|Urban regeneration in Athens and the broader Attica region|
|Eleni Portaliou, associate professor, National Technical University of Athens|
Athens and its broader region have developed through continuous expansion, having sprawled throughout the Attica basin. Spatial Planning (at regional and urban level), as a proper tool for the control of development and for safeguarding the city’s public spaces, the natural landscape, the farmland and the forests, was substituted with limited and fragmentary regulations until the 1980s.
Athens’ Strategic Plan (1985) and, partially, Land Use and Local Plans attempted a general regeneration of urban space – however, regarding only new extensions of town plans – through creating social infrastructure, controlling land uses and moderating the continuous expansion of the city into the countryside. On the contrary, no policies for the rehabilitation and regeneration of existing urban districts were enacted, and the respective law that was passed in 1997 was never applied.
In the middle of the 1990s, plans for the Olympic Games intensified Attica’s centralization. Sporting and other Olympic venues encouraged the expansion policy and the euphemistically called rehabilitation projects (on a limited scale), namely the sitting of Olympic Poles in unbuilt areas. However, all these areas constituted either valuable reserves for the reconstitution of the fragmentary city or parts of natural landscape that should have remained in their natural condition (for example the Saronic coast).
The Olympic Games breached any tradition of planning that might have resulted from the Athens’ Strategic Plan and the planning experience of the 1980s, circumvented laws and institutions and introduced a contemporary spatial laisser faire system, while wasting public land of inestimable value and billions of euros of public money.
The Olympic Games gave rise to, and accelerated the enactment of, contemporary neo-liberal policies with regard to space, which in the case of Athens may be summarized in the following choices: reinforcement of the major construction capital through new large scale investment opportunities, in the framework of an attempt to improve Athens’ international role and prestige as a metropolis, an international tourist destination and a place of business interest.
Our position is that the kind of regeneration that took place on the occasion of the Olympic Games and which is still going on today – very recent examples are the proposed reconstruction work at the Hippodrome, Votanicos and Drapetsona areas – does not revive the city, nor answers its accumulated needs; on the contrary, it serves property speculation creating new socio-spatial problems and divisions.
We must emphasize that, in any case, renovation and spatial regeneration plans are not socially neutral planning interventions. Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen, in their book Globalizing Cities: a new spatial order, examine contemporary changes emerging from regeneration projects in cities that are undergoing globalization processes, referring mainly to American and the so-called Third World cities. Finally, Marcuse and van Kempen have discovered three types of spatial changes in cities: reinforcement of spatial divisions with increasing inequality between the different parts and increasingly walling in of each part, new particular spatial formations inside the basic divisions, and a number of “soft ” places where changes have taken place (seafront, central production areas, brown fields that were previously industrial districts, central office and residential areas, central recreation areas and tourist places, areas of concentrated social housing, historical buildings, public spaces and so on).
Mike Davis, Neil Smith and Edward Soja posed relevant issues, while David Harvey, in 1978, reminded us of an old reality: Under capitalism there is a perpetual struggle in which capital builds a physical landscape appropriate to its own condition at a particular moment in time, only to have to destroy it, usually in the course of crises, at a subsequent point in time. The temporal and geographical ebb and flow of investment in the built environment can be understood only in terms of such a process.
Of course, the Athens of the Olympic Games, as well as of today, appears much more homogenous as to its socio-spatial aspect in comparison to cities that are deeply polarized according to class, race and national divisions. But at the same time it does not have the long tradition of many European cities with regard to public spaces, social infrastructure and collective facilities, as well as to safeguarding its historical heritage and natural landscape. Although Athens has a very high percentage of housing ownership (about 80%) that covers broader popular strata, it lacks public infrastructure.
Athens and the broader Attica region had, long before the Olympic Games, taken the form of high density or incoherently built districts of first and second homes (a kind of conurbation), which in most cases had developed as an accumulation of private buildings without collective facilities or public spaces, regardless of the natural geomorphology, built on the ruins of historical heritage and following the extensive destruction of coasts, forests and farmland that had been preserved for centuries.
Therefore, an overall regeneration plan for the broader city of Athens ought to have put an end to expansions and to have reconstituted residence areas, using all the important remaining architectural and environmental elements. Namely, regeneration plans ought to have served the need for reconstituting a public space, implanting social uses, preserving and enhancing green and open spaces, making aesthetical improvements and reviving historical memory. In other words, regeneration plans ought to have reflected the contemporary collective identity of the city.
Instead of all the above, quite different policies have been launched. The construction of the new international airport at Spata and the Attiki Odos was followed by an unprecedented outward urbanization, which destroyed the farmland of the Mesogheia plain, and which now extends in the opposite direction towards the Megara plain. The number of open green spaces has dramatically declined; major transportation axes have resulted in new fragmentation and divisions of the urban tissue; the use of private cars has increased; in conclusion, all the problems of the past have multiplied. According to the planner Maro Evagelidou, contemporary spatial neo-liberalism has been superimposed on a preexisting traditional political populism. So, property speculation has developed at the expense of necessary public regeneration policies that produce social surplus value and serve collective needs instead of strong financial interests.
