10 dangers that undermine the foundations of civilized life in Greek cities of today
Greek cities are threatened by 10 dangers which require control and careful planning yet which are treated with indifference, makeshift measures and ignorance. The dire consequences are experienced daily by people living in our degraded, truncated urban areas. 1. Privatization of public space. This is a problem with two parts: a) Illegal, or illegally legalized, takeovers of public land by private companies of every kind and size, including cafes, kiosks, restaurants, and even sports societies. b) The move of the public sphere to private, controlled spaces such as the ubiquitous Village multiplex cinemas, and the like. These entities, as urban planner Walter Siebel aptly put it, restage the city. The other side of the coin is the relentless transformation of the private sphere into the public, through reality shows and cheap televisual programs (i.e. the pleasure of tearing each other apart). 2. Car-oriented policy in the planning and management of public space. Roads, junctions, underground and surface highways pander to the artificial dream of the average Greek: when to get their Cherokee. A large proportion of the budget for traffic infrastructure is swallowed up by roadworks, whether necessary or not. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, who are second-class citizens, play Russian roulette with their lives on a daily basis. The car, that great enemy of the city, the ruler of people’s lives, seizes vital living space that belongs to the city’s residents. 3. Flight to the suburbs. Inhuman living conditions in innercity areas has resulted in their abandonment and the move by more financially well-off families to the suburbs. The city core loses a vital, active section of its population. Voters have moved elsewhere; the cities are deserted at night since there is nothing of interest outside. What’s the need, then, for squares and parks? 4. Absence of the active citizen from the public sphere. One of the most worrying characteristics of modern Greek society is the fragmentation of society and the Greek citizens’ lack of interest in public matters. There is an absence of active citizens (in the ancient Greek sense of the term), who participate in forging policy and are not downgraded to mere recipients, guinea pigs or flunkies with regard to the decisions that shape their lives. Architecture degraded… 5. Degradation of architecture and urban planning. The sorry legacy left by the modernist movement worldwide is the rejection of the city and public space. Especially in Greece, with the assistance of a contractor’s mentality that development equals so many cubic meters of expensive concrete, public space is what has been left over after the rest has been built up. It is not, as it should be, the most expansive and artfully designed of all areas – the city’s living room, so to speak – which can accommodate both local and foreign visitors. 6. The arrogance of experts. Some public spaces have chanced to fall into the hands of «experts,» who, thirsty for avant-garde architecture and approaches, proceed to carry out works without, as results prove, love and care for, nor even knowledge of, the area itself or its future users. On the contrary, choices for designs of pubic spaces have not been well thought out and show a general lack of training in such designs. The result is space-age architecture that has been designed for beings that never get hot, never get tired, never pause for a rest on benches with shade, taps, fountains and other such cliched elements that equip a public space. This deaf-and-blind attitude toward the city and citizens leads to the further isolation of architects and further downgrades architecture in the eyes of a society that has learned to live without it for decades. 7. Fashion and imitation. As the inimitable French poet and critic, Paul Valery, pointed out, real tradition is to rediscover the spirit that created great works in the past, and which in other times would create totally different works. For the needs of this article, public spaces that have been designed over the past few decades in Europe can be categorized as follows: a) Urban parks, which with water, greenery, art and modest landscaping form the scene for games, rest, entertainment and even education, e.g. the parks in Barcelona, Parc del Pegaso, Parc Espanya industrial, and many others. b) So-called «stone rooms» – squares with hard surfaces – designed in an avant-garde, bare and minimalist fashion in order to highlight the buildings around them and which serve for brief halts or meetings of passers-by, e.g. Ole Bulls Plass in Bergen, or Place de la Republique in Lyon. c) Promenades, linear affairs such as Ramblas in Barcelona, with a multitude of uses and a defined beginning and end. These areas, both old and new, on average cover 20-30 percent of a city’s total surface area. The second type of public space – hard-surfaced public squares – has been introduced into Greece over the past few years. Grounded in the merciless modern Greek reality of 40 degrees Celsius in the shade, and surrounded by the subproducts of domestic postwar architecture (so called), they cover 2 percent of the city’s surface area, together with other public spaces. Most dangerous of all, this tendency has found supporters in the academic community, which means that a new generation of architects is being produced who will lose track of the basic dictate of their art, that «man is the measure of all things.» …And nature exiled 8. Cutting off people from nature and the city from its natural environment. It is a scientific fact that lack of contact with nature, in combination with a dependence on technology in daily life, in the long term leads to psychosomatic disorders. The same apples to cities, which destroy their natural environment and suffocate from the lack of oxygen and greenery, rivers and seas. Sick people dwell in sick cities. The longer human beings are cut off from their natural environment, the less they feel a desire for it and the more they turn to the substitutes determined by society and consumerism. 9. Greek individualism. To acquire a city of vibrant, multifunctional public spaces, their users, from the most powerful, such as car drivers, shopowners and businessmen, to the weakest, such as pedestrians, cyclists or individuals with limited mobility, must respect the equal rights of other groups to the use of the space. It is a mistake, for instance, to resort to the easy solution of separating pedestrian and vehicular traffic, thus banishing the pedestrian to pedestrian bridges or underpasses to save him from the wrath of drivers. The real challenge is coexistence, and that presupposes education. 10. The lack of a social dimension in the design of public spaces. Public spaces are the life of the city. Like every living organism, they are constantly changing. Design and renovation should not follow rigid approaches which deprive them of their inherent multifunctional traits. Public spaces should offer citizens what a good choreography offers the dancer: a context in which to improvise.