ESKİŞEHİR - ’New economic models will be necessary for cities such as ours,’ says Yılmaz Büyükerşen, who completes his second term as mayor of Eskişehir this March.
The city of Eskişehir has been transformed in the past 10 years and much of the transformation was due to the energy and vision of one man, Professor Yılmaz Büyükerşen, who has been mayor of the city since 1999.
He was previously rector of Anadolu University where he established a reputation as a man who could get things done. In his hands, the Yunusemre Campus grew into one of Turkey’s most attractive university campuses, Turkey's Open University was established and Eskişehir became the foremost center in the country for the education of the deaf and disabled.
Büyükerşen was twice re-elected as university rector, but his third term was annulled following a ruling by the Higher Education Board that set a maximum limit of two terms. Six years later, after Büyükerşen had established the Turkish Education Volunteers Foundation and took a lead role in the foundation of the Kanal D TV channel, Bulent Ecevit persuaded him to run for mayor of the city. "You have established a model university, now I want you to establish a model city," Ecevit told him.
According to Büyükerşen, at the time, Eskişehir Metropolitan Municipality had resigned itself to a gradual decline into insignificance. In his words, "It was about to turn into a small town and the people of Eskişehir accepted this as their destiny."
Today, residents of the city and regular visitors do not have to look far to see what has changed. There is a brand new tramway system with two lines and trams that run every 10 minutes throughout the day. The Porsuk River, the city's lifeline, formerly dirty and neglected, has received a radical makeover, with newly built riverbanks, bridges and sidewalks, adorned with colorful antique-style lampposts and statues celebrating humanity. New systems that regulate the flow of the river have been built upstream and a new dam and reservoir downstream.
Two large parks were established on the city's outskirts, both with artificial lakes, one of them also has sandy beaches and deckchairs for hire. A row of meticulously reconstructed Ottoman houses, pink, yellow and sky-blue, occupies a prominent ridge where the old city meets the new. There are also housing museums and art galleries. An impressive new art and culture center has been built with theaters and an opera house.
With regard to how the municipal schemes were financed, Büyükerşen said, "I do not know why you think our development projects were costly. It is true that some of them are imposing but they were not as expensive as they look. We implemented these projects with our own resources, despite the fact that Eskişehir had the smallest budget and lowest income among all the greater municipalities of Turkey."
The key was the efficient use of limited funds and utilization of the municipality's own industrial companies, but there have been loans from European banks for the larger schemes, including the construction of the tramway and the redevelopment of the river system.
Stories from the past
Two stories from earlier decades may provide a clue as to how the impressive changes to the city's environment have been so swiftly and economically achieved. The first is about the origin of Eskişehir's reputation for championing the education of the deaf and disabled. In the late 1970s, the only facilities that existed were a few schools run by the Education Ministry and were described by Büyükerşen as primitive. He was then vice-president of the Eskişehir Academy of Economics and Commercial Sciences, the forerunner of Anadolu University. His young daughter had been deprived of hearing after a bout of measles and he had decided that there was nothing for it but to migrate to Europe in search of an appropriate school. His friends suggested that they could start one of their own. Technical know-how was sought from abroad and a small flat was converted into a school for half a dozen children, financed by the voluntary contribution of textbook royalties from fellow academics.
Soon a special education department was opened in the university education faculty, leading to the establishment of the Integrated School for the Disabled. Since that time, countless families have taken up residence in the city to make use of its unique amenities for deaf and disabled children. The second story relates to the Open University in Turkey. The idea stemmed from a series of newspaper articles on a "University Without Walls" written by Büyükerşen at a time when the Ecevit government of the mid-1970s was planning the expansion of university education. Ecevit was enthusiastic, but the Board of Universities rejected the scheme as "foolish." It was only when Büyükerşen presented the same idea to the Kenan Evren regime in 1982 that the necessary legislation was enacted. Today, the Open University Faculty at Anadolu University has over 800,000 students and 70 liaison centers in Turkey and abroad.
Büyükerşen is a well-known figure in center-left politics. At various times in his career, leaders of centrist parties have sought to involve Büyükerşen in national politics. The most insistent calls have came from Ecevit, who twice tried to persuade him to become a parliamentary deputy within the Democratic Society Party, or DSP, offering him the post of education minister in the coalition government of the mid-1990s and the succession to the DSP leadership when he himself was preparing to step down. "When the DSP leadership was offered to me on a plate, I told the my first responsibility is to the people of Eskişehir. I had a duty to the voters who elected me," he said. "By that time, the city council was in the hands of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and if I had resigned, I would have been replaced by an AKP appointee. The voters would have said they elected me as mayor and I gave it away. Ecevit said to me that he knew of my love for Eskişehir, but said it was only one city out of 81. I said I had not completed the model that he himself had asked me to establish. The point is not what you can achieve in a single city but that those achievements can be replicated elsewhere."
Future belongs to the young
He also reiterated his conviction that the future of the country depended on the involvement and commitment of youth. "I am too old to involve myself in national politics. Young people are what is needed." Eskişehir, he said, should be "the most important and developed education center for the disabled, not only in Turkey but in the whole region: a city where international congresses are held every month and a meeting point where world-renowned scientists in fields such as distance education, educational technology, civil aviation, communications, ceramics and medicinal plants can come together."
"New economic models will be necessary for cities such as ours," he said. "We will no longer be able to depend on manufacturing." The most recent scheme is for the development of health tourism. Büyükerşen said all this can only be achieved with the participation of private enterprise, but the crucial first step has been made. The large showcase schemes have been matched by many other initiatives on a smaller scale. Some of these were directly targeted at the poor and underprivileged, including the setting up of the People's Bakery, or Halk Fırın, that produces a loaf of bread both cheaper and more nutritious than the commercial bakeries. Büyükerşen has even come up with what he hopes will be a solution to the problem of headscarves at universities. On a holiday trip to Egypt, he came across types of turbans that are permitted by present regulations in Turkey.
He brought a selection back to Eskişehir where some of them now feature on photos on student ID cards. "The head garment issue has been exploited by politicians," he said. "But the whole society pays the bill. It is unthinkable that young women should miss an opportunity of a good education because of the manipulation of the issue by politicians."