Athens in danger of losing a quite unique opportunity

Last week the government announced that it would create a metropolitan park covering at least 500 hectares on the site of the old airport at Hellenikon. Former Prime Minister Costas Simitis had made the same announcement in February 2001, reiterating it in April 2003. What was impressive about Simitis’s statements was his claim that Athens would be getting the biggest park in Europe. In February 2001 and 2003, I had raised strong objections to these plans. I said at the time that the government’s decision to turn 500 hectares of the old airport into a metropolitan park was an incredible show of nouveau riche vanity and a clear indication of utter mental exhaustion. What the capital needs is 20-25 parks of about 10 hectares each (or even more of a smaller size) spread over its more densely populated districts. Those are the kinds of parks needed by mothers for their children – near their homes – and not an inaccessible, and therefore useless, and grandiose park in the suburbs. Some of the money used to buy these (smaller parks) could be raised from part of Hellenikon. If the government really wants to have the biggest park in Europe, it need go no further than the burnt-out foothills of Mt Hymettus (before turning a blind eye to any illegal construction there), as well as the peak of Hymettus (after building two or three cable cars) on the site of what is now a park for illegal media transmitters (set up by the Ministry of State and the media). Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias said that the airport park will be planted with 36,800 trees and 17,500 shrubs. If the numbers are correct (seven trees and three shrubs for every 10 hectares), the park will look more like Arizona. But the reforestation of Hymettus with more than a million trees would be far more useful for Athenians’ health and recreation than a badly thought-out and grandiose but essentially useless park at the old airport. Since I made those statements the years have passed and nothing has been done, therefore I had the hope that mature consideration had prevailed. Obviously I was wrong. Now I add the following data: – The old airport covers 520 hectares. If half of that is given over for public use (160 hectares for roads and squares and 100 hectares for parks and gardens), the value of the remaining 260 hectares allocated for housing would be over 4 billion euros. To make a comparison, less than 210 hectares of Palaio Psychico is available for housing construction (out of a total 277 hectares). – Four billion euros is sufficient to expropriate 20 100-hectare sites in the city’s most densely populated areas and to turn them into parks. Kypseli could then get one, as could Kolonos, Peristeri and Aegaleo, to name a few. Economic benefits with regard to increasing land value would be enormous. Consider the values of properties along Irodou Attikou Street and imagine that there would be four streets around each new park created. Eight streets with a view of a National Garden. The value of land at Hellenikon would be the highest in all of Attica, for nowhere are such advantageous conditions on offer – a coastal suburb, constructed to the latest specifications with all public utilities (electricity, telephone, gas, television aerials) below ground and with provisions for parking, and a ratio of 0.1 hectare of park to every 0.26 hectares of property, which would also have greenery because of the low building coefficient. Establishing a new «privileged» suburb along with the drastic improvement of 20 more parts of Attica (where the new parks would be established) would give larger numbers of people access to quality housing. These people are now obliged either to push up prices in existing «good» areas or to put pressure on their political friends to make way for the destructive spread of concrete in the Mesogeia area and in the forests of Attica. Those are the facts. I confess that I do not understand the city’s municipal authorities. Although they have an opportunity to change people’s lives for the better, they are indifferent and are tolerating the government’s foot-dragging. Opportunities like these to transform an entire city will not arise again and we all have a duty to look a bit further than the ends of our noses. I would like to say to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis that creating 20 parks at no cost to its own citizens, would ensure his place in history far more than his other achievements of doubtful significance.