ISTANBUL — At midnight on Thursday, one of the few remaining parks in the center of this city was filled with people singing, dancing, talking, giving speeches, and preparing to camp out. Before dawn this morning, it was violently cleared by armored police spraying tear gas — a cycle that's repeated itself over the past few days as protesters seek to halt the demolition of the park and the building of a shopping mall there.

Just nine acres in size, Gezi Park would be but a blip on the map in cities such as New York, with its 843-acre Central Park. But in Istanbul, where only 1.5 percent of land area is devoted to public green space — less than in crowded Tokyo or Shanghai, but far behind New York (14 percent) or London (38.4 percent) — it is a rare oasis.

"Eighty percent of the country now lives in cities, and they need to be able to breathe. This was the only breathing place for the whole area, the only place where you could get away from cars for a moment, and they’re taking that away," says Betül Tanbay, a professor at Boğaziçi University and a member of the Taksim Platform activist group.

Before work began in November to move adjacent roads underground as part of the pedestrianization of the Taksim Square transit hub, the small park's tree-lined paths, shaded benches, simple tea gardens, and fountain-centered plazas were a soothing, if slightly shabby, respite for neighborhood residents. Locals continued to sit and stroll there as construction walls and cranes went up all around the park.

On Monday, construction crews began to tear into one side of Gezi Park. Protesters managed to halt the work but were dispersed by tear-gas and pepper-spray-wielding police on Tuesday afternoon. Despite the increasingly harsh response — the Turkish police have been criticized by Amnesty International for their "use of excessive force" — the park-protection vigils have only continued to grow, from 50 people on Monday to an estimated 10,000 people on Thursday night.


Turkish riot police use water cannon to disperse demonstrators during a protest against the destruction of trees in a park brought about by a pedestrian project, in Taksim Square in central Istanbul. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

Before police cleared the park early Friday with what eyewitnesses called the most aggressive force yet, the scene was cheerful and peaceful, almost festival-like. Push-cart vendors made their way through the crowd, selling watermelon slices, tea, and rice with chickpeas, a local street-food staple. Banners hung from trees read, "Don’t touch my neighborhood, square, tree, soil, home, seed, forest, village, city, park…" and, more plaintively, "I can give so much more fruit."

The battle over Gezi Park has become a symbol of opposition to the massive urban upheaval currently underway in Istanbul. In addition to the Taksim Project, ground broke this week on a controversial third bridge across the Bosphorus Strait. Opponents say the bridge and the new roads to go along with it will destroy forested areas and further hasten the city's rapid sprawl without solving its congestion problems. Historic neighborhoods have been razed and their largely poor residents displaced in the name of urban transformation, while new chunks of the waterfront continue to be sold or leased to private developers.


A Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas as a demonstrator holds a banner which reads that, "Chemical Tayyip", referring to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, during a protest against the destruction of trees in a park brought about by a pedestrian project, in Taksim Square in central Istanbul. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

"It’s not just about Gezi Park. We have lost cinemas, cultural centers, restaurants, neighborhoods, things that symbolize Istanbul. Gezi Park was our last castle," says Mehmet Ali Alabora, the head of the Turkish actors' union and an active member of the demonstrations.

All of this has been done largely without public input, and often in the face of outright protest. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former Istanbul mayor, has thrown his weight solidly behind the development projects, repeatedly chastising critics as obstructionist and vowing to see the changes – including the rebuilding of an Ottoman-era artillery barracks at Gezi Park to serve as a shopping mall – through. On Wednesday, following two days of protest in the park, he declared: "They can do whatever they want. We've made our decision."


A demonstrator reacts as riot police use water cannon to disperse the crowd during a protest against the destruction of trees in a park brought about by a pedestrian project, in Taksim Square in central Istanbu. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

At a panel discussion on urban transformation in February, city planner İlhan Tekeli criticized Erdoğan for disregarding the urban plan painstakingly created for Istanbul with the input of some 400 experts. "Pluralistic democracy in Turkey will not mean anything if the Taksim barracks are reconstructed," he said.

Tanbay agrees. "There's been zero public process, zero public support, zero public information," she says. "We tried to have a dialogue with the municipality; we didn't say that nothing should be changed [at Taksim]. We said, let's discuss it together. As citizens, we deserve to be part of the plans — we don't want them to be made behind doors and declared during construction."