CULTURE

Athens after the Olympic Games: Where to from here?

What to do with Athens has been the favorite theme of environment ministers, mayors, town planners and environmental groups for the past couple of decades; ambitious proposals, ranging from the town plan put forward by the late Antonis Tritsis, a former environment minister and Athens mayor, to the dozens of designs submitted in view of last year’s Olympics have provided a broad pool of ideas for policy-makers. The newly renovated Koumoundourou Square, a part of central Athens which benefited from plans to unify the city’s archaeological sites, was recently the scene of an open-air discussion on the theme, arranged to mark the publication of the book «City of the Games» by journalist Tasos Telloglou. «When we finished the manuscript last May, we imagined that during and after the Games there would be the opportunity for a dialogue on what would happen in the city given the changes made for the Olympics. That dialogue is happening spasmodically, perhaps because the people of Athens were not included in the organization of the Games. What is important is how we, the people who live and work here, have adapted to those changes, rather than what should have happened and didn’t,» he said before introducing his guest panelists, Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis, former head of the Unification of Archaeological Sites organization Yiannis Kalantidis, National Technical University Professor Antonis Stathopoulos and architect-town planner Rania Kloutsinioti. The consensus was that central planning and public participation were vital to any viable future for the Greek capital, including an overhaul of the town plan to provide more open spaces and better coordinated transport. Proposals put forward were linked to the improvement of space and the way people move within it – more green areas linked together, better transport and traffic flow and a cleaner environment, with general agreement as to the need for a unified approach rather than the piecemeal solutions usually carried out at the last minute. Also needed was a change in mentality toward a more collective consciousness on the part of the notoriously individualistic Athenians, whose sense of responsibility and pride is usually confined to their own four walls. Single organization Bakoyannis called for «radical decisions» regarding land use classifications. «It is inconceivable that after so many years, ministerial decrees specifying land use have only been issued for four areas of Athens,» she said. «We cannot ignore the need for a change in the city’s administrative structure,» said Bakoyannis, after detailing municipal investments of over 112,600 euros. «We need an independent, metropolitan administrative organization for our four or five major urban centers. Our goal should be strategic planning and coordination in major sectors, such as development, town planning, waste management, transport and security,» she said. The proper organization of open spaces in the city, she said could only be achieved in concert with the government. «The future of Athens is directly linked with the coordination of public transport and traffic – for example, we cannot exclude densely populated areas, such as Pangrati, Kypseli and Exarchia, from the grid.» she said. Stathopoulos felt that much had been achieved, and that the city was a far different place than it was in 1990, but the question remained as to whether a visitor felt at home. «I think not. Athens is damaged by its traffic; the way streets were designed is aggressive, the main highways go right into the city center,» he said. Stathopoulos said the state had two obligations – to give people a civilized public transport system, and this he felt had been achieved to a great extent. The second was to convince people that it is «unacceptable to take their cars wherever they like, whenever they like.» Kalantidis felt that part of the problem is that public spaces were not designed for those who use them, but rather for the designers themselves. «In most cases, the users do not take part. This is inconceivable. The user must be present, it is important that they are part of the process,» said Kalantidis. According to Kloutsinioti, the problem with Athens is that «collective and private interests have never been aligned. «It is a mistake to consider big projects as being those with big budgets. Priority should be given to daily life in the city and the way people move around in it,» she said, using as an example the refurbishment of the city’s sidewalks with special tiles to guide the blind. «Everyone knows that any blind person who ventures out on Athens’s sidewalks will sooner or later bump into a motorcycle or car parked on the kerb,» she said. Architect Dimitris Diamantopoulos, a member of the architectural team that designed the pedestrian walkway of Dionysiou Areopagitou under the Acropolis, spoke from the audience to suggest the establishment of a central institute to establish universal specifications for infrastructure works. Too many cooks Telloglou’s book looks at the changes made over the seven years prior to the Games, the city’s bid for the Games and the political background to it, then moves on to the political, administrative and commercial arguments as to the way the city should be, based on hundreds of public documents, studies and proposals, and dozens of interviews with the major players. The last chapter details the problems Sydney faced after 2000 and the way it resolved some of them, comparing them with the situation in Athens before and after the Games. He concluded that the private funding of public works in Greece did not work because of the lack of evaluation mechanisms and a trend toward risk avoidance by most entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the saying «too many cooks spoil the broth» was extremely apt in describing the way public works were planned in Athens, and the last thing many bureaucrats and contractors wanted was a change to the system. An important element in Athens, according to Telloglou, is the absence of a civil society, which in Barcelona and Sydney ensured the participation of the people in the way their cities evolved after the Games. That lack of public participation was evident in the reactions of the people attending the event in Koumoundourou Square, where local residents took the opportunity to air their grievances against the authorities over changes in the use of space in their neighborhoods. After the meeting, Telloglou told Kathimerini English Edition that these complaints were a perfect example of the fact that the people of Athens had felt left out of the whole process of preparing for the Games and the way its facilities were to be used. «I Poli ton Agonon» («City of the Games»), Hestia, Athens, 2005