 2002, the AKP government undertook radical reforms of TOKI, turning the Housing Development Administration into one of the most important actors in housing and urban transformation processes and, according to the institution’s own website, into “the single responsible public body within the housing sector in Turkey”. As a result of these new laws and reforms, other state institutions involved in the planning, financing and construction of public housing were closed down and integrated into TOKI along with approximately 64.5 million m2 of public land.

TOKI became increasingly focused on profit-generating ventures, making support of private construction and development companies its major objective. Regulation of the housing and real estate markets has been largely abandoned, especially in the big cities of Turkey. Critics of the institution say that it is not the urban poor that profit from TOKI housing provisions, but the middle and upper classes, especially since the Housing Development Administration turned increasingly to projects of luxury housing that generate a higher profit. According to a still unpublished report by urban researcher Aslı Sarıoğlu, about 80% of TOKI’s construction projects in the greater Istanbul area are built for high income groups. In August 2010 the president of Housing Development Administration, Erdoǧan Bayraktar, announced that TOKI had so far produced a housing stock of 100,000 in Istanbul alone, and was targeting to increase this number to 125,000.

Kayabasi (Jonathan Lewis)

The Toki development at Kayabasi, 30kms from central Istanbul.

Law No. 5366

Law No. 5366 on the ‘Preservation by Renovation and Utilization by Revitalizing of Deteriorated Immovable Historical and Cultural Properties’, or, sometimes called the Renewal Law or even Tarlabaşı Law, was approved on June 16, 2005 by Turkey’s Council of Ministers and is often the legal basis for recent urban transformation efforts in Istanbul.  According to this law, areas can be declared Urban Renewal Areas by the Renewal Council, and since the enactment of the law on July 5, 2005 numerous areas have been turned into regeneration projects. In 2007, the daily Hürriyet listed 48 of them in Istanbul alone, all of them encompassing the potential demolition of over 1 million buildings.

The law has caused widespread criticism amongst architects, urban planners and sociologists. On the one hand, it enables local authorities to expropriate property in dilapidated areas in order to implement renewal projects without the consent of the house owners. On the other hand, it gives municipalities the power to suspend and overrule decisions by the Council for Preservation of Sites of Historic Interest to declare a certain area a SIT Alanı, or Protected Historic Area, as has happened in Tarlabaşı.  The potential impact of a Renewal Council ruling has sparked concern with UNESCO – in a report published by an UNESCO commission the inspectors indicated that Law No. 5366 did not support preservation, but rather cleared the way for the demolition and the destruction of historic buildings. UNESCO suggested an amendment of the law in order for Turkey to adequately protect its historical sites.

One Response to Glossary

  1. Kate Lynch says:

    This is a fascinating blog and coincidentally, the writer of Shadow Cities lived in the same Manhattan tenement I live in during it’s “sweat equity” phase in the 1980s. Fortunately here in New York when living in the city was not the prize it is now the City gave title to many squats and even funded the “gut rehabs” of broken down tenements.

    Last year I was a volunteer at Dusler Akademisi in Bati Atasehir and was just stunned at the random and vast development marching over the older settlements.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *