From East To West – Istanbul and Europe

Driving into Istanbul from Sabiha Gokcen Airport, on the Asian side of the city, gives one an understanding of the massive growth that has occurred here over the past sixty years. Kilometer after kilometer of high rises blanket the hillsides, there is barely a square centimeter of ground that is not covered by development. The endless succession of residential areas adjacent to the highway are clean and well kept, in marked contrast to the tumble down, but evocative griminess of the historic inner city districts such as those along the Golden Horn and in Beyoglu. It seems that the outer districts of the city have been able to handle the incredible growth, but the inner city is another story. Highways and streets are clogged to suffocation by traffic jams. A brown fog hangs over parts of the city. Pollution from automobiles leave a permanent haze of smog hanging over much of the city.

Istanbul's growth as seen from the air

Istanbul’s growth as seen from the air

A first time visitor could be forgiven for thinking that Istanbul has been this way for quite some time. This is not true. According to historical population statistics, in 1950 the city had less than one million residents (983,000 to be exact), this was actually down from 1.12 million  at the start of the First World War. In the early 1950s the population once again hit a million, twenty years later it had doubled, then in less than 15 years it doubled again to nearly 5.4 million in 1985. But wait, almost unfathomably it doubled yet again by 2000. The last census in 2010 put the figure at 13,256,000. This is by far the largest city in Europe, whether Europeans think it is European or not really is beside the point. Istanbul may not be of Europe, but it is still considered to be in Europe. The population explosion came from internal migration, as Turks made their way from the countryside to the ever growing urban metropolis in search of job opportunities. There has been great consternation in Europe about Turkey becoming a part of the European Union sometime in the future. With EU nation’s in demographic decline, soon to be in crisis, an influx of Turks to Europe is inevitable – in some places it has already occurred.  Where will all the Turks go? Well we know where must of them have gone so far, not to Europe, but Istanbul, which continues to grow about ten percent each decade.

It is strange to see a city with such a rich past, also becoming a city of the future. The world is growing increasingly urban and Istanbul continues to be part of that movement. The city is part of a dramatic demographic shift that  has transformed Turkey, moving its people from East to West. As the population movement continues will the Turks continue their movement westward. The border of Bulgaria and the EU is not that far away. If Istanbul can grow from a million people to thirteen times that figure in just sixty years, who knows what the future may hold.

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