The transformative power of ‘circular culture’

17 February 2022

On the West coast of Turkey lies Izmir, the third most populated municipality in the country. The city enjoys incredible biodiversity (10% of the worldwide population of flamingos lives here) and has engaging ideas on local governance. 

For Tunç Soyer, the Mayor of Izmir, a Turkey-EU partnership at local level is essential. After all, he says, the country and the block’s respective challenges transcend international borders. 

Eurocities talked to Mayor Soyer about the ideas of ‘circular culture’, democracy and social justice that all inspire and guide his work in Izmir. 

What is ‘circular culture’? What does this term refer to? 

“The vision of circular culture is based on four pillars:  

  • Harmony with nature is the merging of rural and urban life. Our cities are deeply connected with their natural and social environment.  
  • Harmony with the past is creating an opportunity to learn from our cultural heritage, to have intercultural meetings and finding strength in our diversity.  
  • Harmony with each other improves democratic engagement.  
  • And last but not least, harmony with change is the effort to establish a more just city where resources are better distributed.  

Circular culture refers to culture as the link connecting economy, nature, social justice and history. In a city as old as Izmir, this term is like a long-lost piece of the puzzle, assisting us in finding solutions to existing and future problems.  

As a result, we aim to improve citizens’ quality of life while dreaming of a carbon-neutral, resilient city. Furthermore, culture makes our lives more meaningful and productive. Culture always inspires creativity, innovation and solidarity.” 

How does the Izmir city council implement this concept of circular culture in its governance? How does it underpin your work on urban justice, resilience and democracy? 

“We have underlined the importance of citizen participation to local governance so that Izmirians can voice their needs and priorities. We wanted to set an example. The Izmir city council is an independent, democratic civil formation where representatives of the central and local governments, professional organisations, universities, trade unions, rights-based non-governmental organisations and socially responsible volunteers living in Izmir come together.  

Their responsibilities differ from developing the city’s vision and citizenship awareness to implementing the principles of governance and decentralisation. Sustainable development, environmental awareness, social assistance and solidarity, transparency, accountability, and participation are some of the city council’s themes. Circular culture aims to structure the collective wisdom of Izmir, a nexus of reconciliation, the power of working together and taking action. We also have established a children council, women council and youth council.”  

Democracy is a complex concept. We could understand democracy in two ways: representative (voting) and deliberative (public discussion and reasoning). How to ensure that both are fairly implemented at a local level? 

“In my electoral campaign, I promised not only to be the mayor of humans but all species and natural ecosystems of the city, including the flamingos. Nearly 10 per cent of the world population lives here.  

With this expression, I wanted to ‘give’ democratic rights of those that cannot vote. The question is not about being the majority or the minority. Democracy is about living together in harmony. It is about the rules of law, check and balance and culture of our most needed co-existence. Democracy is a lifestyle established on top of those building blocks. 

The mayor talking
The mayor of Izmir, Tunç Soyer

Moreover, we have focused on deliberative democracy —citizen participation— during this term. We made our municipality more accessible to our citizens through projects such as WeTheIzmir platform and made our bodies as representatives as possible.  

Take the Izmir Fair Company‘s board of directors: all of its members represent different chambers and business associations. Our goal is to increase participation in decision-making and implementation.”  

How does Izmir show its resilience to the challenges brought by the pandemic? How is it getting ready for the post-Covid period? 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, the Izmir municipality introduced a new type of governance. We called this type of institutional innovation ‘crisis municipalism’. We first defined new processes for municipal operations and services. Then, we established more participatory decision-making, executive, and consultative bodies. And lastly, we strengthened solidarity in the city. 

We put multi-stakeholder engagement and inclusion in the decision-making process that is at the core of ‘crisis municipalism’. We operated an effective communication network between the municipality, civil society, and other public institutions. This created a rapid flow of information within the city, ensuring that financial and human resources were effectively allocated for the benefit of citizens and especially vulnerable communities.  

At the beginning of the pandemic, I invited all citizens of Izmir to take part in social solidarity initiatives. We used the municipality’s digital platform to foster citizens’ participation and create a solidarity network. For example, citizens have used our online platforms to donate more than 200,000 packages to those in need. 

Through the municipality’s citizen communication centre, volunteers and municipal employees have contacted approximately half a million citizens to fulfill their urgent needs. One thousand one hundred volunteers signed up to shop for the elderly. 

We also developed a detailed resilience action plan that will help us prepare for potential future crises.” 

Social justice may have traditionally been a concept discussed or theorised at a national and global level. Do we need an urban theory of justice, or is it a matter of applying existing ideas of social justice to the urban context?  

“Social justice plays a big role in all of our policies. We aim to reinforce local democracy through social inclusion, open engagement, and citizen participation to strengthen citizens’ relationships and sense of belonging. We strive for a just metropole accessible to all citizens from all backgrounds, facilitating the interaction and the social mixing in the community by ensuring well-connected and liveable urban patterns.  

The four pillars of circular culture are implemented into our strategic planning to improve public goods and services, to rethink the distribution of wealth and to access nature and history. Combining with our city councils and educational programs, we focus on citizens’ collective potential to transform urbanisation processes around their needs in the city.”

A wide area close to the coast. We can see green spaces and historical buildings
Izmir, Turkey

How can local authorities continue to boost economic growth and preserve the rights of vulnerable groups? 

“There is a fair way to establish economic growth and preserve the rights of vulnerable groups. We have implemented the ‘Another agriculture is possible’ policy to combat poverty and support climate-resilient food systems and equal citizenship. With this policy, we focus on two fundamental problems: drought – a direct reflection of the climate crisis in Izmir – and poverty. 

In the fight against poverty, we support agriculture starting from the seed stage and extending to the end consumer, covering logistics, branding, sales, export, and training activities. This way, we support our local small-scale producers and assist our citizens in accessing affordable, fair foods.”  

What are the benefits of the collaboration and exchange between EU and Turkish cities?  

“Along with global warming and biodiversity losses, the Covid-19 crisis seriously threatens our lives. Within the European partnership, we should build a more concerted municipal effort. I want to underline that these threats don’t differentiate between members or non-members of the EU. We need to act together and act now.  

Turkey and the EU partnership can contribute more effectively to our cities’ resilience. First, we need institutional innovation for more effective collaboration. Second, we should give more extensive consideration to municipalities in policy-making and implementation. And third, we need to increase solidarity among our cities. 

In Izmir, we are also trying to turn environmental challenges into sustainable economic development, as the EU does through the green recovery. We work on reaching sustainable development goals while focusing on overcoming the economic impact of Covid-19. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that local governments have the necessary means to prepare and finance projects on sustainability since cities are at the forefront of these green recovery efforts. 

Participation of local authorities in the EU’s Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA)  would increase the programme’s effectiveness. Cities are resourceful partners for the EU institutions and national governments in implementing green recovery objectives. They can orchestrate collective actions to deal with trans-border challenges. They possess the know-how on works and projects. They have social capital; trust level in local institutions is high. Elected mayors can provide much-needed leadership to maximise the efficiency of enlargement policies. 

Finally, I want to mention culture. Culture helps our cities to be more resilient. We need to find a way to enable our cultures to interact and inspire each other. In this way, we can overcome prejudgement and build more joyful forms of collaboration for our sustainable, inclusive future in the EU. 

Today, we live in a very interdependent world and even more interdependent Europe. And yes, Turkey is a part of interdependent Europe with its history, society, economy, political system, culture, and future. In Europe, goods, services, labour, capital, ideas, viruses, and crises flow across borders and cities. We must build our European risk policies on this vital interdependence.” 


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer