As we wait for Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis to reveal the details of his plan to revamp the city center, including the creation of an extensive pedestrian network, the recent overhaul of Omonia Square appears to be but a small taste of what’s to come – an appetizer, let’s say.
The pandemic seems to have had an accelerator effect on a number of plans. They may not have been conceived by Bakoyannis, but it is the new Athens mayor who has seen an opportunity in the aftermath of this unprecedented public health and social crisis to move ahead with interventions to liberate more public space to the benefit of pedestrians, wheelchair users and cyclists at the expense of motorists.
How does the coronavirus relate to all this? People living in the center of Athens during the lockdown had the opportunity to see a very different city to what they were accustomed to and the mayor is now eager to capitalize on this recent collective experience, which is already giving rise to creative ideas and proposals. Bakoyannis and his team are obviously thinking that the time is ripe for such an initiative, and they’re not wrong. We all saw how much more beneficial to the human condition is a life with less noise and pollution caused by rampant car use.
There is, however, a fine line here: The city center cannot be transformed into a completely car-free zone. If a message needs to be sent, it ought to be based on two basic and parallel pillars: discouraging non-residents from bringing their cars into the city center by making them pay for the privilege, but also making it easy for residents to park their cars. The number of people living in the center needs to be bolstered with a series of incentives as they are the only bulwark against its transformation into a tourism and recreation park.
There is another danger as well: Extensive pedestrianizations look great on the drawing board, but apart from the challenge of maintaining them, there is also the matter of controlling how they are used – another thing the lockdown showed us was how public space doubles when the tables and chairs go. Keeping cafes, restaurants and bars closed is obviously not the solution, but the authorities need to resist the pressure they will inevitably come under to give up public space to business.
In terms of city life, lockdown Athens ought to serve as a constant reminder of the true potential of a city that respects the proper scale of things.