Keep out: Athens’s park policy fences out the public, uproots hedges and fells trees

For the past few months, there has been a campaign to fence in the few open green spaces left in Athens, supposedly to improve their appearance or for security reasons. In practice, the move has restricted the public’s access to these spaces and does not do much to solve the real problems. First it was Philopappou Hill, opposite the Acropolis, now it is the turn of the Pedion tou Areos park at the bottom of Alexandras Avenue, where instead of the former 18 there are now only four gates into the park. Several healthy trees have been cut down. Now concrete and iron railings stand where shrubbery once formed a natural barrier, although permission was not sought from the forestry service. The next step is to open up two roads within the park, although no one knows how this will contribute to the supposed «improvement.» So far, the Athens-Piraeus prefecture has ruled out the entry of vehicles or motorbikes. For years, the residents of the surrounding districts of Kypseli, Gyzi and Exarchia had been asking the State to do something to protect what was perhaps the only green space left in the area, yet they never imagined just how the authorities would choose to interpret their desire for improvements. The park was included in the Olympic Refurbishment Program drawn up by the Environment and Public Works Ministry in view of the 2004 Games with the approval of the Athens-Piraeus prefecture. However, the «refurbishment» has gone sour. «Instead of providing permanent staff who could ensure the proper maintenance and guarding of the park, it was decided to erect iron railings around the park and to close 10 of the 14 gates. Now someone has to walk up to 700 meters to enter the park. While any kind of vehicle should be banned from entering the park, it was decided to open up two roads, whose purpose has not been made clear. The first will reach from the statue of Athena on Alexandras Avenue to the Army Geographical Service, and the second will link the statue of King Constantine with May Day Square near the courts on Evelpidon Street,» said Thodoris Kokkinakis, member of the citizens’ committee to save Pedion tou Areos. Various scenarios have been forwarded regarding the future use of the park for the Olympic Games, ranging from a parking lot for luxury cars to an open-air restaurant. Paris Venderis, prefectural councilor for the Athens-Piraeus prefecture, denied this strongly. «Pedion tou Areos is to retain its original character as a place of recreation, for walking and for cultural activities,» he said. «However, one realizes that compared to the benefits to be gained for people after refurbishment is completed, the problem of local residents’ access is a secondary consideration.» Since the prefectural authorities consider residents’ access an issue of minor importance, naturally the work is going ahead, including the uprooting of nearly all the surrounding hedges without a permit from the forestry service. The felling of trees to make way for the two roads has been postponed for the time being pending a decision by the same service. In large cities in Europe, only theme parks such as zoos or open-air museums are fenced in. Parks in large cities were usually once part of royal estates later opened to the public, as was Athens’s National Gardens. However, parks originally designed as public recreation areas were never enclosed, precisely to ensure free access to the public. But after all, this is Greece we are talking about.

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