Greece’s first «eco» bus stop, about to be installed on Petrou Ralli Avenue, is another in a series of environmental projects that has made a major improvement to what used to be one of Greece’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. The local council, led by Mayor Giorgos Ioakeimidis and Deputy Mayor Andreas Legakis, now in its third successive term, has thrown its weight behind the efforts of municipal horticulturalist Anna Kakoulaki-Katsarou, who over the past 20 years has introduced organic methods that have transformed Rendi’s public spaces, now lush with healthy plants grown without any chemicals or pesticides. «When I came here and saw the factories, tanneries, and the drain that was the Kifissos River, I knew I had to change it. I began to read and learn about organic gardening techniques and now I have managed to achieve complete equilibrium – we have all the plant pests, but the beneficial ones eradicate those that aren’t,» Kakoulaki-Katsarou told Kathimerini English Edition this week. A vital, energetic person, Kakoulaki-Katsarou does not sit behind her desk in City Hall handing out orders but works side by side with the six gardeners on the staff, digging, planting, mulching and choosing new planting arrangements for the total 20 hectares of parks and gardens. During a tour of Rendi, she proudly pointed out squares and smaller areas all planted with mostly Mediterranean and native plants under pre-existing trees. «I don’t cut down any trees, even those that are not in the best of health. I leave them to let them live out their natural cycle,» she said, indicating the garden outside the old tannery which has been converted into a municipal cafe and cinema. Also left in natural profusion are what are usually regarded as weeds, such as camomile and nettle, although they are kept under control by grouping them with introduced plants. Improving the quality of life in an area just a stone’s throw from the highway construction over the Kifissos riverbed has included visits to local schools to educate children about Greece’s native flora, and where Kakoulaki-Katsarou has also set up small gardens. Empty public spaces amid housing blocks are landscaped and planted to give the inhabitants a pleasant view from their windows. Local residents have become more aware of their surroundings and appear to be conscious of how special it is. At the old tannery, groups of young people sat drinking coffee in the courtyard protected from the adjacent road by trees, shrubs and flowers. Children ran about the open central square once haunted by drug addicts. The square has been partly cleared to improve visibility and add perspective. Narrow streets between low-rise and low-budget housing have been turned into pedestrian precincts, shaded by palm trees chosen for the way the bark on their trunks complements the pattern of the stone walls of the old houses. «In the beginning, many of the new plants were stolen but now we don’t lose a single one,» said Kakoulaki-Katsarou. Her drive to eradicate pests using natural predators began in 1992 with plants obtained from the Benaki Phytopathological Institute that carried the beneficial insect Cales Noacki to fight a disease affecting the citrus trees (Aleurothrixus floccosus). The campaign has led her on after-hours visits to surrounding municipalities, accompanied by volunteers with branches of trees bearing beneficial pests in order to broaden the range of their effectiveness. «It would be easy to fill a tanker truck with pesticide or weed-killer and go around spraying for fast results. But we deal with these problems purely by mechanical means – using beneficial pests such as ladybirds and cutting and digging up weeds that are mulched to go back into the soil. People have got used to this idea now, and every spring, we get phone calls from local residents wondering when we are going to put out the little bags of insects on the trees.» Gypsies are also called in to take away pruned cuttings and cleared vegetation to feed to their goats. «None of our soil has any chemicals in it. We try to imitate nature. It’s another philosophy of life. It is more exhausting and time-consuming but it gives you back much, much more.» Among the many future plans she has for the district include a botanical garden, and the establishment of a small eco-village by refurbishing low-budget housing using energy-saving technology on the corner of Petrou Ralli and Aghias Annis. This is part of a comprehensive program worked out in collaboration with Professor Michalis Vrahopoulos of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Halkida Technical College to improve urban living conditions, including the development of greenroof architecture, the eco-bus stop shelters and «active ecological environments» as in the Aghias Annis eco-village plan. Rendi’s municipal day nursery has a greenroof installed by GreenHellas, a company that has adapted a system widespread in northern European countries as a means of slowing down the rate of rainfall runoff, to see how the system could be adapted to local conditions. Other projects include the 3-hectare Aghias Annis Park behind the Makro wholesale store, where large flocks of birds have settled. These and other environmental initiatives could serve as an example for many of the more upmarket suburbs, where concern for the environment often appears to stop at the front gates of luxury villas and apartment houses.