The Perils of Public Space and Democracy in Athens

The Perils of Public Space and Democracy in Athens

The Pnyx is a hill facing the Acropolis in Athens. It is where in ancient times about 6,000 politically active citizens would stand and address the Assembly, exercising democracy at its birthplace from the 6th to 4th century BC.  Today, Filoppapou Hill, the larger area where the Pnyx sits, has been under threat of privatization. Attempts were made by the Ministry of Culture to fence it up and eventually restrict access to certain opening hours with a ticket purchase to a space where Athenians have walked freely for more than two millennia.  



Indeed, all open and public spaces, within the city as well as at its periphery, seem to be under attack in one way or another and face threats of extinction through deterioration, degradation, or change of status from public common good accessible to all to private property, often accessible only by payment. All of these transformations take place in the name of progress and sometimes safety. But, in reality, the process is about the financial gains of a powerful elite, and it undermines the people’s civil liberties. The inalienable right of citizens’ access to clean air and natural and open spaces in Athens hangs in the balance. Currently Athens is one of the most densely built capitals in Europe and has the lowest percentage of green area per inhabitant. 


Despite its heritage as the birthplace of democracy, Greece in recent years appears to have a deficit in its handling of public space. The Olympic Games in Athens spawned several sports complexes surrounded by space that, although paid for by the people, remained largely (and illegally) inaccessible. Many of these areas have already been privatized. A long list of such abuses of authority in the name of commercial development produces a grim picture of contemporary Athens.  Such abuses include efforts to develop unneeded shopping malls at Elaionas, an area cited by the 2nd Century AD geographer Pausanias, and the last remaining underdeveloped  historic area of Athens, as well as at the Zografou estate, another dense neighbourhood of Athens. 


The killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by a policeman in Athens on the evening of December 6th, 2008 triggered massive uprisings that sent ripples everywhere, producing spontaneous expressions of support and sympathy and making international headlines. 


In a sense the youth’s death sparked a fire that was waiting to flare. These uprisings expressed the dissatisfaction of a large sector of society, especially the young generation, being a population that is among the prime victims of social dysfunction, poor education, and the economic crisis. Several other significant acts followed, including a series of protest occupations of major public spaces, such as the Opera house, universities, and many others as symbolic gestures against current political repression and a heavy climate of corruption. 


Given this corruption, the concept of going green has recently become highly political and controversial in the city. Every politician of every leaning claims to be the greenest and to be promoting  sustainability in their own way.  The current mayor of Athens was elected based on green policies that included the promise to buy lots in the city and to turn them into parks and implement  measures for greening of roofs, etc.


Instead, two months later, in line with his scandal-ridden government that has a habit of making unfulfilled promises,  the mayor sent government employees at 6 am without warning to cut down a grove of century-old pine trees in a small neighborhood park in a densely populated city neighborhood in order to turn the park into underground parking. Publicly, the mayor claimed this was done to alleviate traffic congestion, but in fact the purpose of the project was to yield a sizeable deal with the private company that would construct the garage. 


More uprisings followed, further polarizing the population, and triggering other reactions.


In a proactive show of force, a neighborhood peoples’ initiative took over a parking lot and in two weekends proceeded to transform it into the first community garden of the city, known thereafter as the Navarinou Park.  The takeover came in response to an almost 20-year-old promise by the municipality that it would use the parking lot as a park for the public.  After an open invitation sent by e-mail and  word of mouth around March 3rd, people broke the parking asphalt, proceeded to plant donated trees and plants, and then cooked and sang. This activity continued and became organized in the following weeks.  


The Navarinou Park initiative appears to be a long-term one, and may have the most long-lasting positive effects for the area. The concept of immediate democracy is being reinvented and put to the test here just two blocks away from where Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot three months ago.  Planning and design decisions are being made by open working groups and by a people’s assembly.  The Navarinou Park case represents a promising and successful moment of collective action and decision-making, work, and learning.  Unlike many other public spaces or neighbourhood parks, this is a place that remains alive almost 24 hours a day.


Locals as well as many coming from afar, curious about the experiment being conducted  here, come to  work, meet friends, learn about what is new, or attend an event.  Time has transformed this land, as the notion of a community garden becomes introduced for the first time in the city and people of all ages begin to interact with each other. 


The parking lot-turned-into-park has become the hinging element, that in a web of competing interests may contribute to the larger debate around public spaces in the city. 


The binding of people that generates a collective experience and identity, what has come to be known as civitas, has remained for long at an embryonic stage. Only recently has it grown in response to the rapid and disquieting failure of efforts by Athenians to reclaim, defend, and transform their urban public spaces.