When private goes public

Should you happen to walk through Syntagma Square in the heart of the capital these days, you will probably notice workers laying a new sidewalk next to Ermou Street and in front of the McDonald’s entrance. Meanwhile, work is under way to widen the sidewalk along Karageorgiou Servias St to prevent the unauthorized use of public space by vehicles. Great news for Athens then. The city will soon rid itself of its filthiest sidewalk. But the real news lies elsewhere: The initiative to revamp the small but crucial Athens hub comes from the firm that is currently restoring the Pallis Mansion to launch a megastore selling books, music, DVDs and electronic products. So, the initiative comes from neither the Athens Municipality nor the Public Works Ministry but from a chain store that does not want to make its customers walk through an unpleasant public space that feels more like a public toilet than the heart of a modern city. Moreover, the same company is funding the construction of the new pavement. It has also convinced the owners of the other two shops to put some money into the project too. This is why the works are limited to the west end of the square. On the left of Ermou, life goes on pretty much as before. The sidewalk at this end is not that filthy and, of course, no business is expected to open in the building that houses the National Economy Ministry. Too bad for the people there, as they will have to wait for the municipality to do something about the situation. Sure, the businessmen could have left things in the hands of the municipality, thus avoiding the financial burden, but they would have to be patient, and in the free market, foot-dragging is a poor adviser. It’s not the first time that a private company has done the state’s job for it because the public space surrounding a business or store is a mess. On Voukourestiou St near Syntagma, a strong banking group took a similar initiative, putting its hand deep into its pocket for something even more expensive: turning the street connecting Stadiou and Panepistimiou into a pedestrian zone. The job was done – and it was done well – and the state did not pay a single cent. Both are striking examples. The state does not care about public space. That’s because the state is run by people who are not interested in public space and the result can be seen every day in the city’s streets and squares. As for private firms, they love public space when they have something to gain from it – directly or indirectly. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The state, seeing that there are people out there who are ready to put their hand in their pocket even for their own good, could exploit this for its own benefit. For example, it was major firms that sponsored the program for revamping building facades in central locations during the Athens Olympic Games. Why should such initiatives come with an expiry date?