PortCityFutures Podcast

FRICTIONS episode #7: Mersin: the contested encroachment of the port on the city center

This episode of FRICTIONS listens to the civic contestation against the planned expansion of the port in the city of Mersin, Turkey.

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[Sounds from the protest: “Dur, yeter artik! denizime dokunma!”  (stop, that’s enough! Do not touch our sea!)]

Gökçe Çelik: “In March two thousand and twenty-one a protest took place at Ataturk Park in Mersin, a port city in south-eastern Turkey. Local residents, NGOs, engineers, architects and lawyers had marched there together – joined by a few politicians – to contest the expansion of the port into the city centre.

Once a small but important seaport for cotton exports from Anatolia, the port of Mersin is nowadays a regional gateway. Its modern piers were constructed during the 1950s as part of a major government project. The current project of port expansion counts with new docks that will allow four hundred meter mega container ships, as well as cruise ships to stop right in front of the city center.”

Kemal Birdir: “Mersin is of course a very important port city and the port is continuously planning to grow its area towards the recreational and cultural activity places of Mersin. And since Mersin is not very rich in terms of green recreational park areas, that growth is a major threat to the people’s life quality in Mersin.”

Gökçe Çelik: “Dr Kemal Birdir is a professor at Mersin university.”

Kemal Birdir: “The expansion of the port is directly toward Ataturk recreational park, and this is a park at the centre of the city, which is actually almost the only green place at the centre of the city. That’s why it will be a huge roles for Mersin’s green environment, green parks. That’s why people generally who are aware of this changes and its bad results on people’s life quality joined the protest.

They are of course trying to provide a better service to the ships using the port. And they would like to have more space to probably stock the exported and imported products  there. For sure, they probably have more space for their operation but that should not be expanse of people’s recreational areas. Especially, when these areas so much limited in a city like we are almost 2 million people living around the city centre.” 

Gökçe Çelik: “Frequented daily by workers, locals and fishermen, Ataturk park is the largest public space in Mersin. Squeezed between the harbor facilities in the east and the marine in the west, the park provides the only public access to the open sea from the city centre. The planned port expansion would alter citizens’ sense of place indefinitely.”

Kemal Birdir: “Ataturk Park is historically a very important place for Mersin, because there was an international trade fair for example held for almost 20 years at that park. And it is, as I just mentioned, it is the only actually green area that has some sort of recreational value to the people living around the city centre and also for the people who spend their whole day in the working offices in Mersin city centre. And also it is adjacent to the small fishing port at the centre of the city and also they both together add a great value as a recreational and touristic area actually for Mersin city centre. Therefore protecting the Ataturk Park recreational area I believe is a crucial action, crucial decision for Mersin’s future.”

Gökçe Çelik: “This case reveals how contestation to port expansion is often triggered by a democratic deficit. The Environmental Impact Assessment for this project didn’t consult with affected citizens, who are experiencing a deprivation and consequent degradation of collective commons. In that sense, the port infrastructure is expanding without a social license.”

Kemal Birdir: “There was no consultation regarding the expansion. It was just an immediate action presented to Mersin citizen, Mersin inhabitancies. And that was also increase some of some protests also. Because people actually expected to be consulted of course before that action is taken. But of course the port authority is also know that if they consulted to the citizens, they would probably not get citizens ‘support. That’s why probably they did not want to do that. 

That’s one of the major issues that arise during the protest. Because the expansion project is a direct and very harsh growth project that limits the park’s recreational areas and actually increases the environmental bad effects of the port.  That’s actually the port automatically if this expansion is continue to growth toward Mersin city centre, the port starts to become the city itself. That’s a major threat actually when the project is carefully analysed. It should seriously be reconsidered before it is completely applied.”

Gökçe Çelik: “As well as excluding citizens, the port authority – M I P – bypassed the Mersin metropolitan municipality, going directly to the Ministry of Environment, Urbanisation and Climate Change for approval. The municipality has now filed a lawsuit against the Ministry and the port authority as an intervenor-defendant.

I spoke to Dr Sinan Can, an enviromental engineer working at Mersin Metropolitan Municipality.”

Gökçe Çelik: “What are the reasons behind your lawsuit to Ministry of Environment and Urbanisation? What is the latest news about it?”

Sinan Can: “The litigation process was initiated because it was believed that the occupation of the Atatürk Park, the environmental pollution dimension and the construction of the main container port was an investment that would hinder it. 

