Landscaping apparently no priority at most of Athens’s Olympic venues

The race to finish the Olympic venues in time for the Games is apparently being won. International Olympic Committee officials have ended their final inspection tour with words of praise for the near-completion of the construction projects. But not much was said about what surrounds the venues, which – apart from some exceptions such as the Equestrian Center – looks more like a lunar landscape than the parkland originally promised. Obviously, the budget cuts and tight deadlines mean that «luxuries» like greenery have to be reduced to a bare minimum. The time remaining until the Games – the hottest part of the year – is not enough for plants to take root in an inhospitable environment. Good, fertile soil, and shrubs large enough to make a difference, cost money. With the Games well over budget, major landscaping and planting schemes appear to have gone by the board. Incredible as it may seem, the part of the seaboard closest to the center of a major Mediterranean capital has been a virtual wasteland for decades, and the Olympics have been the perfect opportunity to truly transform the area into an accessible seaside reserve and recreational haven for Athenians starved of fresh air and open spaces. Along the Faliron coastline, the site of three major venues (the Peace and Friendship Stadium, where the volleyball events are to be held, the Beach Volleyball Stadium and the Faliron Sport Complex for tae kwon do and handball) was originally supposed to be part of a coastal parkland and walkway network. At the moment, work is in progress around the Faliron Sport Complex on access roads and parking lots. An esplanade has been constructed, a long wide bridge stretching to the seaside over Poseidonos Avenue from what used to be the Athens racetrack, now bulldozed and in the process of becoming an enormous parking lot for Olympic visitors. Along the esplanade, small trees and shrubs have been planted and several rows of pines dot its lower end where it meets the sea. This is designed to be a promenade area, the main pedestrian access from the city to the seaside and yachting marina. A large expanse of bare soil, rocks and concrete separates it from the beach volleyball center, which is not on an actual beach, but is an open stadium built a few dozen meters back from the shoreline, which here consists of a wide expanse of concrete right to the water’s edge. A few hundred more meters of soil and rock along the coastline lead to the multiple roundabouts of the new major traffic intersection between the coastal roads and Kifissou Avenue, which when completed will be one of the biggest of its kind in Europe, lying right next to the Peace and Friendship Stadium. Plants as ‘decor’ Michalis Stogiannos, a horticulturalist and president of the landscape contractors’ union, said the original plan for this entire Faliron waterfront included a series of parkland areas within a broader project forming a united whole. «Now, plants are being used simply to provide ‘decor’ for the Olympic venues themselves and then only at some of them. Greenery is only a detail, not a priority. There has been no attempt to link the venues along the bay,» he told Kathimerini English Edition. He said his union had protested to the Environment and Public Works Ministry, which he said is «100 percent responsible» for the situation, since it assigned the landscaping and planting to the building contractor, meaning that when funds ran short, the planting budget was naturally the first to be cut. «If the landscaping and planting had gone to separate contractors, there would also have been separate budgets and more pressure to get the planting done,» he said. Now the trees and shrubs are being planted without any infrastructure or provisions for future maintenance. Already the stand of pines planted at the water’s edge of the esplanade look half-dried out from lack of water. One can only imagine what will happen after the Games. According to Stogiannos, the water is to come – at a price – from the main Athens Water and Sewerage Company (EYDAP), although a study had been submitted to the ministry regarding the use of recycled water. «Public works budgets put aside only 0.7 percent for greenery, compared to the average in the European Union of five to 10 percent,» said Stogiannis. «Contractors sometimes have to cut down trees to build something, but they ‘owe’ us these trees, particularly in Athens, where there are only 2.3 square meters of greenery per resident, when the acceptable minimum is 8 square meters and the area considered optimum 12 square meters. Trees are our heritage. They need to be replaced.» All is not lost – yet – according to the vice president of the association of landscape contractors, Costas Matsoukas, who has been involved in the preliminary design for the area between the Beach Volleyball Stadium and the Peace and Friendship Stadium, which is supposed to include an avian park. «If we get the approval – and the funds – within the next two weeks (8 million euros have been budgeted for landscaping and planting this area), we will still be able to get it ready by the Olympics,» he told Kathimerini English Edition yesterday. «We believe the Attica coastline should be restored to the way it was in the past, so that ordinary people can have access to the seaside,» he said. As for the future of any green spaces established, Matsoukas said this would depend on the will of the politicians and the people.

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