In light of the deepest austerity measures in Greece’s post-war history, architects can unite communities with a spirit of entrepreneurship, argues Dimitris Karampatakis
Athens is a city with no clear urban plan, or more accurately with too many plans that were never implemented. Despite its charming corners and hidden gems, this chaotic approach to urbanism fails to protect what should be preserved and doesn’t provide what’s needed. Green space is scarce. Archaeological sites, neo-classical buildings, even the Kifissos River that used to flow through the city − all have been swamped by hasty construction, the result of the building frenzy in the 1960s and ’70s when Athens made room for migration from the countryside. Then, in the ’80s and ’90s, expansion spread to the suburbs, leaving the city centre behind.
‘The rug has been pulled from under our nation’s feet and all we can do at first is to try to regain balance and not to fall.’
Now, of course, the euro crisis has put a stop to the easy credit which had fuelled much of the over-development. Greek banks have tightened their belts and very few people can afford mortgages anyway. On walking through the city centre the effects of the decline become evident. Many properties stand empty. The entrances of apartment buildings are plastered with yellow ‘For Rent’ stickers − further evidence of the outward migration of residents as well as businesses. They leave behind an impending sense of abandonment. In the last couple of years, construction activity in Greece has dramatically dropped (some sources refer to a 45 per cent fall). These are challenging times for Greece (and for Europe).
The rug has been pulled from under our nation’s feet and all we can do at first is to try to regain balance and not to fall. But this is not going to be easy, as becomes clear when you talk to people in the construction business. The unavoidable reality of the Greek economy makes it hard to imagine urban regeneration initiatives working their way to the top of the government’s priority list any time soon. Funding for such projects is not really viable. But already, local entrepreneurs have started to invest in some of the most dilapidated areas and start-up groups have launched local regeneration projects, such as community gardens.
For instance, near the foot of Lycabettus Hill, an unused corner site has been commandeered by local residents and transformed into a lively public park; children run about and parents sit with coffee among well-tended beds of young plants and trees. The vibe is upbeat and there is a strong sense of community, both within the park and in the surrounding cafés and shops that benefit from the new lease of life.
But Athens’s problems are wide-ranging; its individualistic attitude deeply engrained into generations of society. For independent collectives working together on local issues to be effective requires a more strategic approach. Even the most energetic residents and businesses are going to need support − practical and financial − if their efforts are to make a difference on a larger scale. When I look at the empty and abandoned buildings, as a young architect working in the city, I can’t help but see the potential in them. Restrictions and austerity should always be met with creativity. By offering interested groups of residents and businesses financial incentives such as tax breaks, a partnership could be established whereby municipal authorities provide a thoroughly considered, transparent framework for regeneration and communities manage their projects themselves.
A fresh relationship like this might help to close the deepening rift between the government and the people, restoring trust and a sense of unity among empowered communities. It is far-fetched to say this crisis is a blessing in disguise but the economic climate might be crucial in reviving the city centre of Athens, as restrictions on personal wealth compel communities to behave more collaboratively.