Thessaloniki mulls its role in the future

After many years – decades, in fact – of announcements, broken promises and procrastination by successive governments as well as endless litigation among rival construction companies, large projects for Thessaloniki are entering the implementation phase. The projects include a metro rail line, an extension to the airport, a redesignation of port facilities, an underwater road artery and a research and innovation park. Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias says the improved infrastructure «will change the face of Thessaloniki and put northern Greece into an orbit of fast growth.» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s recent visits to the sites of the metro line and the airport works are seen as a clear confirmation of the government’s desire to see progress in the implementation of the projects. «The citizens of this city have heard a lot of words for many years. We have committed ourselves to going from words to deeds,» he said. Questions Nevertheless, questions do arise: The projects now starting with a delay of about 20 years were envisaged within the framework of the 1985 city development plan. Will they be adequate for a city with a now much larger population and a considerably different housing pattern from today in 30 or 40 years’ time, or are they just palliatives for the medium term? Objections are already being raised regarding the necessity of the underwater road artery, the location of the airport, and the adequacy of the metro line and other smaller projects that are to make the larger ones more functional. Precious time has been lost and problems have become pressing. Thessaloniki is now one of the most atmospherically polluted cities in the European Union; traffic congestion is increasing and quality of life declining. Authorities seem to be responding to such concerns, promoting a updating of the city development and zoning plan, with a view to laying the basis for Thessaloniki to become a metropolis for the southern Balkans and bolstering its international character. «The projects under way may be a help to development but do not provide a lever for economic growth as such, the key to which is innovation,» says professor of architecture and town planning Alexandros Lagopoulos. A new, revised zoning plan must first and foremost provide a clear vision for the city on which the various development scenaria may be based, he argues. What kind of city? «What kind of a city do we want the Thessaloniki of the future to be: A European metropolis, a metropolis of the Balkans or just a large provincial urban center in northern Greece?» he asks. «Its evolution into a Balkan metropolis presupposes extensive changes at the economic and cultural levels, while the scenario of the European metropolis requires a huge leap in innovation. Legislation now in the works is an important step but it must be implemented in the immediate future to yield results, with a parallel restructuring of the economy.» Realizing an ambitious plan would require the development of many more areas, such as the city’s port, in order to attract foreign companies. «If the changes required do not make progress immediately, then the scenario most likely to be realized is that of Thessaloniki remaining a regional city of northern Greece. Evidently, however, neither the political nor the ideological targets for the city are tuned to such an ambitious upgrading of its role,» he says.