Istanbul is a bustling, diverse city, a nexus of East and West, North and South. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

After incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a nationalist coalition swept the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, Turkey’s opposition was despondent. Why, they asked, had people even nursed hope for change? The coalition of secular urbanites, business, youth, women and minorities had mobilized actively. It drew unprecedented millions to lively rallies and voted strategically across party lines. In cities like Istanbul, change briefly seemed possible. The odds, nevertheless, were stacked in favor of a government that controls the media, channeled state resource to the campaign, and, above all, could cite a 16-year record of impressive growth that has brought prosperity to large swaths of society.

The opposition had hoped, nonetheless, because hope enables people to flourish despite adversity. And, as a new volume on Istanbul attests, hope thrives in the very spaces that pro-government and opposition supporters — in Turkey and beyond — must share: cities.

The unique resilience of Istanbul 

Istanbul was ranked 25 in the 2017 Global Cities Index, which examines those nodes in the world economy that connect finance with flows of labor, goods and ideas. Like other “global cities,” Istanbul was measured by its human capital and business activity. In the report, Istanbul received accolades for fostering cultural diversity, information sharing and political engagement, notable markers in a deeply polarized national society. In contrast, Turkey overall was demoted across most major indexes of governance. Freedom House, for one, now ranks the country as unequivocally “not free.”

Istanbul’s pluralism is hard to miss. Walking through its bustling streets, silhouettes of ancient monuments are interspersed with spires of new skyscrapers, mosques, highways and shopping malls. The people speeding past are similarly varied, each claiming multiple identities and reducible to no single adjective. Turks, Kurds and Uzbeks share sidewalks with Senegalese, Qataris and Syrians. Seventh-generation Istabulites live in this city with migrants, expatriates and refugees. Sharing spaces, if not lives, the myriad citizens are connected by a common urbanity, even as many grapple with the challenges of exile.

Residents’ many claims to the city often clash, generating everyday conflicts and political movements. These include environmentalist resistance, LGBTQ activism and mass nationalist rallies reclaiming the Ottoman-Islamic conquest of the city. The perennial contest over the status of the iconic Hagia Sophia — at once a great church, mosque and museum, depending on one’s perspective — attests to the city’s capacity to absorb conflicting claims and produce new ways of living.

Together, these fraught interactions are a microcosm of the country’s diversity and enduring power of attraction across and beyond the Balkans, Caucasus and Middle East. Istanbul, after all, was capital of various empires for millennia and remains the proverbial bridge between East and West, North and South — even as the city subverts such markers with its evolving hybridity.

Emerging global cities

A similar gravitational pull is exerted by other rising cities of the global South. Scholars argue that, as economic dynamism diffuses from the West to the “rest,” emerging cities will drive productivity and innovation in the 21st century. By 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. The growing economies of the Group of Twenty are at the vanguard of this trend. Turkey is already 75 percent urban, while half of China’s population resides in about 15 cities of more than 10 million people. More than 1 billion people, or 70 percent of China’s population, are expected to reside in cities by 2025.

The statistics alone are cause for neither hope nor despair. Urbanization can produce dystopic “cities without growth” debilitated by pollution, crime and inequalities. Mumbai is one oft-cited cautionary example, even as new initiatives seek to make the city more sustainable.

Successful urban governance demands attention to diversity. Effective planners must develop the legal, communication, transportation and housing infrastructure with which to gather a critical mass of capital and creativity in today’s high-tech era. For those cities that rise to the challenge, the payoffs are substantial: workers in IT-savvy Bangalore, for instance, are 150 percent more productive than the Indian average, mirroring patterns from San Francisco to Shanghai. Thriving cities, in turn, can empower individuals, firms and transnational networks, the natural constituents of open societies.

Living with the “Other”

Pragmatic urbanites, in short, learn to share space with people unlike themselves. In the process, they experience “iterative” interactions, or repeat exchanges that transform who they are and how they identify themselves. As identities collide and elide in this urban context, new people emerge who are neither “us” nor “them.” Such pluralistic sensibilities, in turn, compel citizens to challenge the demonization of difference so often promoted by nationalist politicians. Strategies from street art to mass protests can change countries’ trajectories, for better as well as for worse.

Urbanization, of course, heralds a host of challenges. These include social alienation, overcrowding, income inequality, inflationary tendencies, and environmental degradation. Growth may be driven by sectors like construction, fueling real estate bubbles that can threaten national and even regional economies. Meanwhile, the growing power of cities can perpetuate urban and rural divides, providing fodder for populist nationalism. Nevertheless, in a globally networked economy, populists’ very ability to reward supporters — rural and urban alike — depends on the dynamism of urban economies.

Hope, then, may be found in the city. As medieval German law recognized, “city air makes free” — a principle which authorized freedom for renegade serfs who survived in the city for a year and a day. At the dawn of the 21st century, and across the global South’s growing cityscapes, city air will continue to offer hope for diversity and empowerment.

Nora Fisher-Onar is an assistant professor of global politics at Coastal Carolina University and a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Centre for International Studies. She is the editor, with Susan Pearce and E. Fuat Keyman of “Istanbul: Living With Difference in a Global City.” (Rutgers University Press, 2018).