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Istanbul’s Lost Leisure Spaces

Restructuring Urban Dialogues Through Everyday Spatial Micro-Dynamics

by Kivilcim Göksu Toprak

Abstract: This research explores how experiences and memories of public spaces can sustain organic conflict-resolution mechanisms within societies. It focuses on the transformations of Istanbul’s public spaces’ connotations due to social and political conflicts and social polarization. It revisits Istanbul’s two lost leisure space typologies -mesires and plajs- as social structures that provided arbitrary social encounters and examines the ways identities were negotiated at the everyday level through the micro-dynamics and appropriations of space. This research argues that linear historical narratives fail to recognize diverse spatial experiences that sustain inclusivity by constructing ‘shared’ identities standing on concepts like restorative nostalgia and shared suffering. It offers a bottom-up perspective and recognizes diverse ‘hidden’ narratives in everyday practices. It examines case-studies with a theoretical framework based on 1) the physical space, 2) the temporary elements interacting with(in), and 3) the abstract interpretations of them. [Image1]

Public Space and Ambient Sociality

[Image 1]Ambient sociality, 
a collage with texts and images describing a public space and ambient sociality.
Image by the author (2022).


Istanbul can be interpreted as a city that evolves through conflicting and self-iterating encounters. More than any planned development attempt, it physically and virtually expands through experiences and appropriations of and within public spaces. While this situation introduces an interesting case-study to observe the organic development of an urban setting via complex social, political, and economic transformations; it also suggests a constant struggle and rebirth. When observed at a daily level through hidden narratives, this vibrant setting portrays an urban context that is formed by the overlapping individual excursions. Nevertheless, in recent years these overlapping narratives struggle to cross each other due to the growing social polarization and consequently formed cultural enclaves. Therefore, to capture the aspects which previously and contemporarily provided inclusivity to the city, this study aims to shift the perspective from linear narratives to individual everyday interactions. It also aims to understand the urban culture from bottom-up, and to propose an alternative approach to building resilience and conflict-resolution with attributes integral to the city.




Together with many environmental and economic controversies that redescribed Istanbul - such as extreme urbanization [1], or mucilage problems [2]- one aspect that reshaped everyday life in İstanbul contemporarily was social polarization. The social disintegrations backed by urban decisions like the decreasing number of open public spaces, multiplying shopping malls, and neoliberal urban transformation projects [3], contributed to the change of lively multicultural and multilayered neighborhoods into cultural enclaves. As an essential cause, the political and social incidents that took place in or related to the public spaces affected the growing dissociation, too. As the shared spaces became more and more political while gaining multiple significances through traumatic memories, they became less accessible physically and psychologically. The examples of places considered inclusive or diverse turning into places-to-avoid have multiplied. One example is the city district Beyoğlu, which was redefined after many bombings between 2015-2016 [4]. Similarly, multiple examples set the social tone of the everyday urban environment as one that produces dissociation, prejudice, and fear.


As the number of places to arbitrarily encounter different lifestyles decreased, the opportunities to familiarize with whom we each uniquely call as “the other” diminished. As Emre Erdoğan describes while explaining their research on social polarization in Turkey, the dehumanization between the individuals in society increased critically in recent years [5]. This situation gave way to hatred and violence between the individuals of society to increase and produce conflicts that further reshape urban life. Because of this state, the communication and development of cooperative problem-solving techniques got interrupted. Moreover, the presumptions embedded in daily life got rooted in essentialism that Gelman defined as “the idea that certain categories, such as ‘dog’, ‘man’, or ‘intelligence’, have an underlying reality or true nature that provides objects with an identity”. [6] Consequently, the communication between the members of society, and the continuity and creation of conflict-resolution mechanisms got interrupted. 

The afore mentioned effects of dehumanization and polarization are experienced in daily conversations; but when investigated deeper these transformations can be based on the shifts in the perception and memories of the public spaces. According to Pallasmaa, “the quality of a space or place is not merely a visual perceptual quality as it is usually assumed. The judgement of environmental character is a complex multi-sensory fusion of countless factors which are immediately and synthetically grasped as an overall atmosphere, ambience, feeling or mood.” [7] Accordingly, the elements creating a spatial setting do not interact with each-other in linear ways such as cause-and-effect; they are rather multi-layered, subjective, and ubiquitous. As we perceive a spatial setting, we also take many abstract or transitory elements - such as memories, experiences, and taught narratives- into consideration to form a complex and subjective interpretation. The controversy happens while describing the spatial experiences since certain events and identities are picked out and put in ‘meaningful’ orders to define a narrative. At this point, the divergence between history and memory gains importance in determining our perception of spatial experiences. 


