Green spaces lose out in the race for the Olympics

Without a doubt, most Greeks felt pride and joy at the decision to allow Athens to hold the 2004 Olympic Games. The enthusiasm that followed the announcement was to a great extent fired by the feeling of vindication following the loss of the Golden Olympiad of 1996, which Greeks justifiably felt should have gone to Athens, the site of the first modern Olympics 100 years previously. Besides ideological reasons, those in favor of holding the Olympics in Athens also put forward several other arguments – perhaps more pedestrian but also more substantial – to counter the skepticism that also greeted the International Olympic Committee’s decision. The benefits, they claimed, would include the promotion of Greece abroad, infrastructure projects and support for domestic production leading to a higher growth rate. At this crucial juncture, comments on the headway made in construction projects are not in order. Instead, this article will be restricted to one aspect, which, in the writer’s opinion, is of the utmost importance but unfortunately has not received the media attention it deserves – the landscaping of green spaces that should accompany every type of construction. There is no doubt that the Olympic Games projects (athletic and media villages and access roads, for example) will not only exacerbate urban blight within the city limits, but affect areas outside Attica. The planting of suitable vegetation is the only hope of improving the situation. The Olympic Games might be the last opportunity for making some kind of qualitative improvement to the monstrous urban conglomeration that is Greater Athens. The Public Works Ministry and the Athens 2004 Organization appear to have realized this, at least on paper, in the form of a «memorandum of understanding and cooperation» on Olympic greenery projects and improving the image of Athens and Attica in general, signed by Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki and then-Public Works Minister Costas Laliotis. But in order to plant the 1,500 hectares of urban and suburban areas and the 120 kilometers of roadside, as provided for in the memorandum, much has to be taken into consideration. Improvement of projects First of all, there have to be major changes in the way green spaces are designed. At the moment, these usually form an insignificant part of a whole project (usually not more than 10 percent of the total budget) and are usually assigned to major contractors for a pittance and are naturally carried out in a cursory fashion, simply for show. A glance at any of the major works already completed or in the process of construction is enough for anyone to realize the mistakes that have been made and the fact that green spaces are the «poor relation» of public works. Plants that are unsuitable in both quality and size, along with too much space between planted areas and insufficient irrigation result in a high failure rate. Consequently, the most important thing is to give these areas higher priority. That is, they should be separated from construction works proper and put out to tender on their own. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that green spaces should be included as a part of the whole project, along with the associated irrigation, pumping systems, pipe network and other related systems. Top priority The second condition is that work begins in time – to date, no studies have been made for individual projects, meaning that it is not possible even to make a simple estimate of the type of plants appropriate for the Attic landscape, so that work can begin on collecting and reproducing them. Although it is possible to speed up construction work to some extent, the same does not apply to the generation of plants. There are less than 1,000 days left before the Games begin – already too little time to grow plants that will sufficiently cover the area required. Every day that passes without the corresponding work being done means smaller plants in the end. Any further delays will result in last-minute solutions, such as the mass importation of plants from abroad, which will lower the quality of the final result, in that there will be a limited choice of species at the expense of Greece’s own plant industry. Those responsible for making decisions have long been aware of these problems. Last July, there was a special conference on the subject at the Athens Agricultural University, with the participation of the Public Works Ministry and Athens 2004, the Geotechnical Chamber of Greece, the Athens Town Planning Organization, representatives of universities and those involved in producing plants and landscaping. In the intervening four months, nothing has been done. It appears that aside from the indifference shown over the past decades on the part of those responsible for green spaces, there is a complete absence of common sense or any conception of how critical the situation is. So, the danger remains, and is constantly growing, that green spaces will be pushed aside once more and Athens will preserve its international reputation as a concrete jungle. We will have missed our last opportunity to improve the country’s image and the quality of life in an area that is home to one third of the country’s population. – Andreas Karamanos is the rector of Athens Agricultural University.