Just another Environment Day

Every year when World Environment Day comes around, the authorities seem to have no shortage of great plans – for more parks, more open spaces, cleaner streets – while opposition parties and environmental groups hold demonstrations and generally bewail the lack of affirmative action. This year was no exception. Last Monday, commuters were handed leaflets from the Environment and Public Works Ministry reminding them that they too, could do something every day for their environment. Admitting that «in Greece, we have been late in realizing that people are part of the environment,» Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias nevertheless said the government was doing what it could to make up for the omissions of the previous 20 years. No doubt there are many in positions of power working toward these goals, but it is often the experts behind the scenes who are better informed and are therefore in a position to influence not only public opinion but decision-making centers. This particularly applies to the fast-diminishing open and green spaces in the country’s towns and cities. At an event to mark World Environment Day this week, the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage pointed out that the problem is not restricted to the center of Athens. «Many areas on the fringes of the capital have fewer open and green spaces than even the densely built-up center of Athens,» it said in an announcement, indicating that the authorities have not learnt from past mistakes. Town planner Yiannis Michail heads a committee set up by the Hellenic Society to monitor the city’s open and green spaces. He spoke with Kathimerini English Edition this week following the society’s events to mark World Environment Day on June 5. «All voices raised in protest (at the diminishing open spaces) are all to the good, but to be effective these need to be both consistent and persistent. We are organized, we have people, volunteers, who give of their time, our letters to the authorities presenting our arguments are based on facts,» said Michail, noting that protests are no good if they are not specific. «We have experts in the law, the environment and town planning. There are also a number of lay persons among our volunteers but we also have people who can back up our arguments with facts,» he said. «We had a meeting recently on the large-scale open areas remaining in Athens and are monitoring them to see what happens, informing the public and putting pressure on the authorities. Only today, in fact, we had a response from the chairman of the National Garden Committee, Yiannis Costopoulos, informing us of a number of measures to be taken to protect the environment in the garden,» he added. Michail said pressure from the committee had also resulted in some positive action regarding the Syngrou Estate in northern Athens. «We had written lots of letters to the local municipalities who have responsibility for the estate. There is a new committee in place there now which has been finding correct solutions to the estate’s problems. On Philopappou Hill, we have worked together with local residents’ groups to stop the erection of railings around the hill.» Heat islands, canyons Over 60 percent of Greece’s population live in urban areas, most of which have grown haphazardly with no planning, let alone provisions for open, green spaces. Athens is now famous for having less green space than any other European country, with just 2 square meters per inhabitant, well below the World Health Organization recommended minimum of 9 sq.m. per inhabitant. The urban canyon effect (when heat is trapped in narrow streets between buildings) and the heat island effect (when natural land cover is replaced with pavement, buildings, and other infrastructure, raising temperatures) are familiar phenomena to everyone living in Greek cities and towns. The Coordinating Committee of Associations and Movements in Athens to Protect Open Spaces and the Quality of Life, which has been active for a decade, also issued a statement Monday. «The issue is not to protect whatever open spaces are left but to take back those public spaces that have been taken away from us. Every time an open space is lost, the viability of Athens is reduced,» coordinator Nana Vafeidi said at a press conference. «Since its inception,» said Michail, «the Greek state has taken possession of large tracts of land, and given much of it away to private and local interests. Now there is no more land available unless areas are expropriated and existing structures are demolished, as previous mayor Dora Bakoyannis did in Neos Cosmos, where an entire block was demolished and converted into an open public space. Mayoral candidate Nikitas Kaklamanis said he wants to do the same thing in other districts, but the large parks we already have are not being cared for,» said Michail. «The new mayor should make it his business to see that existing spaces are looked after. Part of the proposed metropolitan park site at Goudi, for example, where the Olympic badminton center was located, is now being given to business interests. If we do that everywhere else, there will be little left.»

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