Historical narratives subjectively pick and order incidents and elements to describe spatial settings. Nevertheless, as we experience them, the space is perceived and remembered in multiple, complex ways. As there is not one true, objective definition of a space or its memory, the space can be described as a transitory, dynamic phenomenon. Confino points this out by saying that the politics of memory starts at this point when the memory is being considered a “subjective experience of a group that essentially sustains a relationship of power” [8]. The way that spatial experiences are narrated through certain perspectives in historical narratives indicate and produce hierarchy based on “who wants whom to remember what, and why”. [9]. Necessarily, the multi-layered and subjective spatial settings become diminished into singular essentialist descriptions which Megill describes as “a pseudo-objective discourse”. [10]

As Samuel explains, the memory is an “expressive totality, a seamless web [...] conceptualized as systemic” [11]. When narrated through a subjective perspective, it creates stories that have a beginning, an end, and a determined reasoning. Consequently, they suggest concrete identities which do not encompass the spontaneity of actual spatial experiences and do not leave room for interpretations. As Renan explains, a shared geographical spot, a shared heritage, a shared language, but more than all shared sufferings can unite individuals to agree on a common definition of a common identity. [12] When histories are narrated these commonalities are kept at the core to define a nation or a social group, standing as memories that are longed for which Svetlana Boym explains as “restorative nostalgia”. [13] When approached from a perspective based on historical narratives and shared identities this kind of nostalgia appears as a phenomenon that assists us to define identities. Nevertheless, from an individualistic perspective emphasizing subjective experiences and memories, they stand short to portray the multilayered identities and experiences. This inadequacy that Boym refers to as “reflective nostalgia” causes distress at the personal level that resembles the loss of a body part [14] and can explain how individual identities are “excluded” at a societal level. 

Contradicting the approaches that lead to historical narratives, this research suggests understanding the urban contexts as dynamic “memory superstructures” [15] and focus on individual spatial experiences to ‘define’ identities. The model set in this framework contains three phenomena describing a spatial setting: 1) the physical space, 2) the temporary interactions and appropriations within, 3) the collective meaning and memory created through the multiple interpretations of the space. To do so, examples of temporarily occupied multipurpose public spaces are examined while focusing on the ways in which public spaces can accelerate initiating organic problem-solving reflexes. This research also aims at shifting the perspective to rethink the function and structure of shared urban spaces through the study of Istanbul’s two lost public space typologies and describes the significance of public spaces and how they build social structures.


[Image 2]

By referencing Arendt, the authors Polat and Dostoğlu explain “the term ‘public’ as everything that can be seen and heard by everybody, and as the world that is common to all of us […]”. [16] In this sense, public spaces put individual abstract concepts, thoughts, and identities in the shared material world. As Habermas, Sarah Lennox and Frank Lennox describe: “Public spaces and leisure activities [are] opening space for informality and experiential memory.” [17] As a result, they create the environment to proliferate narratives constructing collective memories and to break essentialist assumptions. In other words, in public settings, where the social roles are instantly reproduced; a society creates its own codes through repetitive actions and encounters. The unplanned interactions within these landscapes carry the potential to create individual descriptions based on experience, negotiation, and familiarity. Therefore, the public spaces open for temporary appropriations provide critical resources to relearn and sustain urban dialogues. 

The case studies picked here, portray the local ways of starting communication used to be practiced in Istanbul. Mesires (meadows) and plajs (beaches) portray scenes that  hosted informal place-making activities. They both can be described as free topographies temporarily occupied, appropriated, and left mostly without leaving a permanent physical trace. While they were places inhabited for a relatively short time, through their memories they constituted parts of the local collective memory. [Image 3]

Mesires can be described physically as meadows located mostly between two hills. They were famous for their fresh air, attractive natural attributes, clean water, scenery, and welcoming topography. [18] When they were activated temporarily in springtime and in summertime, these meadows became “mesires”. [19] In other words, they stood as unoccupied landscapes which can be considered as ‘urban’ only for a limited time.[20] While each mesire was popular for a different attribute, they can be defined through certain elements and shared actions associated with them. Some of these identifying acts can be listed as:


