Expanding public space

It might seem fanciful, in the midst of a dreadful economic crisis, for the government to announce plans to extend the pedestrian route that unifies Athens’s major archaeological sites and to open three new beaches on the capital’s Saronic coast. Yet even though these projects began a long time ago, they are one of the government’s most important undertakings precisely because this is such a difficult time. Athenians’ incomes will be greatly affected by the spending cuts and structural reforms. They will need to make their city far more livable. The most effective way to do this is to expand public spaces – and, once they have been established, to protect them. When the new pedestrian route is completed, residents of and visitors to Athens will be able to walk 4 kilometers from the Panathenaic Stadium, the ancient stadium which was refurbished to host the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, to Kerameikos, site of the city’s ancient cemetery. This long-delayed project is slated for completion in 2012, with the addition of Vassilissis Olgas Avenue. Fortunately, one can already walk from the new Acropolis Museum, past the Acropolis (and around it), up Philopappou Hill, through the Ancient Agora and the Roman Agora, to Kerameikos. When Athens really gets serious about investing in its ancient past, the route will continue westward, with the government expropriating the generally abysmal-looking factories and warehouses along Iera Odos, the Sacred Way, which stretched as far as the Sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis. The antiquities that once lined the route are buried under tons of sand, cement and semi-industrial debris, waiting for another generation of Greeks to uncover them. The planned extension of the pedestrian route linking Athens’s antiquities is to be commended, as is the opening of three beaches. But these are very limited actions when we consider the city’s real needs. Since the rapid urbanization that began in the 1960s, the Greek capital has been several steps behind the wiles and needs of its developers and citizens. It has fewer parks than any other European city and, once again, was the last European city in Mercer consultants’ world ranking of cities according to their quality of life. (Vienna was at the top and Baghdad at the bottom.) But that is not all: Most of Athens’s sidewalks are either treacherous, narrow or occupied by illegally parked cars and motorcycles. With their noise, illegal constructions and vehicles, too many Athenians have been encroaching on public space at the expense of others, with the result that Athens (and every other Greek city) has not focused on providing residents with the public spaces and services that a city needs. Now, with the economic crisis, Greeks will have to live less with their cars and more with their cities. They will have to go to local parks rather than drive out of town. They will rely on open bus lanes (so maybe it will be a good idea for these to be policed, freeing them from taxis and private cars). They will need a lively arts scene, with music and theater in streets and squares. It will take a great, daily effort for this to be achieved, but making it easier to walk, to cycle, to use public transport, to visit museums and sites will improve the quality of life in Athens for its citizens and its visitors. Prime Olympic properties, especially the Faliro waterfront, must be developed to provide new opportunities for commerce (perhaps along the lines of Camden Town and other such popular shopping areas) and give people somewhere to spend a pleasant afternoon. If the Greeks are to get through the crisis with their identity more or less intact, this will be achieved through a return to greater communality as well as speedy and decisive interventions that will improve the quality of life not only in Athens but also in our other cities and towns. It is heartening to see decisions in such a direction and alarming to note how slowly they are proceeding.

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