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Becoming an Urban Detective: Evaluating walkability in Taksim Square, Turkey

Demonstrators in Taksim Square, 2013.

Demonstrators in Taksim Square, 2013.

Last year, Semrin Aleckson, a recent graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science and current Customer Development Manager at State of Place, conducted a research project for her master’s thesis comparing walkability in the Taksim Square/ Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey to Teșvikiye Caddesi, a major commercial shopping street in the Nișantașı neighborhood. Taksim Square is a major tourist and leisure district that has received media attention for the 2013 civil protest against its redevelopment plan. Semrin collected data using the State of Place data analytics platform to calculate the State of Place Index and Profile for the studied areas. Here’s what Semrin discovered while using State of Place: 
Istanbul. Source: Da Tech Guy Blog 

Istanbul. Source: Da Tech Guy Blog 

Istanbul has always been one of my favorite cities - the sights, the food, the people. I suppose growing up in a Turkish-American household, the city always felt like a second home. I visited as often as I could and always wanted for more. 

  Sisters Semrin Aleckson (Customer Development Manager) and Michelle Drouse (COO of State of Place)

 

Sisters Semrin Aleckson (Customer Development Manager) and Michelle Drouse (COO of State of Place)

At the time, the Turkish government had a contentious plan to transform Gezi Park into a high-end shopping mall, sparking headline-grabbing protests. While there were myriad and complex reasons for this community opposition, I believed that the resulting removal of green space was likely a critical one, not to mention the loss of a revered public space and the likelihood of increased traffic. I decided to examine how green spaces impact walkability and overall livability - but lacked a tool for how to do so. My sister, Michelle Drouse, the Chief Operating Officer of State of Place, suggested I use their platform to measure walkability, especially given that it was designed partly to help cities communicate the value of urban design more effectively with internal and external stakeholders. With input from Mariela Alfonzo, our CEO (yes, she does take the time to talk to students about research design - I think it tugs at her inner data-geek heart!), I set out to quantitatively compare the Taksim Square/Gezi Park neighborhood to another nearby high-end shopping district with a large mall on the street, as well as interview Istanbul natives about their feelings regarding the proposed changes to the Taksim/Gezi Park neighborhood.

You see, my mom, an Istanbul native, accompanied me on my research trip to Istanbul. It’s safe to say my mom intimately knows the neighborhoods in which I conducted my study - she even pointed out the movie theater my grandparents would go to on their date nights. But as my guide she shadowed me while I collected data, even she began to look at these neighborhoods with a new perspective. Here we both were, in an area we had deep knowledge of, noting the width of sidewalks, looking around to see if there were windows with bars, taking in the colors of the buildings - all things we had previously taken for granted (State of Place collects data on over 290 things like this). I felt like an urban detective playing a game of “I Spy.” I mean, it’s one thing to know that Istanbul has a traffic problem and isn’t very pedestrian friendly - but it’s an entirely different - and more productive - experience to uncover exactly why that is, as that allows you to address the problem: Oh, that sidewalk is missing a curb cut...I cannot say I would have noticed that or cared too much before...but the State of Place training not only makes you take note but also allows you to take to heart the fact that that missing curb cut would indeed hamper the elderly, young children, parents with strollers, the disabled. And by quantifying this, it helps others take notice - and action - too. 

Taksim Square. Source: Green Prophet 

Taksim Square. Source: Green Prophet 

While my mom didn’t turn into a data geek, it was amazing to see how this process impacted her own perception of her birthplace. At that moment, State of Place’s mission hit home - I honestly felt (and still do - I’m working here now, aren’t I?!) that if everyone had access to this tool, it would change the way we understand, engage with - and value - the built environment around us. State of Place has a real potential to create a common language between planners, developers and the people who use this space- and that is truly revolutionary. And that’s without even considering the economic argument it helps cities and developer make about the power of place (you can find out more about that on our website).  

Please do stay tuned for the second part of this blog series where I discuss the results of my research! 

State of Place offers select students & universities pro-bono access to the urban data analytics platform that helps make the case for great places. To learn how to use State of Place in your urban design, planning, transportation, or real estate research, please contact mariela@stateofplace.co.