  • Watching the scenery

  • Smoking a pipe

  • Drinking coffee

  • Picnics – snacking, chatting

  • “Tespih çekmek” [counting beeds]

  • “Tenezzüh” [promenade]

  • “Seyre çıkmak” [sailing away to watch the scenery, cruising]

  • “Mehtaba çıkmak” [sailing, cruising, or walking at night to watch the full moon]

  • Sports activities – wrestling (an equestrian team sport), football

  • Games – running with a stone, throwing a stone, swinging

  • “Fasıl” [live music]

  • Shows and story-telling – “meddah“ [story-tellers sharing knowledge and starting discussions by telling tales and presenting performances in public spaces like coffeehouses or churches and mosques], theatre-in-the-round, shadow puppets

  • Animal trainers’ shows

  • Feasts and celebrations – “hıdrellez“ [the feast of spring]

  • Sitting in the tree shades

Through these acts, mesires developed their own codes and culture. While they allowed the users to interact with nature, they also hosted spontaneous, creative, and instinctual ways to occupy the landscape - as visible in the stories collected from open access, and non-academic sources. Although the activities varied, the codes that were produced in these landscapes were shared: codes to flirt, codes to bargain, or codes to eat and play. Even though and because openly flirting in public was considered inappropriate, acts like dropping a handkerchief in front of a passing gentleman to indicate that they are interested, or carrying a knotted cloth to show that they are engaged with someone became codes to communicate between individuals. Similarly, the personalized territories of a family were set by laying a carpet on a certain tree shade temporarily, or the venders rushing to mesires during springs and summers had their own designated areas respected by each other or fought for. These codes bring us to the fact that certain objects, colors, and smells carried importance in these shared spatial contexts. Some of the characteristic objects associated with mesires in this context can be listed as follows [Image 4]:

  • Row boats

  • Oxcarts

  • “İhram“ [floor blankets]

  • Carpets

  • Food bundles and baskets

  • Musical instruments – “ney“, “zurna“, “tef,…[eastern instruments similar to flute, oboe, and tambourine]

  • Candles put on turtoises – in the Tulip Era during the nights with full-moon candles were put on the shells of trained turtoises which then strolled around the mesires

  • Handkerchief

  • Flower bundles or single flowers

  • Venders – “sherbet“, “helva“, “macun“ [a local sweet toffee paste with fruit flavours], ice cream...

  • Venders’ foldable stools, carts, pots…

  • Music

  • Laughter

  • Venders’ yellings

  • Water Sound

  • Wind

  • Smell of spring flowers 

Even though mesires and the mesire culture is lost in Istanbul now, the traces of the habits developed there, stay as reminiscent in the ways urban spaces are occupied – marking territories using blankets, venders strolling, preparing food or tea at home to bring and more. One of the most significant effects of mesires on the local collective memories was the culture of appropriating the ‘public’ landscape. The spaces that are created as a result of this approach can be explained by Güner’s description of leisure spaces, “whose boundaries are uncertain and where gradual transition between privacy and publicity is visible, […] transitory zones with borders that cannot be drawn […][and] accumulate in mental cartographies of the citizen.” [21] While the habits developed in mesires are continued rituals, they are also tools of negotiation and visibility in the public spaces that shape social dialogues and create a cumulative identity rather than a shared one. [Image 5]

Like mesires, plajs (beaches) stated another typology that was activated through temporary occupations. Although Istanbul’s relationship with the sea was a complicated one, with the White Russian communities settling in Istanbul the interaction with the shores and the sea accelerated. [22] Around the 1930s, the virgin areas between the land and the sea got activated with temporary shelters and, as Akçura explains, ferries operated by Şirket-I Hayriye provided easy access to them. [23] Until the building of a coastal road linking the villages of Istanbul in 1960, the beaches became popular spots where people met, interacted, and developed a unique culture. Like mesires, beaches suggested public spaces that varied in style but produced common behavioral codes through the activation of the land using temporary elements embedded in the collective memory.