The Mersin metropolitan town hall filed a lawsuit and the union of the Turkish chambers of architects and engineers was also party as a plaintiff. An expert has been appointed during the trial process and the expert has conveyed his negative opinions to the court board. Based on this, MIP had engaged a group of academics from Istanbul Technical University that prepared a counter report, stating that the previously submitted report was neither technical nor academic and presented it to the court. Based on this last report, an expert was appointed again at the court. We also made our statements, which said that it is not appropriate for the court to appoint a different expert.”

Gökçe Çelik: “Could you please tell a few things about the ideal port- city relationship from your profession perspective?”

Sinan Can: “First of all, it is extremely important that the Ports are compatible with the city and region, sustainable and environmentally friendly. The organic and economic ties of the port with the institutions and organizations and citizens in the city should be strong and sincere. Mersin's development and other important investments that can be made should not be hindered. In addition, it is important that it produces minimum waste, stays away from activities that will produce greenhouse gas emissions, and stays away from activities that may cause marine pollution.”


Gökçe Çelik: “I also spoke to Perihan Saydan Pazarbasi, who represents the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats.”

Perihan Saydan Pazarbasi: “Unfortunately, Turkey is one of the worst, I mean the most unlucky countries in the world because of its geopolitical structure and human based erosion. The construction of the port, they need a lot of stones which are supplied from the stone mines and for these stone mines they want to cut the forests and the orchards on the mountains. As you know the flora is the major safeguard against to soil and wind erosion.

" Mersin is situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus Mountains which are parallel to the sea. And very close to the sea indeed and the city extends from east to the west. And at the moment the port is situated in the east part of the city." It’s one of the most important and biggest ports in the middle east and in 2007 a private consortium has got the rights to manage it for 36 years. For some times it has needed to be grown and the mayor proposed them to build a new port in some other place in Mersin or to make it bigger in the east of the port. But the management of MIP I mean Mersin International Port insisted to widen the port to the west of the port and also the city of course. And according to their plans, the port has extended into the city centre. This is unacceptable actually.  This will cause a lot of problems such as heavy traffic and air pollution caused by long vehicles and half of the park will be destroyed and filled with the containers and this will create panoramic pollution and noise of course a lot of noise. Construction of the or widening of the port will spoil the marine ecology too. And another problem is of course the economy. If the new port will be built or this port will be expended to the place where the mayor has offer, the MIP won’t get money or won’t get extra money or won’t get money after the end of the 36 years. But, if they will widen it they will continue to earn money. The contract between Mersin and the consortium will continue. I am not a nationalist actually but I believe and I want the money earned in Mersin should stay in Mersin.

Gökçe Çelik: “Walking in the park today feels bittersweet. The view on the open sea from the vantage point of the Ulu Cami, or municipality office, housed in the Ataturk House Museum, may soon be lost. I spoke to people in the park regarding how they felt about it”

Citizen 1: “For us, Ataturk Park is where we spent our childhood. For the city and the coastal area of Mersin, Ataturk Park is the biggest pleasure ground, entertainment place with amusement parks, funfair, wedding venues etc.

I think our port is already big enough, if It needs to be expanded, this should happen towards the east, where it is rural and not residential.  So expansion towards east is right but towards west  is very very wrong. We do not want it to limit our sea. 

From the visual perspective, with the expansion this area will change in bad way, due to visual pollution, it will look awful.  If it is privatized, as a matter of fact, there will be no way to enter. In that case, if they let the port to use the park, the space will be very limited for people like us / amateur fishermen or people that comes here to walk. And that's why it won't be good for Mersin.” 

Citizen 2: “It should be better if they expand the port towards the opposite 'Karaduvar' part. Because we already have very limited place here.

From the sonic aspect, It will change badly of course. Because they use huge machines also container handing voice and trucks, which will cause noise pollution. And the density of park users will decrease because it doesn't matter how much land the port takes from the park, 1 meter or so on, they take it from everyone in Mersin.

They should have considered people from here. But the only thing they think about is themself and their pocket. Now the port is very busy and need capacity increase to give better service to ships. But the decision is not correct. They should have consulted to citizens.” 

Citizen 3: “We come here after school and have a fun time with our friends. Here is the only place where we can gather. If this park wasn’t here, we could only walk in the market in the centre, and that would be very boring for us. The park is not congested.

[the port expansion] will block the sea view and the boat tours will disappear. Sometimes we take a boat tour here and enjoy. And if the port come closer, there will be more smoke, I mean something chemical.

After all, the port is not the only thing located here. This is for all of us. It shouldn't be like that, they should have asked to our opinions.”

This episode was produced in collaboration with Gökçe Çelik – who also carried out the interviews in Mersin, in November 2021.