Urban brainstorming

One think tank is taking to the congested, downtown streets. Founded by 27 city-center residents who describe themselves as a group of people who are ?directly affected by the same problems but who also share a common vision for a more caring, humane and courteous Athens, an Athens worth living in,? Omada Blanco welcomes, debates, develops and then promotes solutions to improve the Greek capital?s public spaces.

While members come from different fields and backgrounds, all live in the center and care about making it a better place, Omada Blanco?s Stathis Kefalouros and Victor Theofilopoulos says.

The board?s nine members have all lived in other European cities and want, they said, ?to introduce the best practices, activities and acquired knowledge to Athens, at least where feasible and in line with local culture.?

Omada Blanco thinks big but also keeps a realistic check on its proposals and projects. ?We have already observed an Athens-friendly attitude in our city, whether out of nostalgia for an Athens long-gone or due to [imagining] various utopias that do not especially help the current situation,? the two members observed. Do they see themselves as wishful thinkers or hardened realists? ?Omada Blanco stands somewhere in between,? they speculated.

The team pools together its skills to create a ?working platform that brings together different dynamic and proactive forces? that exist in Greece?s capital. Understandably, much of what Omada Blanco does involves finding common ground. ?Respecting our city?s cultural and historical heritage, we continually try to come up with simple, realistic ideas and, more importantly, find ways to implement them,? they said.

What led Omada Blanco to take on such an ambitious task? ?We feel it is important because it is people who make up the city,? they said and stressed that when residents involve themselves in the common good, opportunities arise to ?make lives better and more interesting.?

Crucially, members believe actions speak louder than words. Complaints about one?s neighborhood should be followed with brainstorming and action. ?It is critical that more and more people desire a better Athens,? the team said, ?through active involvement; otherwise, however much we or other people may toil, nothing will be able to change the status quo.?

Any individuals or groups can attend meetings or visit the site and put in their two cents while any opinion maker, expert or not, may submit a proposal for the improvement of Athens?s urban environment and daily life. After evaluating the proposal, the team debates whether the proposal is sufficiently novel, innovative and useful. If it is, the team takes it on, with members linking up and using their networks to get the word out.

Proposals are posted on the Omada Blanco website and are open for feedback, discussion, and personal involvement. The exchange of ideas forms a kind of ?univer-city,? Kefalouros and Theofilopoulos quipped.

Up for debate and discussion are Athens?s architecture and its overall aesthetics, its natural environment as well as simple proposals to ease daily life in the city.

What do members find the most problematic and ripe for improvement? First and foremost is ?very compact urbanization — buildings built too close to one another with no breathing space and with no greenfield areas [undeveloped land] in between high building density.? As a consequence, Omada Blanco has launched a project titled ?Learn to Bring Down,? to fight for the creation of free space in Athens.

Coming in a close second on the list of problems to be solved is the capital?s lack of proper sanitation. ?Unfortunately, it has to rain in order for roads and city squares to be cleaned,? they noted.

Another area crying out for brainstorming concerns ways to make Athens friendlier toward cyclists and pedestrians, as members try to find ways to solve what they call ?a car culture dictatorship.? Making the problem thornier is what they?ve observed as a lack of will when it comes to Athenians switching to other modes of transport.

?Regulations and laws must be passed and implemented due to the fact that a multitude of our fellow citizens -? mainly people residing outside the city center,? they said, continue to use their cars to enter the city.

Where does the government factor into all of this? Kefalouros and Theofilopoulos were unenthused. ?We have come to realize through our work and experience that officials responsible for Athens have, in effect, offered very little, if anything at all, for the city,? they said.

They concluded that, when it comes to proposing solutions for glaring problems, city dwellers shouldn?t sit back and wait for top-bottom change. ?Citizens more often than not should take matters into their own hands.?

Kefalouros and Theofilopoulos acknowledged that their negative stance toward policymakers may seem exaggerated but said it comes from the group?s experiences over the past seven-plus years. ?The saddest of all [is that] we have become aware that it is not an issue of policymakers not being able to do something proactive but rather that these same policymakers do not want to do something for a better Athens.?

Omada Blanco shares many Greeks? cynical view of government. ?It is a sad fact that leaders and authorities have turned their backs on the city, its burgeoning problems… and have left it to the rule of crime, prostitution, ugliness and general dereliction — because that is precisely what serves as a means to their ends.?

Nonetheless, consensus is crucial for the team. Since being formally founded in 2005, they have emphasized their optimistic attitude that they?ve tried to share with others as well as the consensus they have achieved with political forces in the city.

Many of Omada Blanco?s projects are progressing and some are in the authorization phase. Members have also noticed that younger people are coming out in larger numbers, participating either in Omada Blanco?s efforts or in those of other similar groups.

?Despite the red tape and bureaucracy, we have been effective,? they said proudly.

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