In terms of a physical space, beaches were sandy landscapes with temporary cabins, diving towers and “gazinos“ that included facilities from showers to snack bars, restaurants, stages, and night clubs .[24] They hosted multiple leisure activities from concerts to beauty pageants, from races to games. In everyday experiences, they were redesigned by the occupying crowds each day. Although, the elements that created the space changed every day, the ones that often appeared in non-academic sources can be listed as follows [Image 6]: 

  • Umbrellas

  • Boats

  • Swimsuits

  • Towels

  • Straw mats

  • Buckets and shovels

  • Rackets

  • Balls

  • Music

  • Magazines and books

  • Sunglasses

  • Venders – corn, “simit“ [a local pastry like bagel with sessame]

  • Venders’ stools and carts

  • Photographers 

  • Ice cream stands

  • Lifeguards

  • Changing cabins

  • Lifeguards’ towers and boats

  • Diving platforms

  • Diving boards

  • Fruits and other summer food

  • Venders’ yelling

The ways that plajs were occupied temporarily provided unique space of social interaction through rituals such as sunbathing, swimming, playing games which defined these places in multiple manners. The relative freedom in actions provided in these leisure spaces and the effect of the soft and warm landscape accelerated the interactions and the familiarity between the individuals of the community. By becoming visible to each other, a chance to discuss the way people negotiated issues such as beauty standards, musical preferences, or ethics in sportive activities became available. 

Going back to the problems of social polarization in Istanbul and their relation to the public space phenomenon, collective memory, and identity, it can be claimed that the contemporary conflicts about the social dialogues’ interruption between the individuals of the society is linked to the lack of physical and psychological access to inclusive public spaces and to the lack of interaction and familiarity. The social polarization can be found deeply related to the historical narratives defining ‘shared’ identities and sustaining the dehumanizing and essentialist behaviors. In this sense, the rituals and tools that are used and organically produced within everyday interactions in public leisure spaces like mesires and plajs are valuable resources to provide interaction, negotiation, and familiarity, and to overcome polarization. In other words, the societies’ potential to develop organic conflict-resolution skills and inclusive urban settings can be sustained and supported by increasing the opportunities to encounter and familiarize with each other beyond linear historical narratives that produce concrete and totalizing definitions of shared identities, and by proliferating the experiential narratives that cumulatively form and include individual perceptions and interpretation of spatial experiences.

More information on mesires and plajs is presented on the website below:

[1] Gülbaz (2012).

[2] ‘Mucilage in Marmara Sea Continues to Pose Threat, Study Shows’ (2021).
[3] Eder and Öz (2015), pp.284–304.

[4] Köker (2016).

[5] Erdoğan (2016).

[6] Gelman (2003).

[7] Pallasmaa (2014).

[8] Confino (2011), pp.198–200.

[9] Confino (2011), pp.198–200.

[10] Megill (2011), pp.193–197.

[11] Samuel (2011), pp.261–264.

[12] Renan (2011).

[13] Boym (2011), pp.452–457.

[14] Boym (2011), pp.452–457.

[15] Casey (2011), pp.184–187.

Mesires and Plajs Beaches

[Image 2] Mesires and Plajs, 
a collage with an image for mesires and an image for beaches.

[16] Polat and Dostoğlu (2016).

[17] Habermas, et al. (1974), pp.49–55.

Highlighting Elements and People on a Mesire

[Image 3] Mesires, image highlighting elements and people on a mesire.
Images by the author (2022).

[18] Ertan (2020).

[20] Hiz (2020).

[19] Karay (1945).

[21] Güner, (2010).

[22] Schmidt (2015).

[23] Akçura (2021).

[24] Toprak (2018).

Mesire Items and Activities

[Image 4] Mesire items and activities, image highlighting characteristic elements on mesires.
Image by the author (2022).

Ataköy Beach between 1957-1980

[Image 5] 1957’den 1980’lerin başına dek hizmet veren Ataköy Plajı [Ataköy Beach that served between 1957 and 1980], an old photo showing a day at Ataköy Beach. 

Image source: anonymous, from Feza Kürkçüoğlu’s article “Deniz Hamamlarından ‘Beach’lere Istanbul’un Deniz Serüveni: Selam Olsun Bir Zamanların ‘Hürriyet Diyarı’na” (2019).

Plaj Items and Activities

[Image 6] Plaj items and activities, image highlighting characteristic elements on beaches.
Image by the author (2022).


Akçura, Gökhan, ‘Bir foto öykü: İstanbul’un ilk plajları’, İST Dergi, 2021. (accessed 18 June 2022).

Boym, Svetlana, ‘From “Nostalgia and Its Discontents”’, in The Collective Memory Reader (New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2011) pp. 452–457.

