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Istanbul’s Urban Renewal: Addressing Conflicting Rights to Housing and Life in an Earthquake-prone Environment



Istanbul, a city of more than 12 million inhabitants,1 will face a severe earthquake in the future.2 While no one can predict exactly when the earthquake will occur or where its effects will be worst, little doubt exists as to the damage and loss of life it will cause.3 Injuries and death will occur in part because of unsafe housing. During Istanbul’s population boom, buildings were often constructed with little to no regulation or regard for safety standards.4 Other buildings are simply old and dilapidated. Residents would be much safer if they could all live in new buildings constructed to meet the highest safety standards—yet how does a city get from Istanbul’s current state to one where all residents live in the safest possible buildings?

In preparing for disaster, government authorities have to balance the rights of their citizens. Getting the balance correct might be the most difficult part of the preparation. In safeguarding lives threatened by disaster, the government might disregard other human rights it considers less important than the right to life. In the case of Istanbul, attempts at urban renewal might save some lives in a future earthquake, but at the expense of the housing rights of poor and vulnerable populations. Further complicating the issue, a government has many purposes when it creates an urban renewal project, including preserving historical buildings or the historic character of a neighborhood, reducing crime or blight and revitalizing local economy.5 At their best, such purposes can support and promote the rights to life and safety of residents. Unfortunately, urban renewal projects often face criticism that they are mere gentrification projects, pushing out the urban poor populations.6

This article discusses the conflict between the human rights to life and housing when a state takes preventative action to protect citizens in the wake of disaster. Part I describes the background of the urban renewal movement in Istanbul and recent post-disaster responses in two other states, Haiti and the United States. Part II explains the sources of the human rights to life and housing. Part III analyzes how states should make decisions when action supporting a human right could conflict with another human right, using the example of Istanbul for context. Part IV proposes some general guidelines states could take to ensure decisions to protect rights do not overly burden other important rights.