Istanbul as a "City of Design"

A Critical Perspective from a Local Neighbourhood



How to Cite

Tepeli Türel, Özlem, & Demireş Özkul, B. (2022). Istanbul as a "City of Design": A Critical Perspective from a Local Neighbourhood. M/C Journal, 25(3). (Original work published June 27, 2022)
Vol. 25 No. 3 (2022): cities
Published 2022-06-27 — Updated on 2022-06-28


Despite the emphasis on the theoretical definitions of the concept of “creativity“ and its impact on cities, it is still uncertain, difficult to measure and limited. Creativity and its impacts are difficult to generalise because of the multiplicity of approaches and a lack of comparative analysis. The concept of creativity and its reflection on cities represents a paradigm that brings together academics from different fields, including cultural economists, those working on economic development and innovation, sociologists, economic geographers, and urban planners. The creative economy has been associated with the knowledge economy and innovation since its onset in the 2000s and extends to the creative industries (Caves), the creative class (Florida), and creative cities (Landry; Florida et al.). Given that the term "creative" is still primarily associated with the arts and sciences, Landry points out that two major issues shape our understanding of creativity: first, the power of thoughts and ideas in shaping our mindset, and second, the significance of culture as a creative resource (Landry). Creativity is generally accepted as a critical urban phenomenon, and is viewed as one of the determining factors in the development and growth of cities. For a city to be defined as ‘creative’, it would be characterised by many aspects of ‘cultural cities’ (Scott) and ‘cities of knowledge’ (Yigitcanlar et al.). Creative industries, which provide the foundation for the production of culture and creative products, require a unique environment supported by the public sector to flourish, and they thrive on proximity and strong networks that enable information sharing and exchange. Although accepted as a crucial element of contemporary cities, the use of ‘creativity’ in city development may not be a straightforward task.

Globalisation plays an important role in spotlighting creative cities as drivers of global change and innovation. The emphasis on creativity as part of the global city culture incentivises cities to focus on these activities as valuable assets. This view has been reinforced by global initiatives such as the designation of the European Capital of Culture (ECoC). City administrators view innovation and creativity as critical drivers for a more sustainable and inclusive means of urban development. This article lays out how drivers of creative output, design events, and creative industries contribute to local initiatives in the global city of Istanbul: a city that accommodates some of the most long-standing and established craft spaces as well as newly developing creative and design industries. This article provides a critical perspective on cultural frameworks from the perspective of local stakeholders and networks in Istanbul's Tomtom neighbourhood, the most invested district in terms of the city's cultural future, where creative industries are the main focus.

Using the Creative Cities Network as a Creative City Identity

The creative city concept is used by urban sociologists, geographers, urban planners, and economists to focus on developing a segment of society that is intertwined with the cultural and creative sphere. It represents a crucial and strategic industry for renewing the local economy and sustaining urban growth. Moreover, it has become a robust development paradigm adopted by many urban governments (d’Ovidio). The creative city, according to Costa, is a notion defined by three key elements. The first is the concept of creativity as a toolset for urban development; the second is the concept of the creative city as a collection of creative activities and businesses; the third promotes the concept of the creative city as a human resource capable of attracting creative competencies (Costa et al.).

Successful creative cities have some common points, such as visionary individuals, creative organisations, physical and social assets, and a political culture that shares a clear purpose. Leadership was found in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and it manifested itself in bold public efforts, frequently risky investments, and a web of interrelated undertakings, whether for profit or the common good (Landry). International recognition provides a building ground for attracting attention to local initiatives. UNESCO created the Creative Cities Network (UCCN) in 2004. It was conceived from the very beginning as an interactive process to bridge the possible isolation of cities and their inhabitants as a tool for multi-stakeholder collaboration. In other words, it was a relevant response, analysed in a comprehensive overview of the literature on the problem of urban branding. However, it gradually became clear that a kind of network structure alone was insufficient to combat fragmentation (Rosi). The network's purpose is to foster international cooperation among the selected cities in order to promote "joint development partnerships in line with UNESCO's worldwide priorities of "culture and development" and "sustainable development". A city's participation in the network allows it to communicate with other designated foreign metropoles and to carry out joint projects (Stocker).

