When I first saw the now-famous “lady in the red dress” photo from the Gezi Park protest in Turkey, I had no idea that the protester was an urban planning professor from the nearby Technical University in Istanbul named Ceyda Sungur. In Luke Harding’s account in The Guardian, one of the origins of the protest, and the spark that set it off, is clearly the destruction of one of the very few green spaces in Istanbul. Harding describes it as a sort of final straw, a highly visible, in-your-face insult to the wishes of the urban population from top-down urban development decisions being made by the government.
Sungur’s urban planning department had long wrestled with the theme of how to reconcile Turkey’s economic and building boom with the fundamental needs of citizens. A petition which she and other members of the architecture faculty signed says that the rapid changes to Istanbul threaten not only “our professional field but also our living environment”. The petition adds: “All these top-down decisions disregarding planning and urban management principles are not approved by Istanbul’s citizens. We don’t accept them.”
Akgün, Sungur’s colleague, said: “The park is one of the last surviving green public spaces here. It’s calming to walk through it. You feel good.” Typically, Erdogan’s government had taken an “upside-down” approach to planning, she said, building first and considering the consequences afterwards. Akgün said she respected Sungur’s reluctance to become a poster girl for the anti-government protest movement, less of a revolution than a spontaneous citizens’ revolt.
Virtually all of Sungur’s students have taken part in the protests. Some of them are sitting finals; the dean refused a plea for exams to be postponed. On Wednesday, several of them were tinkering with architectural models in a large room next to her office. Others sat in a shady courtyard below and talked softly.
Akgün admitted: “I’ve been trying to teach my students for four years about the importance of urban planning. Now they finally understand what we are saying.”