In Istanbul, a Tiny Green Space Is Worth Fighting for

06/20/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ask any of the tourists who mob Istanbul in the summer months if the city wants for greenery, and you'd get a blank look. No greenery? What about the glorious Gülhane Park, which winds its way around the walls of the 15th century Topkapi palace? Or the huge, leafy park between the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque? How about all the shady pocket parks that shelter mosques, tea gardens, and the tombs of long-dead sultans?

On the other side of the Golden Horn, however, where the tourists rarely venture, it's a different story. The heart of modern Istanbul, the Beyoglu district, with its steeply sloping streets and commercial avenues, is a virtual desert of concrete and stone. Most of these streets ultimately converge on the largest (and possibly the ugliest) expanse of concrete of them all, Taksim Square. The only relief from the monotony is Gezi Park, a verdant oasis that is perched on a knoll at the north end of the square.

For two and a half weeks, the square was occupied by local environmentalists protesting plans by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to raze the park in favor of yet another shopping mall, along with a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks. This weekend, the occupation ended in a brutal assault by riot police, which sparked more antigovernment protests and continuing unrest.

I got to Gezi Park a little after 7 p.m. on Saturday. Over the weeks of the occupation, the original nucleus of environmentalists had been swelled by one group after another who feel disenfranchised by Erdogan's idiosyncratic mix of rampant free-market consumerism, centralized authority, and conservative Islam. The prime minister's obsessive micro-management of the redevelopment of Gezi Park only seemed to further crystallize the disgust at his increasingly high-handed exercise of power. It would be as if President Obama, rather than Mayor Michael Bloomberg, decided to oversee a construction project in a New York City park or dictate the police tactics for the removal of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

By last weekend Gezi Park had morphed into an enormous tent city. The mood was more festive than militant. People of all ages, including entire families, strolled around under the trees, enjoying the balmy summer evening. Vendors did a brisk trade in roasted corn and chestnuts. On a professionally erected stage, two folk singers strummed patriotic anthems as a crowd of thousands sang along.

Yes, there were booths where small groups were hawking literature for the Turkish Communist Party and the Kurdish separatist movement. I saw a black anarchist flag and a banner with Alberto Korda's famous portrait of Che Guevara, though these were hugely outnumbered by red Turkish flags and portraits of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkey's secular republic 90 years ago. Erdogan, however, equated the entire movement with its radical fringes and never showed any willingness to see it as anything but a terrorist conspiracy.

He had already given the occupiers an ultimatum earlier in the week: clear the park or be removed by force. They had simply ignored it. But as dusk fell on Saturday evening, it was clear that the threat this time was for real. Long lines of riot police formed ranks on the east and west sides of Taksim Square. Three trucks mounted with water cannon lumbered into position. Hundreds of people began strapping on gas masks and goggles. At about 8:45, after the crowd had disregarded three final warnings to disperse, the first water cannon opened up, its high-pressure spray laced with burning chemicals. Volleys of tear gas followed. The police surged forward and charged up the steps to the park. A few yards away from me, they grabbed a man who had refused to retreat from the water cannon and beat him savagely to the ground. Five minutes later, the first of the ambulances arrived to collect him, and after that it was a chaos of screeching sirens and flashing blue lights as police chased us from street to street around the square. The spraying and the gassing and the beatings went on deep into the night, and in the morning the bulldozers rolled in to demolish the tent city.

By the time the occupation was over, Taksim Square might not have risen quite to the level of Tahrir or Tiananmen. But it may still prove to have been a watershed for Turkey, thanks to Erdogan's epically stupid response, attacking not only his peaceful opponents, but the medics who treated them, the hotel staff who sheltered them, and the lawyers who sought to represent them -- treating them all as part of a grand international terrorist/media conspiracy, of which, I suppose, by virtue of writing this, I must now be a member in good standing.

In the end, whatever the multiple motives of those who joined in -- socialist revolution, Kurdish independence, freedom of expression, greater gender equality in a society of mosques and headscarves -- it has to be remembered that the catalyst for all that happened was the desire to protect an island of green in a city of concrete. I wondered if the occupiers might have read a recent report by researchers at Exeter University, based on a long-term study of 12,000 people over an 18-year period and the mapping of more than 32,000 areas of the U.K., which found a clear and consistent correlation between closeness to a park and mental well-being. Crunching a lot of demographic and sociological data, the study showed that living near a park, in fact, accounts for about a third as much added happiness in a person's life as getting married. Ultimately that's what the battle for Gezi Park was about: the belief that it is green space, not shopping malls, that defines the essence and the humanity of a great city.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.