A national treasure

Our National Garden, so rich in history and horticultural wealth, is a symbol of a bygone age and a constant reminder of how beautiful Athens might have been had its later residents shown the same respect for public spaces as did the young capital’s first planners in the 1830s. Fortunately, the garden has survived several changes of «ownership,» through Greece’s shift from a monarchy to a republic, then passing from ministry to ministry, until being handed over to the City of Athens. Today the National Garden is about to undergo a major renewal, prompting a debate as to what kind of garden the city needs. We can leave the arguments to the experts, in the hope they will all work to enhance its contribution to the city and its visitors. What we can do, however, is note the importance of creating new public spaces across Athens and upgrading the parks and squares that do exist. The passion with which local residents reacted to the municipality’s recent decision to cut down trees in a vacant lot in Kypseli so that an underground parking garage could be built shows how little faith people have that any action by officials will lead to an improvement in their lives. The National Garden, with its silence and its own microclimate in the center of the congested, noisy and polluted city, is an island of calm. Inside its gates and even outside – along the broad shaded sidewalks – one can sense the park’s ability to serve as an antidote to the chaos around it. Apart from a few spots, such as Philopappou and Lycabettus hills, the Panathenaic Stadium, the Acropolis, the Agora and the Pedion tou Areos park, it is rare indeed to feel such a balm on the spirit. It is no wonder that an opinion poll last June found that 65 percent of the capital’s residents wanted to leave Athens. Most of them live in small apartments in narrow, congested streets. In most places, it is impossible to walk, let alone steer a stroller or wheelchair along sidewalks that are broken and narrow, or blocked by parked cars and motorcycles. In Athens’s mad development, small houses with gardens gave way to a sea of apartment blocks. Very few public spaces were spared. A decade ago, you could still see old women sitting on chairs on the sidewalk outside their humble houses, gossiping with their neighbors deep into the summer night. The last houses have been smothered by apartment blocks, their sidewalks taken over by cars; the old women are dead or alone, behind locked doors, brutalized by brainless television programs. The Greeks – such open, communal people – have conspired against themselves, allowing their public spaces to disappear or deteriorate. Most residents of central Paris or London or any other major city also live in small homes, but they usually have the joy of wonderful public areas, of sidewalks that they can traverse for hours without hindrance, becoming one with the rest of their society while maintaining their separateness. In Athens, with rare exceptions, the lack of adequate communal space does not allow this very delicate aspect of social development. We cannot distinguish between our personal and public space, believing each is an extension of the other. The National Garden proves how necessary it is – at any cost – to replicate such parks across the city. Because the soil, the plants, the trees – the gentle breezes born of them – can turn the most miserable part of a miserable city into paradise. If we are to live here, we must improve the city to improve ourselves.

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