The 2007 global financial crisis and the ensuing recession led to movements that responded to the commodification of urban public space through applied, community-based activities and independent cultural production. This has resulted in new paths for reorienting the creative city strategy around the concept of "making" (Grodach). Scholars have linked creative placemaking to a long history of arts-based economic growth dating back to the late nineteenth-century City Beautiful movement. However, the reification of "creative placemaking" as a discursive practice guided and enforced by government agencies, funders, and other institutions elevates it above previous forms of arts-based economic development or cultural planning (Zitcer). It seeks to go beyond purely economic motivations and pursue multidimensional outcomes ranging from the economic to bringing "diverse people together to celebrate, inspire and be inspired" (Grodach). Place-selling, or communicating certain features of a place through logos, slogans, advertising campaigns, or public relations exercises, is one of the most prevalent actions carried out under the broad umbrella of place-making and marketing. Physical interventions and communication tactics that pick specific components of local 'identity', 'history', and 'culture' can be used to produce this "forging of associations" between places, their attributes, and specific target audiences (Colomb). This new outlook reflects Landry's emphasis on creative collaboration, but the impetus is on cross-agency partnerships and new funding sources for design and art that foster ‘creative’ cities.

Placing Istanbul on the Cultural Map 

If the world was only one country, Istanbul would be its capital. — Napoleon Bonaparte

Istanbul is one of the world's largest metropoles, with approximately 15 million inhabitants. It has served as a crossroads for civilisations, cultures, and international trade throughout its history, leaving behind a multi-layered cultural legacy that inspires new design concepts and is a rich source for traditional arts and crafts. The robust creative economy in Istanbul employs 140,000 people and generates 74.5 percent of Turkey's turnover. As a design hub, Istanbul hosts over 20 globally famous design events each year, including the Istanbul Design Biennial, Design Week Turkey, and Fashion Week Istanbul. In 2016 there were 41 conference centres and 225 art galleries in the city. In the same year, Istanbul's cultural institutions hosted 4,315 events, including international film, music, and theatre festivals, as well as art and design biennials. Events such as Contemporary Istanbul have been important in establishing a network of non-governmental organisations that have also been instrumental in the 2010 designation as the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) and membership in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN). It has also served three times as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) leader. For previous ECoC cities, national or local governments had nominated their cities for the ECoC program, but in Istanbul non-governmental organisations spearheaded and managed the nomination process (Öner). This has lead to a slow and stunted start for the programs which were greatly diminished due to the difficulties in securing the required funding.

​​After becoming an ECoC in 2010, Istanbul joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in 2017, joining 246 cities worldwide. UNESCO defines Istanbul as “a geography where craft and craftsmanship have emerged in many different ways in the historical and cultural codes of creative production and everyday life” (UCCN About Us). Because of its cultural heritage, Istanbul can be considered an inspiration for the design sector and promotes its productive capacity. Due to Istanbul’s geographically unique position, there are significant opportunities, experiences, and potentials to reveal new scenarios to promoting a productive future by enhancing innovative approaches for contemporary design. Participating in the UCCN undoubtedly has significant benefits for Istanbul. First of all, it has the opportunity to share its knowledge experience with other cities in the network, and it can have the opportunity to promote its work through networking events organised regularly within Design Cities.

In Istanbul, which is the locomotive of the Turkish economy, the vision of the 2014-2023 Regional Plan, prepared by the Istanbul Development Agency, identifies the city as "a city of innovation and culture with its creative and free people; unique Istanbul". Moreover, one of the three essential components of this vision is "a high added value, innovative and creative economy with a voice in the global economy" (ISTKA). This component reveals the importance of innovation and creativity-oriented growth in Istanbul for the gains created in the economic field to bring social development and realise holistic development. Although these frameworks have provided a strong ‘creative’ identity to the city, the lack of specific programs and funding opportunities for ‘creative industries’ that fall under these headings have not allowed these initiatives to be felt at the local scale.

Fig. 1: Location of Beyoğlu district.

In this article we chose Beyoğlu (fig. 1) as the local case study, due to the existence of cultural/creative industries since the nineteenth century. When we look at previous periods, there were times when Beyoğlu fell out of favour, and different segments gave up coming to Beyoğlu for various reasons. However, Beyoğlu has always recovered and regained its identity as a historical, touristic, and cultural centre (Türkün).

Beyoğlu has been the scene of social and spatial changes. Especially a rapid renewal process has been in process since the 1980s. As a result most of the buildings were restored, leading to wide-scale gentrification, and many new buildings were built throughout Istiklal Street, its main avenue. The roads on both sides of the pedestrian street are filled with cafes, art galleries, bookstores, and antique shops, making Beyoğlu a 'Turkish SoHo' (Gül).

A Critical Perspective from Tomtom Neighbourhood

Tomtom is one of the 45 neighbourhoods of the Beyoğlu district with a historic identity and cultural richness (fig. 2). It has hosted many diplomatic institutions and historical buildings such as the Venetian Palace, the French Palace, the Italian, Russian, Dutch, and French embassies, ​​and continues to house many consulates and foreign schools (Akın). Because it is located in the centre of Galata, Çukurcuma, and Karaköy, since the beginning of the 2000s the Tomtom neighbourhood has become very attractive due to low rental prices in the transformation process in Beyoğlu. With the low-cost renovation practices, the creative class, which has a weak economic accumulation, and has a high artistic quality, has started to open their galleries in this district. In addition to this, cafés, boutique hotels, and entertainment venues opened in succession, and this class transformation attracted the attention of capital owners. The district had to face not only the danger of gentrification caused by this class migration but also the results of the Galataport project, a real estate capital initiative (Kütükoğlu).

