A string of unexpected events have changed Athens in the 21st century, from the economic crisis in 2008 to the pandemic in 2020, and from its new human geography and the redistribution of its population around the suburbs to the tourism rebound.
Hand in hand with such obvious shifts, a new international agenda for cities, seeking to redefine them in the decades to come, is pushing a series of issues that extend from restricting the number of vehicles in historic districts to addressing the challenges of climate change.
Indeed, these are issues faced by most cities, but each metropolis comes with its own culture and legacy, along with a plethora of practical issues that need to be addressed. In Athens, the challenge now stretching into 2030 can be summed up in the notions that technocratic jargon would describe as urban resilience and sustainability, but which each citizen understands as a measure of the improvement or deterioration of their quality of life.
Athens marches ahead toward these challenges with a certain amount of optimism, as many of its negatives are balanced out or even offset by an equally large number of positives, as evidenced in the city’s local pulse, international confidence in its future as a tourism destination, and the emergence of a new generation that comes armed with greater international experience.
Serving as a seedbed for new ideas is one of the linchpins of the capital’s future even as it continues to struggle with deep divisions in the body politic, as issues related to poverty, delinquency, inequalities between different social groups and chronic defects in the city’s operation grow more acute or are perpetuated.
In the meantime, however, everything is changing. Fatigue from a lack of progress over the previous decade, aging infrastructure and buildings, the emotional impact of the pandemic, raw memories of last summer’s intense heatwave and fires, and a general sense of uncertainty are pushing the city’s forces in new directions. Athens is on the move – sometimes spectacularly, sometimes inconspicuously.
What the Greek capital looks like today is something future historians will probably find fascinating. A first-timer landing in the streets of Athens right now will observe that the city is divided not so much in terms of geography as in terms of its social problems. The Kifissos rift, which separated the poorer parts of western Athens from the center, the east, the north and the south is no longer regarded as the obstacle it once was. This is in part because of the expansion of the metro to the west and the development of big commercial districts in suburbs like Peristeri and Ilion, but it is mainly because of the inequalities that have emerged in recent decades in the core of downtown Athens.
The 21st century has also changed the way we understand Athens as a city. The most important change, however, was the effective severing of a large area along Patission and Acharnon streets that once represented the upwardly mobile middle class. The burden of the immigration crisis fell largely on this area – defined by densely built city blocks and an integral part of Athens’ urban evolution – while leaving neighborhoods just north of the center, like Mets, Pangrati, Ilisia and the area around the Athens Concert Hall, unscathed. This is possibly the biggest and most important fissure in Athens, and that which represents the greatest challenge.
The way that we get around and communicate in Athens is also changing. The conversation is heating up about bicycles, electric scooters, electric buses and the extension of the metro. At the same time, traffic congestion has worsened significantly during the pandemic, in stark contrast to the international discussion about restricting the use of cars in city centers. The discussion is also taking place here, just as public transportation networks struggle to make up the lost ground.
So, yes, Athens is changing and these changes are sooner or later going to become a part of day-to-day life: the new Omonia Square, the new “Athens Riviera,” ghettoization and abandonment, the need for extensive tree planting, the debate about its stock of buildings and the use of the city center, which cannot be given over only to tourism, shopping and entertainment.
Athens has what it takes to emerge as an international hub of innovation, education and culture, as well as one of tourism and commerce. First, however, it needs to win the battle of daily life – this is its biggest challenge, and it is a matter of democracy.