Reclaim the city, and do it now

It was an impressive sight. Panepistimiou Street as we know it was transformed, the asphalt turned into a river of green, thanks to 20 or so mini soccer fields made of artificial turf set up on Sunday morning for a 3×3 tournament. A section of the street, from the corner of Sina Street to Pesmazoglou was temporarily closed to traffic and ceded to 4,000 young kids to play. The photographs from the event moved many newspapers. It was only to be expected. Imagine, a green Panepistimiou! «Our aim is to reclaim our city,» said the president of the City of Athens Organization for Youth and Sports, Vassilis Kikilias, on Sunday. Yes, the City of Athens organized the event in an effort to promote its new slogan. «Reclaiming our city» is a good first step, but only if the City of Athens sticks to the course. And we don’t mean organizing some other tournament on Stadiou or Academias streets. Unfortunately, the present condition of Athens does not give us much cause to hope for change. In fact, all it allows are a few sardonic smiles. Public spaces in Athens have shrunk to such an extent that they’re beginning to suffocate us. The only areas where pedestrians can walk freely and safely are those protected by the barriers erected when Dimitris Avramopoulos was mayor, and for which he got so much heat. That was one of the last initiatives we have seen favoring pedestrians in the city. Who wouldn’t bet that without the barriers there would cars parked all along the sidewalks of Vassilissis Sofias and Panepistimiou? After all, you see cars parked all around Athens University and even inside the National Gardens. If Kikilias is serious about reclaiming the city, then he is certainly in the right place at the right time. This is a prime opportunity for the current administration of Athens to decide whose side it is on. Social policies favoring pedestrians cannot be carved out with the sporadic patrols of the Municipal Police and traffic tickets posted on car windshields. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs and what Athens needs will take a whole lot of broken eggs: a bold program for liberating public space. If an end is not put to the widespread anarchy of city life today, we will soon find ourselves a community of nervous wrecks, yelling at each other for no apparent reason. We will be yelling because just moments ago we were forced off the sidewalk by a car or motorcycle, because we have to zigzag our way between parked vehicles and the obstacles of kiosks that have spread their wares asunder, and because our favorite square has become a parking lot. We will be yelling, but by then we won’t even know why.