Fig. 2: Map of the Tomtom neighbourhood and its surroundings.

A case study was conducted between September 2018 and August 2021 using secondary data, observation, and in-depth interviews to provide a critical perspective on cultural frameworks from the perspective of local stakeholders and networks in this neighbourhood. In the case study, in-depth interviews were conducted with 30 design studios and art galleries that have moved to Tomtom in the last decade. These interviews were held in three separate periods: the first was in September 2018, following the start of the Tomtom Designhood Project; the second in August 2019; and the last in June 2021.

The Missing Ingredients

As mentioned above, some criteria are required to be a booming creative city. As a result of the fieldwork carried out in the Tomtom neighbourhood, Istanbul's trajectory in becoming a creative city has been discussed under three headings: ownership and patronage, financial support, and resilience.

The creative cluster in the Tomtom neighbourhood started as a neighbourhood revitalisation effort by a real estate investment firm to create a cultural hub in Istanbul, with the creation and promotion of an annual design event since 2017: Tomtom Designhood, inspired by similar events across Europe. However, this business approach did not suit the cultural businesses moving into the neighbourhood. Relying on the market alone and expecting up-and-coming cultural businesses to ‘invest’ in promoting their neighbourhood has not been a sustainable growth model for Tomtom.

Interviews with firms in the area have demonstrated that social networks have been a more reliable means for attracting and maintaining design firms in the area. These networks appear to create a sense of belonging and identity, with a high level of personal investment, trust, and support as the foundation of relationships. The slow-paced relocation of businesses within close social networks has been more promising in establishing the cultural hub. The results show that the creative cluster grew slowly due to the lack of support by local authorities and the limited resources for the businesses relocating into the area.

In recent years, multidisciplinary design events have been taking place in this new creative neighbourhood. Tomtom Designhood generally organises these events, some of them with the cooperation of the annual design event Contemporary Istanbul, and invites everyone to explore this creative neighbourhood with pop-up events, food and drink, and art and design exhibitions. In addition to design activities that recur periodically, there are also one-time events such as 'Back to Home', 'Tomtom Designwalks', and 'Portugal Is in Istanbul'. The main goal of these events is accessible art. Moreover, they aim to bring together art galleries, institutions, collectors, art students, and people of all ages who want to learn and know art better, especially young people and art professionals. These design events, which were put forward with the idea of "accessible art for everyone", have lacked patronage and backing from donors or government funding and thus had to be self-sustaining. Furthermore, the Tomtom events have been shifted to ‘money-making’ initiatives which further degraded their acceptance in the local neighbourhood.

The design events and festivals in the neighbourhood are not directly connected with the creative community around the UCCN. The case study explores the effects of the large-scale design events on local dynamics and has also touched upon the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and reveals that the most critical factor in the creative industries' resilience in times of crisis has been support by public policies and advocates.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which can be described as a global crisis, has affected the creative sectors at Tomtom and tested the resilience of the design firms in the area. Due to the lockdown measures, restrictions on international mobilities, and social distancing measures implemented in this process, some creative sectors could not continue their operations. There were no specific funding support systems for design professionals. Stating that the most significant potential of this area has been foreign tourists, the designers commented that their work has come to a standstill due to the complete stoppage of the tourist flow during the pandemic. On the other hand, it has been determined that some designers explored new business forms by developing new skills, not affected by the pandemic or relatively less affected. In addition, designers who sell products that appeal to higher-income groups also stated that they have not been economically affected by this process.

‘The City of Design’ title was expected to bring some visible changes to Istanbul, especially in an emerging creative neighbourhood like Tomtom, and even in the entire Beyoğlu district. However, unfortunately, it is not possible to see the effects of these even in a crucial creative neighbourhood like Tomtom.

A positive step was taken at the last point of the whole place branding process, and Tomtom was included in the "Beyoğlu Culture Road" project carried out by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in June 2022 (fig. 3). In this project, which is defined as "the branding project that transfers the cultural heritage of a city to future generations", many paid and free design events were held for two weeks in crucial creative and touristic areas such as Galataport, Atatürk Cultural Center, and French Street, with the participation of many national and international designers and artists. Many people had the opportunity to get to know Tomtom as a design neighbourhood, thanks to various concerts, workshops, festivals, design product exhibitions, and food and beverage areas held during this event for two weeks.

Fig. 3: Posters for the Tomtom Designhood event in 2018 (left) and 2022 (right). (Source: Tomtom Designhood.)

