Sifting through the rubbish

Few sounds have been heard in Athens as welcome as the low rumbling and metallic clunking of garbage trucks when they rattled through the streets yesterday morning as the operation to collect almost 100,000 tons of rubbish began in earnest. After more than two weeks of garbage piling up on street corners and the stink of rotting food working its way into every pore of the city, there was a palpable sigh of relief around Athens yesterday. Experiencing the garbage strike has been much like living with a roommate who is not a fan of personal hygiene; it was a little quirky and mildly irritating at first but infuriating and impossible to live with the longer it went on. Apart from the stench of decomposition, the rubbish strike also brought out selfishness in many of the city’s residents who continued dumping their rubbish bags on growing mounds in the streets with disregard for the people who lived in proximity to these morphing monsters of trash. Of course, there is nothing new about the people living in this, or most other large cities, not giving the welfare of their fellow citizens a second thought. In fact, some people believe that this rough and tumble of daily life is what gives a city its edge or soul. «A tranquil city of good laws, fine architecture, and clean streets is like a classroom of obedient dullards, or a field of gelded bulls – whereas a city of anarchy is a city of promise,» according to American novelist Mark Helprin, who comes from another city known to occasionally bend the rules: New York. However, there has been a huge effort in recent years to clean up the Big Apple. Whereas Athens is still struggling to dispose of its apple cores. The problem of cleanliness is one of the things that keeps dragging this city down. It is one of the things that infuriates and disgusts its residents on a regular basis. The way a city can grind down its inhabitants is a sentiment that one of Athens’s most famous inhabitants, Lord Byron, was familiar with. In his long narrative poem «Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,» about the travels of a disillusioned young man, he wrote: «I live not in myself, but I become Portion of that around me; and to me High mountains are a feeling, but the hum Of human cities torture.» If one were to look for a positive in what has happened over the last couple of weeks it would probably be in the fact that the sight and smell of the rubbish on our streets have made us a little more aware that we are all sharing the same space. Just like wearing a shirt that has been pulled out of the dirty laundry at the last minute would make you more self-conscious, so the mounting trash around us has made us more sentient. Naturally, a trash strike is not enough to transform a city. There is much that needs fixing in Athens to put it on a par with European capitals of its caliber. Another Athenian resident of the past, the ancient philosopher Aristotle, said, «A great city is not to be confounded with a populous one.» There may be much that is great about Athens but that does not make it a great city. Aristotle was correct to bring the city’s population into the equation because ultimately it is the people that live in the urban sprawl – from those that run things to the people that are stuck on its fringes – that define its rhythm and rules. As city life becomes the main way to live in the world, so we have to get to grips with just how an increasing number of people can share a finite amount of space. In 1910 only 16 cities had a population of 1 million, now it’s more than 400. It is estimated that by 2050, 75 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities. An international think tank called Urban Age was recently set up to look at urban planning for the 21st century and how life is developing in modern cities. Deyan Sudjic, one of the authors of its new report «The Endless City,» underlined the impact that a city’s inhabitants have on its existence. «Cities are made by an extraordinary mixture of do-gooders and bloody-minded obsessives, of cynical political operators and speculators. They are shaped by the unintended consequences of the greedy and the self-interested, the dedicated and the occasional visionary,» he wrote this month in the Observer newspaper. But Sudjic added another vital factor in his assessment of how cities can develop: «The cities that work best are those that keep their options open, that allow the possibility of change.» There is much that needs to change in Athens. An increase in the amount of green open space, for instance, is an obvious example. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) submitted a motion to Parliament this week calling on the government to immediately designate open spaces – in Goudi and Elaionas near central Athens and Hellenikon in the south of the city – as metropolitan parks, thereby preventing any future construction. The government has already said it plans to create Europe’s biggest metropolitan park in Hellenikon but its decision to sell 100 of the 500 hectares to developers has caused a number of locals to fear that this will only be the beginning of construction on the site. A splash of green on Athens’s canvas would be welcome in whatever form it comes. The green space in the city at the moment amounts to only 2.5 square meters per inhabitant. Compare this to Paris (8.5 square metres), Berlin (13 square meters) and Amsterdam (27 square meters). But given the green space, would we look after it? All the indications are that we would not. I was recently pleased to see dozens of parents and children taking to a park that is normally empty to keep up the tradition of flying kites on Clean Monday. It was one of those unique moments that a city can produce where dozens of strangers stand side by side and enjoy sharing a common space. A few hours later, when most of the families had gone for lunch, I walked back through the park and encountered the worst of what a city has to offer. Abandoned kites, ribbons and string, as well as food wrappings and drink containers, were strewn across the length of the park, which looked as if it had just hosted a wild fraternity party. Ironically, this was on a day called Clean Monday after the traditional scrubbing of pots and pans ahead of Lent. This painful sight made it abundantly clear that Athens will not change just through better public transport, controlled parking, more regular rubbish collections or larger parks. It will only change when its inhabitants are willing to shift their attitude and realize that the future of their city is in their hands. «A successful city has room for more than the obvious ideas about city life, because, in the end, a city is about the unexpected, it’s about a life shared with strangers and open to new ideas. An unsuccessful city has closed its mind to the future,» says Sudjic. The trash strike may have opened our eyes, but now is the time for Athenians to open their mind or risk facing a future that, frankly, will be rubbish.

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