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Istanbul Walkabouts: Critical Walking in Northern Istanbul

“Does that mean, that a young man on Walkabout could sing his way across Australia providing he could hum the right tune?

In theory, yes.”

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

The routes taken in the desertic landscape of Australia by the continent’s indigenous peoples have been transferred for centuries from generation to generation in the form of songs. Thus, in theory, if a person knows his ancestors’ song(s), s/he could traverse the continent by humming it. The word walkabout refers to the long, spiritual and ceremonial walks performed in specific periods along these mythological tracks covering the entire continent with the help of these oral maps (1). If one goes on walkabout and actually manages to come back, then s/he proves that s/he has ability to follow the tracks left on the Earth’s surface, read the natural and ancestral signs of the terrain and literally find her/his way back. In this regard, the fundamental idea of Istanbul Walkabouts (2) is hidden within the name. In a nutshell, the project intends to explore the architecture of a territory in transformation through the nomadic state of walking. Therefore, it is a quest to interpret the walkabout by going on expeditions in northern Istanbul, deciphering the signs and learning the songs of the landscape.

Istanbul Walkabouts is a performative, projective and participatory research project that uses the practice of walking as a critical methodology to explore, record, map and resist transforming landscapes of northern Istanbul. The research does not favour an anthropo- and city-centric attitude but instead tries to go beyond the cliché of binary pairs like city-country, urban-rural, centre-hinterland and inside-outside (3). Thus, instead of focusing on the urbanized, industrialized and populated southern Istanbul seeking a position amongst the global city league, it concentrates on the sparsely populated and ‘non-urban’ northern regions of Istanbul consisting of forests, water reserves, dams, basins, agricultural lands, village settlements, farms, military zones, historical artefacts and quarries. Their distance to urban centres makes these regions invisible and unreclaimed, thus manipulable and exploitable as well. Then, it is also not a coincidence that during the last decade, northern Istanbul became the prime site of mega-scaled and state-led neoliberal operations implemented as a geopolitical apparatus to create hyperbolic revenues and returns in these new landscapes of development (4). Recently constructed Northern Marmara Highway is an essential example that is also situated here.  Unsurprisingly, the highway does not only connect Asia to Europe over Bosphorus for the third time but also acts as a spine to forthcoming megaprojects like the Third Airport claiming to be the world’s largest, enclavic New Istanbul as a new city with 3 million inhabitants and ecologically catastrophic Kanal Istanbul which as an artificial strait that divides the western part of the city into two. Istanbul Walkabouts tries to understand the potential impacts of these infrastructural operations through expeditions made to these territories and by walking along and around the route of Northern Marmara Highway.

For his body of work in Atlante, Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri takes photographs of ordinary atlases. These photographs show certain territories through familiar representations of the Earth where we see mountains, rivers, trees and partial parts of a generic graticule. They are representations of a representation. He claims that when we look at an atlas and see these recognizable representations of places and their natural, geographical, cultural and political facts depicted on a two-dimensional medium, we automatically imagine that we know these places. It is as if all the possible journeys have been described and all the probable itineraries have been traced in front of us (5). The omnipresent virtual globe offers a similar situation; just by looking at the planet from a non-existent perspective on a screen, the globe becomes navigated, deciphered and familiar. Yet, we know that this is not the case. Maps and satellite images are flat, unidimensional and synoptic. They are the product of a selection, of what to represent and what to omit, and thus one possibility out of many (6). As soon as the idea of a land is put on a map, it is altered. As soon as a territory is scaled, it is manipulated. Recently, it became ubiquitous to perceive the landscape through the ‘objective’ and synoptic viewpoint of maps, satellite images and master plans. This perception has spread to the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and urbanism and has transformed the modes of thinking, representing and designing (7). Now, the megaforms built on Earth’s surface can only be fully conceived through a celestial perspective. Of course, this mode of constructing does not always have to be pejoratively stigmatized, but at least it has to be questioned and discussed. This tendency is quite discernible in the operational landscapes of northern Istanbul and walking through these new geographies makes it possible to scrutinize and critique these neoliberal processes of urbanization.

Walking is an aesthetic practice directly related to design practices since as people walk, they leave minor traces on the Earth’s surface and gradually transform it (8). This inherent transformative ability of walking is seen as a design tool and has triggered the formation of Istanbul Walkabouts. Through its intrinsic relationship to design practices, walking becomes a tool of critique from within as well. It initially dwells a critique of the sedentariness within prevailing approaches to architecture, landscape and urban design. This sedentary state is not only about being physically desk- or screen-bound, but also about a mental immobility which accepts without questioning the predisposition of the architect, the planner or the politician to transform cities from above. Furthermore, walking through the vast landscapes of transformation poses a critique towards the irreversible material outcome of this top-down approach upon the vulnerable and valuable territories of the city. Therefore, within the unreliability of law, impossibility of direct action and a constant state of emergency (9) in current political ecology of Turkey, walking is implemented as a probable and alternative way of research, documentation and small-scale resistance.