Casey, Edward, ‘From Remembering: A Phenomenological Study’, in The Collective Memory Reader (New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2011) pp. 184–187.

Confino, Alon, ‘From “Collective Memory and Cultural History: Problems of Method”’, in The Collective Memory Reader (New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 198–200.

Eder, Mine, and Özlem Öz, ‘Neoliberalization of Istanbul’s Nightlife: Beer or Champagne?’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39.2 (2015), 284–304. (accessed 14 December 2021).

Erdoğan, Emre, ‘Türkiye’de Kutuplaşma’, 405 / DörtYüzBeş, 2016. (accessed 14 December 2021).

Ertan, Ünal, ‘İstanbul’un Mesireleri’. fotokart (blog), 13 October 2020. (accessed 19 June 2022).


Gelman, Susan, ‘The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought’, The Essential Child. Origins of Essentialism in Everday Thought., 2003. (accessed 14 December 2021).


Gülbaz, Sezar, Impact of Extreme Urbanization on Water Resources and Flood Risk in Sazlıdere Watershed, Istanbul, 2012.  (accessed 2 September 2023).


Güner, Deniz, ‘Istanbul Kıyı Alanlarında Değişen Kamusallıklar’, ARCH+.  (accessed 22 July 2022).


Habermas, Jürgen, Sara Lennox, and Frank Lennox, ‘The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964)’, New German Critique, 3, 1974, 49–55. (accessed 14 July 2022).


Hiz, Gürbey, ‘[Ç]: Çayır’, Manifold. (accessed 22 July 2022). 


Karay, Refid Halid, ‘Hafta Konuşması - İstanbul’un Çayırları’, Istanbul Sehir Universitesi Repository.
(accessed 31 August 2022).


Megill, Allan, ‘From “History, Memory, Identity”’, in The Collective Memory Reader (New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2011) pp. 193–197.


‘Mucilage in Marmara Sea Continues to Pose Threat, Study Shows - Türkiye News’, Hürriyet Daily News, 2021. (accessed 31 August 2022).


Pallasmaa, Juhani, ‘Space, place and atmosphere. Emotion and peripherical perception in architectural experience’, Lebenswelt. Aesthetics and philosophy of experience., 2014, No 4. (accessed 12 July 2022).


Polat, Sibel, and Neslihan Dostoglu, ‘Measuring Place Identity in Public Open Spaces’, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers - Urban Design and Planning, 170 (2016), 1–14. (accessed 18 July 2022).


Renan, Ernest, ‘Extract from “What Is a Nation”’, pp. 80–83.

Samuel, Raphael, ‘From “Theaters of Memory”’, in The Collective Memory Reader (New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2011) pp. 261–264.


Schmidt, Ulrik, ‘The Socioaesthetics of Being Surrounded Ambient Sociality and Contemporary Movement-Space’, in Socioaesthetics : Ambience - Imaginary / Edited by Anders Michelsen, Frederik Tygstrup, Social and Critical Theory, 19, 2015.


Toprak, Zafer, ‘Deniz Hamamından Plaja Bir Nostaljinin Öyküsü / From Sea Baths to Beaches - A Story of Nostalgia’, 2018. (accessed 18 June 2022).


‘Türkiye’deki saldırılar: 18 ayda yaklaşık 500 kişi yaşamını yitirdi’, BBC News Türkçe, 2016. (accessed 13 June 2023).


Image Sources

Kürkçüoğlu, Feza, Deniz Hamamlarından ‘Beach’lere Istanbul’un Deniz Serüveni: Selam Olsun Bir Zamanların ‘Hürriyet Diyarı’na (2019).

All Images

Kıvılcım Göksu Toprak is a practicing interior architect, spatial designer and researcher focusing on heritage and memory studies. Her work focuses on empathetic design, memory-identity-space relationships, cultural heritage, phenomenology, urban and cultural resilience, social sustainability, and understanding the complex relationships of tangible and intangible urban structures, decolonizing architectural visualization techniques, trauma and conflicts’ impact on space perception, and urban dynamics of conflicted spaces and recovery via spatial design.


Research Assistant, University College London, 2024
Architectural Designer, OZA Interior Design & Architecture, 2023
MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments, The Bartlett, UCL 2022
Istanbul (Türkiye) Interior Architect 2020
BSci Interior Architecture Istanbul Technical University & Politecnico di Milano, 2020


Published in Issue 2024

Dis-Ruptive Horizons


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