Istanbul Loves: TAK, where the urbanist magic happens

At least since my days of working in Groundwork UK’s Policy & Communications team, I have had an obsession with participatory urban regeneration and planning. Come to think of it, this probably goes back even further and stems from an interest in how to overcome gaps between the processes and policies of governing organisations and the publics they are catering for. From thesis, to final year project to MPhil dissertation, this was always a focus.

From my time at RIBA working in programming and organising festivals, I became aware of the work of organisations like CUP (Centre for urban pedagogy) in New York and the wonderful Candy Chang, bringing policy and urbanism closer to the people it concerned and finding innovative ways of involving communities and giving them ownership.

So when I went to Istanbul last month it was not surprising that I went to pay TAK (Tasarim Atölyesi Kadıköy) a visit, an organisation that is doing brilliant work in bringing the production and regeneration of places closer within the reach of professionals and the public, mostly excluded from theses processes by municipality and private developers. Istanbul has, in recent years, gained some sort of urbanist notoriety when it comes to what not to do in planning, particularly following the Taksim Square protests and the international release of the acclaimed documentary film Ekümenopolis.

It gives an insight into the regeneration and growth philosophy that prevails within the city, growth that is driven by the belief that to be internationally competitive, one has to create a ‘metropolis’ at all costs – a place driven by the proliferation of the finance sector, high-rise housing, shopping malls, private developments in gated communities, disregard of the historical and social fabric of existing communities, and pursuing ecologically damaging transport agendas.

But back to TAK and their amazing work. They are a unique set-up that brings together design and planning professionals (architects, planners and graphic designers) with municipal employeers, and provides an open hub for the local community and students alike, lobbying the private sector for more engagement. They are a collaborative enterprise, but also mediators between sections of the urban design and place making processes that aren’t naturally connected through planning legislation now. Their main aim is to bridge the distance between these parties and achieve an integrated, sustainable path to regenerating kadikoy – community-led, rather than top-down.

TAK’s foci are on the themes of tasarim (design), arastirma (research) and katilim (participation). They are located in an old neighbourhood on the Asian side of Istanbul, in cosmopolitan Kadıköy, deemed the cultural centre of the Asian side of Istanbul. House and rental prices are still relatively low compared to other parts of the city and its multicultural community not only consists of families and their small businesses, but also of students and artists, fuelling its slightly more radical side.

Considering the protests in the last years, which also took place in Kadıköy, opening TAK seems timely and almost planned, but was something that had long been on its founders’ minds. “It was actually a dream for probably 10 years for a number of us”, Strategic Design Manager Sıla Akalp says. “We kept talking about how we should set something like this up. Last year, finally everything came together at the right time.”

The partners that support its work are the Kadıköy local authority, Kadıköy Beleyedesi; ÇEKÜL , the Foundation for the Protection and Promotion of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, and Kentsel Strateji, an Urban Strategy practice. TAK serves its stakeholders – professionals, students, volunteers, the local community – through a number of ongoing or one-off projects. “Most projects”, says Architect Onur Atay, “are decided among the whole team. If someone has an idea that would help our work, we look at implementing it.”

The way TAK works begins with thinking about its audiences and their ‘problem definitions’ and mostly employs design competitions and open calls for contributions, promoted via social media and the municipality. On their English site (their Turkish site is slightly more up to date and dynamic), successful projects such as Corner/Borders, Design Guide, Block/Neighbourhood/City, and Memory. Projects are designed to open up and restructure different aspects of the urban design and placemaking process.

The Corner/Borders project involved an open call to submit 10 neglected places in their neighbourhood, which were presented to the municipality. As a result, three projects are under discussion to be implemented, including a space underneath a bridge, and a vertical garden.

Other initiatives, such as Design Guide, invited professionals and designers to design visualisations on new strategic design principles for Kadıköy on the themes ‘Harmonious Buildings”, “Lively Streets” and “Our Neighborhood”. Block/Neighbourhood/City looked at redesigning guidelines for urban planning elements, creating a new Spatial Development Strategy Framework for set areas in Kadıköy, which will form the basis for Kadıköy’s restructuring strategies.

Most interesting perhaps for an international audience is the Exchange Programme, focused on knowledge exchange. International universities as well as local and foreign organisations and practices are invited to collaborate and develop projects for Kadıköy, with access to TAK’s events and studio space and Kadıköy communities.

So what is next for TAK? Although rooted in Kadıköy, the success of their model means their ideas are about to be exported elsewhere. TAK Kondu is a design competition for a ‘TAK on wheels’ bus, aiming to become even more embedded in the communities they work with – as a place for them to use for meetings, projects and any other programmes.