From Istanbul's perspective, the reciprocal relationship between creativity and Istanbul results in more creative industries, strengthening Istanbul's position in the global network. This study proves that a successful cultural policy needs to include financial support and local government cooperation for a more sustainable strategy. From an urban policy perspective, social networks seem a crucial player for a better and more sustainable support system that provides answers to the needs of the creative industries. It is hoped that the results of this study will provide new perspectives on understanding the importance of the collaboration of private, public, and civil society actors in order to strengthen cultural industries in creative cities and promote the diversity of cultural expressions.

In Tomtom, as Colomb argued and authors focussed on place-making and branding have argued, specific local culture, history, identity, and aesthetics are picked, sanitised, commodified, and promoted to be consumed by target groups such as tourists or high-income locals as part of the place-making process. However, in this local neighbourhood, this process can negatively affect the spaces and social groups involved, particularly with gentrification pressure from its surrounding neighbourhoods, resulting in a loss of authenticity or outright displacement in the future.


The research was undertaken, in part, thanks to funding from the TUBITAK 2214-A International Research Scholarship Program.


Maps in fig. 1 and fig. 2 were developed by the authors using

Posters in fig. 3 are from Tomtom Designhood:


Akın, Nur. 19. yüzyılın ikinci yarısında Galata ve Pera. No. 24. Literatur, 1998.

Caves, Richard E. Creative Industries: Contracts between Art and Commerce. Harvard UP, 2000.

Colomb, Claire. Staging the New Berlin: Place Marketing and the Politics of Urban Reinvention Post-1989. Routledge, 2013.

D'Ovidio, Marianna. The Creative City Does Not Exist: Critical Essays on the Creative and Cultural Economy of Cities. Ledizioni, 2016.

Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class. Basic Books, 2019.

Florida, Richard, Tim Gulden, and Charlotta Mellander. "The Rise of the Mega-Region." Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 1.3 (2008): 459-476.

Grodach, Carl. "Urban Cultural Policy and Creative City Making." Cities 68 (2017): 82-91.

Gül, Murat, Trevor Howells, and Aras Neftci. Istanbul Architecture. Watermark Press, 2013.

ISTKA. 2014-2023 İstanbul Regional Plan. 10 Feb. 2022 <>.

Kütükoğlu, İlker. Mimarlık ve Seçkinleştirme: Cihangir Örneği. Diss. Fen Bilimleri Enstitüsü, 2006.

Landry, Charles. The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators. Routledge, 2012.

Martí-Costa, Marc, and Marc Pradel I. Miquel. "The Knowledge City against Urban Creativity? Artists’ Workshops and Urban Regeneration in Barcelona." European Urban and Regional Studies 19.1 (2012): 92-108.

Öner, Oğuz. "Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture: Towards a Participatory Culture?" Orienting Istanbul. Routledge, 2010. 283-294.

Rosi, Mauro. "Branding or Sharing? The Dialectics of Labeling and Cooperation in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network." City, Culture and Society 5.2 (2014): 107-110.

Scott, Allen J. "The Cultural Economy of Cities." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 21.2 (1997): 323-339.

Stocker, Karl. "The Power of Design." A Journey through the 11 UNESCO Cities of Design. 2013.

Türkün, Asuman. “Arafta Bir Beyoğlu: Tarihsel Kesitleriyle Bir Semt Yıllar İçinde Değişimler” 5 Apr. 2022 <>.

UCCN. “About Us.” 2 Feb. 2022 <>.

UCCN. “UNESCO Creative Cities Network for Sustainable Development.” 2 Feb. 2022 <>.

Yigitcanlar, Tan, Koray Velibeyoglu, and Cristina Martinez‐Fernandez. "Rising Knowledge Cities: The Role of Urban Knowledge Precincts." Journal of Knowledge Management (2008).

Zitcer, Andrew. "Making Up Creative Placemaking." Journal of Planning Education and Research 40.3 (2020): 278-288.

Author Biographies

Özlem Tepeli Türel, Istanbul Technical University

Özlem Tepeli Türel is a PhD candidate at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Istanbul Technical University, and she has been working as a research and teaching assistant at the same department since 2015. She completed her Master’s degree from the Interdisciplinary Urban Design Program at Istanbul Technical University. During her PhD, she was a visiting researcher at the University of Milan Bicocca, Urban Sociology department for one year. She has been researching issues on cultural and creative industries, social network theory and urban design.

Başak Demireş Özkul, Istanbul Technical University

Başak Demireş Özkul is an Associate Professor at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Istanbul Technical University. She completed her PhD degree in 2011, at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, and her Master’s degree from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. After her Master’s degree, she has worked as a real estate project manager in Boston, MA, USA. She has been teaching and researching issues on planning theory, economic development, mobility studies, and spatial analysis.