Athens: A bad urban model to follow?

Using the ideal neighborhood of Plaka to analyze the problems facing Greek cities seems like an oxymoron. But that’s where the Greek Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage is holding its seminars on «Priorities in the Development of the Modern Greek City,» attended by well-known architects and town planners. All Greek cities have adopted the Athens development model, and many of them have become miniature copies of Athens. What are their negative features? According to Athanassios Aravantinos, an urban-planning professor at the National Technical University of Athens, these features include a lack of public spaces, an absence of greenery, dense construction, high exploitation, environmental destruction on the periphery, traffic congestion and atmospheric pollution. The figures speak for themselves: More than 4 million people live in the capital and more than 250,000 people are squeezed into a center that covers a surface area of 12 square kilometers. Athenians are served by a road network of 8,600 kilometers, along which the speed of vehicles does not exceed 8-10 kilometers per hour at peak times. Traffic increases by 2.6 percent every year and 40 percent of the vehicles in the center are parked illegally. 4,000 new residences a year Housing is also cramped. Every year 3,000-4,000 houses are added to the already-saturated capital. In 2004, there were 3,212 new buildings occupying 2,061,946 square meters on the margins of the Athens prefecture. For the entire Attica basin, there were 8,588 new houses covering 4,506,535 square meters. At the same time public spaces are shrinking. The 10 large parks in the capital occupy an area less than 400 hectares, while in London Hyde Park alone covers an area over 250 hectares. In Athens the ratio of greenery per resident has been frozen at 2.5 square meters even though the World Health Organization has set the rate at 9 square meters per resident. Uncontrolled construction and development have victimized the ecosystems on the outskirts of the city. In the two large fires in Attica over the last 10 years, 14,000 hectares were burnt down – out of which only 7,500 hectares were reforested. In the rest of the burnt area, illegal buildings – those without permits – have sprouted instead of trees. In many cases, these illegal buildings have been incorporated into the town plan. Worse still, the capital exports its problems to other regions. All these negative features characterize most Greek cities regardless of size, lowering the quality of life for residents. «Unfortunately, Greek cities show considerable divergence and distortions, creating problems for the present and foretelling a bleak future,» said Aravantinos. For Aravantinos, «the determining factor in the misfortune that dogs Greek cities» is due to town plans, building coefficients and the General Building Construction Code (GOK). The main problem with the town plans is that they ensure only a minimum of open space. «In the plans, private construction areas have squeezed out public spaces,» Aravantinos said. «The roads are narrow, and there are no squares and green areas of sufficient size in the right places.» Construction regulations for most cities «are inadequate if not often inaccurate.» The GOK aggravates the situation, reducing the distance between a building and the outside partition, eliminating outdoor spaces and the semi-outdoor areas in the buildings. This increases the closed surface area of each building, «raising the building coefficient, albeit illegally.» As a result, the actual area occupied by every town is as much as 70 percent. Main goal, sustainability «If town plans are not upgraded, if building coefficients are not improved, if the GOK is not changed and if sustainability is not set as a goal for all three, matters will get worse, as the existing plots of land will be built along the same flawed lines and the old low buildings will be pulled down so as to build bigger ones that place a heavier burden on the urban environment,» Aravantinos said. The natural element – a prerequisite for sustainability – has gradually disappeared from cities. «The suppression of natural resources inevitably leads to irregularities, decline and even a complete disappearance of life. The natural features of a city… must be preserved not just because they are beautiful features or because they are used by people for leisure, but because they are necessary for the very survival of the city,» he said. The lack of greenery is not just an aesthetic problem. The study of the urban fabric – the way the building blocks coexist with the open areas – is entirely neglected in Greece. Aravantinos said Greek cities are often characterized by useless partitions, built-up open space around buildings, antennas and water heaters on rooftops, air-conditioning units on facades and giant advertisements or signs on the roadsides.