Greece: Athens forced to reinvent itself
12. März 2010
The urban renewal project in the Greek capital has been hit by new government measures designed to remedy the disastrous state of the nation's finances. Without funding, city planners must explore other options, starting with the fight against cars and chaotic development.
Following his election victory last October, one of the first initiatives undertaken by Greek Prime Minister Georges Papandréou was to invite Catalan architect Josep Acebillo to Athens. It was a gesture that affirmed the new socialist government's desire to put an end to a disastrous model of development that re-emerged after a brief period of hope inspired by the 2004 Olympic Games, and to free the capital from a stranglehold of speculation, corruption in the issuing of bar and restaurant licences and the inevitable invasion of cars. Five months later, in the wake of a crippling fiscal adjustment demanded by European leaders, every cent of the original budget to improve the quality of the environment in Athens has been clawed back to ensure that Greece will be able to service its national debt.
An enormous mass of white concrete set among scorched mountains, Athens has fewer parks than any other major European city. Even before the crisis, the city's planners faced challenges posed by forest fires that had ravaged its suburbs and the dilapidation of its urban centre. The city is now paying for years of insufficient public spending and the financial blight that has struck the real estate sector. "We will have to make do with zero-budget projects: it's like trying to fight chronic disease with acupuncture," complains Andreas Kourkoulas, architect of the Benaki Museum.
A city taken over by cars
Athens has much in common with other cities on the periphery of Europe, which became urbanised too quickly forty or fifty years ago. Overcoming the errors of the past will be no easy task but paradoxically, for Yanis Pyrgiotis of the city's urban planning department, the current situation may offer an opportunity to take advantage of a certain civic spirit that briefly prevailed before the 2004 Games.
But the main priority is "war on cars," according to Kourkoulas. One of the main consequences of the boom years and credit-fuelled consumer spending has been that cars have taken over Athens. In the OECD, Greece is the country where there has been the steepest increase in car ownership over the last 15 years. Between 1993 and 2006, the number of cars per 1,000 residents has risen by 118 percent, as opposed to 40 percent in Spain and 24 percent in Germany. Nowadays, you hardly ever see bicycles in downtown Athens and the city's neighbourhoods have been transformed into car parks.
The era of austerity has nonetheless had some positive effects, explains Pyrgiotis. "We have stopped building roads and tunnels that would have simply further expanded the city into the countryside." The architects are hoping that when boundaries have been set to contain development that has spread like an oil slick, more middle-class Greeks will move back to the city centre, which is currently characterised by a growing concentration of low-income migrants.
But "for that, we need to fight against the degradation of public space in the downtown area," Pyrgiotis explains. The residents of a metropolitan area which is home to almost five million people – close to half of the Greek population – have to make do with just 2.5 m2 of green space per inhabitant: a quarter of the surface area enjoyed by the residents of cities in Central and Northern Europe.
"It's the culture that has to change"
The solution in the lean times that Greece is currently experiencing is "to transform streets into linear parks which only allow access to pedestrians, and to provide public spaces where music can be performed,” suggests Kourkoulas. "But that will be impossible if we don't ban parked cars from city centre streets and pavements," he adds. In the mountains around the capital, a ban has been imposed on new buildings outside the current limits, which should put an end to fires rumoured to have been deliberately set by developers.
"You will see the luxury high-rise developments built after the 2007 fires," points out Pyrgiotis. One thing is certain. "In Greece voting a new law does not necessarily result in any real change – it's the culture that has to change," insists Yiannis Panaretos, Deputy Minister of Education. But the one advantage of living in a city which has run out of funds is that the developers have no money either.