With December well underway and the world about to be deluged in annual retrospectives, it seems as a good a time as any to reflect on what history will judge as the Really Significant Moments from this year. In the realm of public transportation, one moment stands out amongst many: the opening of Marmaray, the metro line that links the two halves of Istanbul and in so doing facilitates intercontinental rail travel between Europe and Asia.
This unique project – which has been on the agenda of Istanbul at various points since the nineteenth century – is undoubtedly of historic value, and in conjunction with other public transport initiatives being undertaken in Eurasia’s largest metropolis should do much to alleviate traffic congestion. However, we at Mediolana confess to having one serious reservation about Marmaray above and beyond those which have already been raised about its safety, timing and financing: the McDonaldization of one of the world’s most beautiful journeys.
Crossing the Bosphorus by sea is one of the most enchanting urban transportation experiences in the world. With Istanbul enjoying a climate that is sunny more often than not, the views across this body of water are sublime: the historical peninsula of the city was inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985, and taking in some of the most famous architectural gems ever to be constructed over a glass of Turkish tea is, for many, the quintessential Istanbul experience. And the whole thing takes no more than around twenty minutes.
With Marmaray, one can now traverse the seaway between Asia and Europe in a mere four minutes by entering the system at either one of Ayrılıkçeşmesi (Asia) or Kazlıçeşme (Europe) and departing at the relevant counterpart. A transcendent and symbolic journey has been reduced to four minutes in a dark, noisy tunnel. This is like the public transportation equivalent of microwaved food: quick, convenient and with all the nutritional sustenance and meaning of cardboard.
Istanbul is a city that for far too long has been at the mercy of cars, property speculators and corrupt administrators. In this context, public transportation projects, particularly those that reduce the commuting times of the ordinary denizens of Istanbul, are more than welcome. But could Marmaray not have been constructed in a different way? Would it have been impossible to build it overground, near one of the two existing Bosphorus crossings so as to minimise its environmental impact, so that one of the world’s great aesthetic and ultimately spiritual accomplishments would not have been marginalised? Or is Istanbul to be just another victim of an all-smothering rationalism that has a profoundly irrational edge?
One of Mediolana’s firmer convictions is that in an era of ‘deep’ globalisation, it pays to keep an open mind as one never knows from where the next great idea or concept will emerge; our adhesion to this principle was recently rewarded when we stumbled across a quite brilliant notion articulated by the Istanbul-based analyst Aylin Kocaman in the pages of the Manama-headquartered Gulf Daily News. Inspired by the recent protests over the proposed construction of a shopping mall on top of a park in central Istanbul, Kocaman – who combines distinctive blonde bombshell looks with a prolific journalistic output – posits in Democracy means better quality (5th July, 2013) that this kind of proposal is evidence of a lack of qualitative approaches in public policy. To counter this, she stresses the need for ‘a properly defined ministry of quality [to] be established…and for people in general to be educated in line with that superior aesthetic conception.’
Kocaman appears to be particularly concerned with certain developing countries (some of which are emerging markets) within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (‘OIC’), some members of which – as is the case in many developing countries – are dominated by quantitative methods of evaluation. And is is true that the idea that bigger, faster and more ‘modern’ are innately superior is transforming landscapes from Tirana to Jakarta – and not always for the better. One need only think of the Chinese-built tower blocks in Algiers, the industrial haze of Malaysia or the East Germany-style suburbs of Tehran to recognise that qualitative perspectives are on some level in short supply in the geographical domain discussed by the A9 Television presenter.
However, after some reflection, we think that Kocaman’s idea has profounder global relevance. Millions of New Yorkers shield themselves using state-of-the-art personal electronic entertainment devices while utilising decrepit public transportation infrastructure. China is remaking its cities according to a spiritually and culturally disastrous blueprint, whereby historic buildings and indeed entire neighbourhoods are demolished to make way for cookie-cutter residential and commercial property developments ribboned by expressways. Scanning the world for qualitative best practices in the realm of public policy, it is sometimes tempting to think that worldwide, only a handful of European and Asian states – as well as a few cities of global import outside of these countries – are even addressing this question.
We will be genuinely fascinated to read in the future how Kocaman defines the rights, responsibilities and workings of a ministry of quality: how it interacts with other government departments and its precise remit will be crucial to its successful functioning. But as a idea vital to the very substance of the twenty-first century – and as a crucial contribution to the concept of Gross National Happiness or GNH – it has few parallels.