Athens’ problems did not cease with the end of the Olympic Games. According to law 3342/2005 the Olympic public property, namely the 16 Olympic Poles that were entirely financed by public funds and built on public land, were given to the Olympic Properties S.A., a company not owned by the State and acting with no control by the Parliament. This company has already started to lease the Olympic venues to private businessmen at very low prices, granting them also the right to construct new buildings of thousands of square metres and the use of more unbuilt public spaces.
So, the difficult task of redesigning the Olympic venues so as to make them available to the city’s collective functions appears to have no meaning, because the venues, along with extra land and building privileges, are being given to businessmen who improvise according to their own operational needs.
Examples of Olympic Venues’ regeneration
As far as Olympic Venues’ regeneration is concerned, the only positive case is the project of converting the weightlifting venue in Nikaia into facilities of the University of Piraeus, following protests by local citizens and the university community. Concerned citizens highlighted the significance of the university for the district and called for the regeneration plans on the specific venue to fulfill four points: to safeguard the continuity of the urban tissue, to preserve the openness of the university to the community, to enhance open and green spaces and to solve transportation problems by means of extending the metro railway system and reinforcing public transportation.
Another case of regeneration concerns the problematic area of the Saronicos coast, which should be wholly protected as a natural marine environment, and be freely accessible to all the inhabitants of Attica for swimming, sport and recreation.
In spite of some positive results – the outcome of massive public protests that have gone on for years and succeeded in reducing the intensive exploitation and commercialization of the area – , today very few parts of the Saronicos coast are freely accessible to the public for swimming. A large part of the old airport of Hellenicon, where several Olympic venues were set up, is going to be built on. Major sporting venues occupy space, radically spoiling the mild character, while major transportation works of big bulk and ugly appearance damage the natural landscape.
Regardless of all these problems, and while the previous installations should have been removed and the seaside municipalities should have been linked to the sea, law 3342/2005 provides for the establishment of more sporting complexes, shops, cultural uses, theme parks, etc., even a zoo. Shortly after that, the “Stavros S. Niarchos” Foundation expressed an interest in the Hippodrome area – saved from the 2005 law –, intending to construct there a new building for the Greek National Opera – which could be better housed in the adjacent Tae Kwon Do building –, the National Library and many other cultural and commercial buildings.
The example of the Saronicos coast is not the only one. In other words, regeneration projects currently implemented across Attica are realized to the benefit of strong private interests, at the expense of public interest, by-passing the law and pursuing solely the intensive exploitation of privileged unbuilt spaces.
However, in the approach to the regeneration in Athens today we have already introduced a factor which is not usually mentioned in scientific debates. I refer to the citizens’ movements which arise every day and form a decisive factor of criticism towards regeneration projects from the point of view of safeguarding public space and the collective identity of the city.
Urban Social Movements all around the world have a long history, which was presented by Manuel Castells in his monumental work The City and the Grassroots, as well as by other researchers of space and society as areas of conflict in which social dynamics are played out.
Some months ago, the Open Spaces Observatory in Athens published the Map of Urban Social Movements in the Municipality of Athens, recording a large number of everyday struggles that express vital needs, highlight living spaces of daily life and reflect a collective vision for the city.
I will take out of this Map an example of a proposed rehabilitation plan, concerning the area around the historic Columbia recording studio, only a part of which was designated as a listed building.
The Columbia issue was given publicity by the Citizens’ Committee for the Salvation of the Factory as an historic site and for its integration in a broader rehabilitation plan, including the Apollo football stadium, the Prompona wood and part of the Podoniftis gully.
In the Architectural Composition course in the 9th semester of the Athens School of Architecture, we are working this year on the Rehabilitation of the Broader Columbia Area in close cooperation with the citizens’ committee. Through the preservation of historic memory and of natural elements saved in the district, we aim to create an extensive public space at the meeting point of three municipalities: Athens, Nea Ionia, Nea Philadelphia.
All the above introduce the concept of Participatory Planning that, in my opinion, should be an important constant of regeneration. As is already clear, the dream and the needs of the many, in contrast to the profit interests of the few, should be chosen as the basic criterion for appreciating any regeneration projects in the city.
Special reference should be made to an example of a small intervention, a case of reusing an inactive building with an outstanding presence in the urban tissue. It is the Market of Kypseli, built in 1935, which was designated as a listed building thanks to the struggles of local residents and the N.T.U.A. School of Architecture. The Municipality took no action to the direction of opening up the building so as to cover pressing local needs, and this made the residents of Kypseli to open and administer the space themselves. Thus, there is now an excellent example of readjustment of the use and the function of a place, a model of self-activation and creativity, a collective answer to the isolation and alienation in the city, a “hive” where thousands of people meet every day through a large number of diverse joint activities.
|Map of Attica basin-Planning did not succeed to stop the continuous extensions of the city towards the countryside|
|Olympic Athletic Centre of Athens|
|Olympic Pole in Phaleron Bay|
|Citizens' mobilizations for the salvation of the Phaleron coast|
|Olympic Rowing Centre in the historic site of Marathon|
|Social Protest against the construction of the rowing centre in Marathon|
|Major transportation axes divide urban space and injure the natural environment|
|Weightlifting Venue in Nikaia|
|Citizens demand free access to the coasts for swimming|
|The Map of Urban Social Movements in Attica|
|The music factory of Columbia was partially demolished|
|Athens School of Architecture - Students project on the Rehabilitation of the broader Columbia area|
|The Municipal Market in Kypseli: a model of self-activation and creativity|