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Monday March 27th 2023

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Turkish Lessons


Turkish market (all photos by the author)

Boulder continues to struggle with how to create a more sustainable community, as do like-minded cities around the country.  One place to look for lessons in sustainability is to communities that have existed and thrived, more or less unchanged, for generations.  On a one-month bicycle tour with a friend across southwestern Turkey, which has been inhabited for thousands of years, I thought about the sustainability of the towns and villages we rode through, and what insights they might hold for Boulder.

Here’s a selection of things I’ve seen, in no particular order.  As a caveat, I’ll emphasize that I’m not remotely an expert on Turkey, so these are simply my untutored observations.

1.  To start with a simple one, I didn’t see a single incandescent bulb in four weeks.  Inside buildings, there are regular fluorescent bulbs and compact fluorescents, and outside there are high-pressure sodium lights.  I’ve also seen a few new LED bulbs.  All of these are many times more efficient than incandescent lights.

2.  I haven’t seen a single clothes dryer.  Even small houses have washing machines, but clothes are dried outside on a line, even now, in winter, when it’s much more humid than in Boulder.  I wondered if the daily weather news includes advice on whether tomorrow will be a good day to hang out clothes, as it does in Japan (also an excellent source of lessons in how to build sustainable communities).

The urban edge of Torbalı is sharply defined, helping to make the city very walkable for residents even on the fringes

3.  Transport is far less energy-intensive than in the US.  We’ve seen cars with one person in them, but just as often we’ve seen four, five, or six people to a car, or — as we saw on occasion — three men on a moped.  Not coincidentally, Turkey’s gasoline is among the most expensive in the world.  The last time we bought gasoline (as stove fuel) it cost 4.44 Turkish lira per liter, which translates to about $9.40 a gallon.  Naturally, this makes Turks very careful in their use of fuel, but it also makes Turkey much less sensitive to changes in the price of crude oil than is the US, since a very large part of the pump price for fuel is taxes.

4.  Correspondingly, towns and cities are dense and walkable, so many people don’t need a car, and far less land area is devoted to parking than in American cities like Boulder.  Torbalı, just south of the city of Izmir, is a good example.  The sign on entering says its population is 116,000 — a little more than Boulder’s.  But its land area is about 15 square miles, compared to Boulder’s 25 square miles.  That helps make it far more accessible by walking or biking than is Boulder.

Even mid-rise apartment blocks use solar energy extensively

5. The mix of land use is very rich, again contributing to walkability.  In towns and villages, no house is more than a few blocks from a small grocery store.  Apartment blocks, which are very common, usually have retail uses — a small market, a pharmacy, a hair salon — on the first floor.  Small workshops and offices are also scattered throughout, in a very fine-grained mix.

6.  Houses are built to last.  They’re mostly of masonry construction, with reinforced concrete frame and brick or stone walls, so the embodied energy is relatively high, but they will easily last hundreds of years.  I’ve seen plenty of buildings that have already lasted that long – far above the average building lifespan in Boulder.  Some new buildings are being constructed using concrete blocks with integrated foam insulation.  That improves the thermal efficiency of the walls, though it might not last as long as traditional masonry.

Solar hot-water heaters are common in villages, and often the only source of domestic hot water

7.  Solar hot water is very widespread, at least in the areas I’ve seen.  A guesthouse we stayed in explained that there was hot water available for showers because it had been sunny that day.  In other words, solar was the only heating source for their domestic hot water.  (Ironically, that guesthouse was built above the local gas station.)  Solar water heaters sit on the roofs of buildings from rickety village houses to fancy six-story condo buildings in the cities.

8. The train system is not as well developed as in some other parts of Asia or in Europe, but buses go almost everywhere.  Even villages of a hundred or so people are served by minibuses, akin to The Climb that serves Gold Hill from Boulder.  And big, comfortable buses go between the big cities frequently, with reasonable fares and amenities like on-board wi-fi.

9.  In the villages at least, the produce is almost exclusively local.  Inland, we’ve bought onions, potatoes, carrots, and apples that were grown locally last season; tomatoes and lettuce from local greenhouses; oranges, brought in from coastal areas; and eggs laid by the chickens that roam the villages.  But there are no kiwi fruits or mangoes imported from thousands of miles away.  (The geography helps here, in that higher, colder areas all have lower, warmer areas nearby.)

Locally grown vegetables are available at the markets, but so are household goods and even gasoline

10.  Villagers don’t have to drive to a market for produce that small local stores don’t carry; the market comes to them.  Each village has an outdoor market one day a week, so nearly everyone can walk to their shopping, avoiding the biggest energy cost in food transportation — the shopping trip to and from the grocery store by private car.  Some markets also feature vendors of clothes, tools, toys, even gasoline.  It’s like having a whole shopping center come to your neighborhood, one day a week.

Careful use of resources has not impoverished Turkey.  It’s not yet a “rich” country, but it’s certainly not a poor country.  It’s very much a developing country, and not in a euphemistic sense.  It’s a candidate for inclusion in the EU (and doing better economically than much of the EU).  Mercedes Benzes and Audis ply the roads — along with old Renaults, motorcycles, scooters, pedestrians, innumerable farm tractors, and occasional herds of goats.  Kids we meet ask to friend us on Facebook, and sitting in the central square of a backwater village one day, I counted eight wi-fi networks visible to my computer.

I don’t want to give the impression that Turkey is an environmental paradise.  Far from it: gullies are full of trash, manure flows from barnyards unchecked into streams, mine effluent flows unchecked into rivers.  One day we passed a huge coal-fired power plant whose noxious smoke blew along the road, choking us for miles.  The Christian Science Monitor recently wrote that in Turkey, “environmentalists are often greeted with official hostility and public indifference….  In one 2010 survey, only 1.3 percent of [Turkish] respondents viewed environment-related issues as a serious concern.”

Masonry buildings are the rule, and can withstand years of neglect

But that’s the point.  By and large, Turks don’t conserve resources because they want to be green.  They do it because, by design or by accident, the economy and tax system are set up to put a high price on scarce energy and other resources.  By contrast, the American system actually subsidizes and encourages the use of many of these resources, such as oil, water, and urban land area.  That we are profligate in our use of these resources is a completely natural, predictable outcome.

The expansive American geography, along with cultural precepts based on Manifest Destiny, have combined to produce an ethos of limitless potential, but also limitless resources.  Cultures and geographies such as those found in Turkey with a long history of stability, even stasis, rather than growth, tend to yield a more constrained viewpoint in terms of both human possibility and resource availability.  As we run into fundamental bounds on the earth’s ability to serve up oil, water, arable land, and so on, the key challenge of the 21st century will be to adapt a mindset of limitless potential despite limited resources.  I’m confident that Boulder can lead the way.

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