Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Istanbul's Bostans: A Millennium of Market Gardens*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Istanbul's Bostans: A Millennium of Market Gardens*

Article excerpt

Bounded by urban noise and bustle, construction and itinerant vendors, concrete and pavement, cars and trucks, multistory apartments and ateliers, litter and dust, the garden of green, neatly subdivided into units of different shades and textures, sits in sharp contrast to the surrounding environment (Figure 1). A man is directing water into perfectly prepared squares of dirt with a shovel, and some women are sitting among swaths of green, weeding. Patches of purslane, arugula, parsley, eggplants, peppers, lettuce, black cabbage, and beets can be seen at various stages of maturity, some intercropped between columns of pole beans or along the edges of radish plots and others being allowed to go to seed for next year's crops. Every piece of the garden is producing. On the edge of the nearly 1-hectare expanse sit a shack and a few small storage sheds surrounded by baskets, stakes, and other gardening tools. A rototiller is parked to the side. Another man is rinsing vegetables in a concrete pool of water and packing them in tall baskets made of woven strips of wood. Over him grows a lush arbor of grapes and hanging squash. Although the image seems spliced from the countryside, it is Istanbul, a scene that is rapidly disappearing from the city's landscape. "I am the last gardener here," explained Sabri, one of Istanbul's traditional urban agriculturalists. "This is the last year. It is sold and will be turned into a garage or a car park. This year I am having my last love affair." (1)

Urban agriculture has a long history in Istanbul. Traditional market gardens, known as bostans, were woven into the fabric of daily life and supplied the city with fresh produce (Turk Ansiklopedisi 1955). Over centuries, Istanbul's bostans were intensively, skillfully, and sustainably farmed to maximize harvests through the clever and efficient manipulation of space, season, and resources. Master gardeners of the bostans were viewed as experts, organized in guilds, and held in high esteem. The vegetables were sold in wholesale and retail markets, and production was integrated into the city's food and commercial networks. The bostans are part of Istanbul's identity: Different neighborhoods were known for the specialty crops of their gardens. This study is about Istanbul's bostans, the experiences of their gardeners, and the cultural context in which they struggle to produce. Based on fieldwork in 1997-1998 (Figure 2), with follow-up interviews in the summers of 2003 and 2004, I examine the historical place and contemporary practices that have made bostans an integral part of the urban landscape of Istanbul and frame the institution of the bostan within the greater urban agriculture and food-security debates. After examining the challenges that threaten to extinguish Istanbul's bostans and the gardeners' responses to them, I conclude with some policy implications.


With relentless urbanization, modernization aspirations, and world-city ambitions, urban agriculture is allowed scant space in Istanbul. Although bostans are still scattered throughout the city and around its periphery, they have been all but eliminated by urban growth and have been pushed to the margins of urban space and society. Only remnants of the vast network remain, their contributions to Istanbul life paved over: "Neighborhood bostans are conquered by concrete," declared one headline (Guncikan 1990). "Istanbul is dead," lamented Mehmet and Mustafa, a remaining pair of gardeners whom I interviewed. "The municipality is not interested in these gardens and doesn't see the benefit of people like us."


Bostans and their gardeners are powerless in the intense competition for urban land and among participants in the global food economy. Their weakness is perpetuated by an association with migrant practices and a village lifestyle--traditional and agricultural practices in the city are not consistent with the official vision of a modern city. …

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