How to win back Athens: Edge out private vehicles, put people into policy
All the above poses the crucial question of what we all – citizens, organizations, journalists, architects, planners and others – can do to reverse the degradation of our living space. What can be done to win back Athens, and with it, the joy and pride befitting citizens blessed with such a city? 1. Role of the mass media. Were the mass media to engage in constant and coordinated condemnation of the lack of public spaces in the city, this would both awaken people to the fact that what they endure daily does not necessarily have to be. It would compel the authorities to deal with the issue as a result of growing societal pressure. Recent reactions to the renovation of Omonia Square confirm the truth of this. 2. Building regulations for public spaces. The design of public spaces must be subject to basic rules that will ensure their basic functioning and aesthetics. This is all the more necessary when, in Greece, both experts and government lack experience. The Ministry of Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE) as well as the Architects’ Society should set up a committee of experts composed of prestigious specialists in various fields: planners, sociologists, traffic engineers, artists and people of letters who will work on specifications for the design of public spaces in a Greek city. 3. Car-unfriendly policies and polluter-pays principle. In 1968, the city of Copenhagen began a program of slow and gradual reduction in the area taken up by cars (every year, 2 percent of the city center was taken away from cars and turned over to pedestrians). By 1986, 18 years later, the city’s surface area that had been turned into pedestrian precincts and squares had tripled (from 18,880 sq.m in 1968 to 56,900 sq.m. in 1986). The number of people using public spaces also tripled. All European cities have similar programs: London levies tolls on drivers that choose private cars over mass transit, while Barcelona, Amsterdam and Paris are all being won back for the pedestrian. In the Netherlands and Denmark, 20-30 percent of urban journeys take place by bicycle. The Greek Transport Ministry, YPEHODE and the Municipality of Athens could, using the opportunity offered by the Olympic Games, embark on a long-term and far-reaching program of gradually removing cars from the city center. Through tax measures – the government’s reduction in the tax on cars is simply disastrous – transport measures and educational programs, the city must be returned to its rightful owners: the residents and not the cars. 4. A new fashion and vocabulary in the design of public spaces. Models foreign to the Greek city and the Mediterranean way of life, which is distinguished by a refined sociability, should not be blindly introduced. The Mediterranean landscape is also of unique beauty, with a powerful combination of light and colors and objects. This, coupled with the possibilities inherent in technology and materials, must be used to create a new fashion in our modern public spaces, with self-confidence, imagination and optimism. 5. Formation of the new, active citizen. A new urban culture needs to be cultivated, based on the one hand on a balanced relationship between city and culture, and on the other a redefinition of the relationship between city and citizen. The authorities must establish a process that enables citizens to take part in shaping policy. Residents’ identification with, and love for, their city is an urgent prerequisite. That love and respect ensures the protection of the past, the present and the future.