Struggling Athens is perhaps the last place you’d expect to attempt a large-scale urban renaissance. Portrayed worldwide as the ultimate recession basket case, the city is capital of a country where money is hard to find for basic services, let alone for infrastructure projects and new cultural complexes.
It’s something of a surprise then to discover that Athens is planning a major cultural and aesthetic overhaul. