Changing Landscapes


Istanbul’s Urban Evolution 

As landscape architects, we strive to perfect the design of urban public spaces — a seemingly impossible task. ‘You cannot design for everyone’ is a phrase I have heard and used myself when looking at how to approach these spaces. But who are we to choose who to design for? Sure, we can look at statistics to get an understanding of the demographics, but who is to say that in five to ten years’ time that particular group of people will still be the ones using the public space you designed?  

If the only constant is change, is it possible to design spaces that can adapt to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving 21st century society? 

The United Arab Emirates, where I currently apply my trade, is sometimes guilty of implementing urban public space to suit a single purpose or a very specific group of people. With such a unique and expanding expat population, it becomes difficult to determine who these people will be in the next five years, which often results in the underutilisation, or even neglect, of these spaces, regardless of how admirable the initial intentions were. 

South Africa, not dissimilar to the UAE in many ways, undergoes constant change, both rapid and gradual. This necessitates a certain robustness of design to attempt to ensure that if the people we originally designed for are no longer the people using this space, the space can be adapted or changed to suit the needs of the new occupants.  

So, in this ever-developing world, how do we go about the daunting task of designing for change? I think the trick is to look towards historical cities to find the answer; queue a flight to Istanbul, Türkiye, a city that has technically been around since 330 AD. Although this is not a history lesson, it is important to understand the age of the city to understand how the urban fabric, and therefore the urban public spaces, has remained relevant to this culturally diverse population as well as a rich array of camera and smartphone wielding tourists such as myself. 

Hagia Sophia

From mosque squares, bridges, bridge underpasses, waterside promenades, and plazas, to single-lane cobbled streets flanked by cafés and bars and adorned with graffiti and the odd sleeping cat, Istanbul has a diverse offering of public spaces for each and every inhabitant — including the four-legged variety. 

It is this diversity of space that, I think, makes Istanbul such a fantastic precedent for how to approach urban public space design and planning that will withstand the test of time and even the occasional siege. 

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When I visited these spaces, they were jam-packed with people going about their business at all hours of the day. Bear in mind that this was in the middle of winter: it was cold and it was raining. Ironically, one of the only contemporary pieces of landscape architecture that I came across on my journey, Shishane Park by SANALarc, had completely fallen into disrepair and contained not a soul, except for the woman playing her violin; a scene not dissimilar to the one in the James Cameron classic, The Titanic

Sinking ships aside, this begs the question: what has contributed to the longevity of so much of the urban landscape in Istanbul? Well, in my opinion, the answer is simple. These spaces are just that: simple.  

Enough trees to provide the necessary shade during the day, enough space for people to sit without being disturbed by others on the move, wide enough to allow bicycles, e-scooters, strollers, and the occasional motorbike through without experiencing the impending dread of collision. No thrills, no fuss, just well-planned urban public space that caters to anyone, anything, and a wide array of activities ranging from selling kebabs, roasted chestnuts, and genuine fake watches to parking a car on a bridge to cast a fishing line into the Bosporus for hours on end, simply because the bridge was designed to be wide enough to do this without impeding day-to-day commutes. Seemingly little regulation and a very small police presence thanks to the passive surveillance of the plethora of wandering eyes, meant that these spaces had a feeling of true ‘public-ness’ sans the feeling of ‘unsafe-ness’. 

Too often I feel, we, the troubled landscape architects, try to overdesign landscapes, and I think part of that is because we are trying to make our voices heard in a world where, generally, only we understand our true value. A lot can be learned from these spaces, especially in South Africa. We need to be designing urban public spaces with simple materials and technology which cater to a variety of different needs — not to fulfil each of them directly, but because they are designed to be adaptable and robust to meet the needs of the people who happen to currently occupy them as well as the people who may occupy them in the future. 

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Garrick Nelissen 

Senior Landscape Architect 

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