The walks performed for Istanbul Walkabouts started in 2016 as solitary wanderings, then continued with few other interested participants but piecemeal evolved into curated walks done with up to 250 first-year students of architecture, landscape architecture, urbanism and interior design. Even though the starting point of the walks were determined from the beginning, the actual route was made by walking since factors like the weather, duration, daylight, topography, inaccessible areas etc. cannot be fully determined beforehand through available maps. After walking more than 300 km in total on differing routes (forests, shores, villages, military zones, roads, quarries, construction sites, farmlands, etc.) with varying modes of recording (photos, GoPro videos, social media posts, sketches, interviews, surveys, collected materials etc.) and having multiple encounters (shepherds, beekeepers, picnickers, villagers, fishermen, animals, passers-by, other walkers, etc.) within physical, seasonal, temporal and climatic changes; specific methodologies for exploring, recording and mapping these territories are constituted. Through these walks, performative mappings composed of a walking log, collages, myriads of photographs, video recordings, etc. produced during and after the walks are generated. Currently, the walks continue as curated walks open to everyone through which a collective record of northern Istanbul constantly grows. Simultaneously, the walks are portrayed on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube which serve as complementary digital platforms where the walks are shared and archived.

The anticipation of exploring northern Istanbul through critical walking is to employ the practice of walking, without relapsing into the romanticism of the walking scholarship or the act of walking itself, as a method that does not look from above but from within. After more than 20 walks performed on the northern territories of Istanbul, it becomes clear that the purported dichotomy between southern and northern Istanbul is in fact a dialectical relationship. Certainly, northern Istanbul is reliant on the industrialized and urbanized southern Istanbul in order to sustain itself with animal husbandry, fishing, farming, agriculture, beekeeping, tourism, etc. However, this does not render northern Istanbul as backward and in need of development because the global city is dependent on its rural counterpart consisting of natural reserves, agricultural land and recreational areas. The walks reveal that the seemingly boundless urban Istanbul is in fact confined with an extensive area of unique ecology and landscape specific to the region which allows the existence of migratory birds, wild animals, endemic plants, etc. The rivers and reservoirs act as large semi-organized city parks that are widely used by inhabitants for recreation. Moreover, the village settlements have their own historical backgrounds that are interrelated with the historiography of the city.

Therefore, any kind of development within the area should recognize this intricate relationality and approach the city in a holistic manner and not through binaries which eventually homogenize spaces, territories and geographies. In its current state, northern Istanbul is quite valuable and it should be protected and recovered instead of abolished via generic and technocratic megaprojects. In this respect, Istanbul Walkabouts proposes to directly engage with this landscape and have first-hand experience of its disregarded human and nonhuman history, rich ecology and particular landscape. The walk(about)s do not shortcut the terrain and all of its features but propose to walk within it and zoom in without the loss of resolution.


Chatwin, Bruce, The Songlines (London: Vintage Books, 1987).


Istanbul Walkabouts is a walking project founded, coordinated and currently funded by the author. This article is based on the dissertation of the author. See Tümerdem, Nazlı (forthcoming), Istanbul Walkabouts: A Critical Walking Research of Northern Istanbul (Unpublished doctoral dissertation), Istanbul Technical University, Istanbul.


Brenner, Neil, “Introduction. Urban Theory Without an Outside”, Brenner, Neil, Implosions/Explosions. Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Berlin: Jovis; 2014): 14-31.


Tümerdem, Nazlı, “Ad Hoc Geo-Urbanism: An Exploration of the Impacts of the Third Bosphorus Bridge on the City’s Geography”, in G. Sağlamer, M. Aksoy, F. Erkök, N. Paker, & P. Dursun Çebi, Rethinking, Reinterpreting and Restructuring Composite Cities (pp. 269-279) (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017).


I would like to thank Milica Topalović for directing me to this reference. See Ghirri, Luigi, The Complete Essays (London: Mack, 2016).


Corner, James, Introduction, in Corner, James, Taking Measures Across the American Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).


Tümerdem,Nazlı, “The Satellite Image: The Map Representing the Earth Representing the Map”, in The International Journal of the Image 4.4 (2014): 103-111.


Careri, Francesco, Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2002).


After the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, Turkey has been in a state of emergency for two years until it was lifted on July 18, 2018.

18.Jul.2018 4211 views
Nazlı Tümerdem Nazlı Tümerdem

Nazlı Tümerdem is an architect/researcher based in Istanbul and Ljubljana. She received her B.Arch degree from Istanbul Technical University (2008) and M.Arch degree from Istanbul Bilgi University (2011). She has worked as a research assistant and as an architect between 2011 and 2016. She was part of the project team of Turkish Pavilion in 2016 Architectural Biennale of Venice. Recently, she completed her Ph.D. entitled ‘Istanbul Walkabouts: A Critical Walking Study of Northern Istanbul’ (forthcoming) at Istanbul Technical University and still walks around transforming landscapes of northern Istanbul as a part of her walking project Istanbul Walkabouts.

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