Stealing money and the air we breathe

We keep talking about it but we just don’t seem to grasp the concept of sustainable urban development, barricaded as we are inside our air-conditioned offices and cars. It was the 12th sweltering night in a row in central Athens. The air was so thick with car-exhaust pollution and the stench of rotting trash, you could cut it with a knife. The asphalt on the roads was soft, releasing a smell of tar, burnt oil and dust. Gasping for air, I reached a small church, with a few trees, on Zoodochou Pigis Street. A good way of helping the air circulate in this hellish city, scientists have been saying for years, would be to expropriate buildings and create more parks. While it is true that some buildings are indeed expropriated by municipal authorities, parks are not being created. It appears that there is no state funding, neither for compensating the owners of dilapidated buildings nor for introducing more green spaces in the capital. So a mass of structures remain in limbo and some 50,000 property owners continue to be held hostage. One particular block in Kallithea has been left standing for nearly 80 years. Similar blocks exist all over Attica – in Kastella, Pangrati, Ano Liosia – as well as the rest of Greece. Of the revenue collected from taxpayers annually, over 120 million euros are supposedly destined for expropriations. How much of this is forwarded to municipalities? Certainly, paying compensation for expropriations is not a priority for municipal authorities. For a start, they have massive debts. The country’s municipalities owe more than 1 billion euros. Most of them take out loans to pay suppliers, contractors and staff. They prefer to build roads than parks; then come schools, creches and parking lots. Parks are way down on the list. Authorities promise to create green spaces in the city. Lack of funds is always the excuse when these promises fail to materialize. But it is political will that is lacking. How did we find the billions of euros to hold the Athens 2004 Olympics? According to Greece’s Ombudsman, municipal authorities apply for loans for expropriations from state funds. And they are generally granted. But they are often used for other purposes, the Ombudsman says. But has anyone ever been punished for these illicit activities? Unsurprisingly, no. Illegality has become so familiar in Greece. And these activities are just another episode in a long serial of corruption and incompetence within the state machinery. When it gets to the point where we can’t breathe, however, it is no longer a laughing matter.

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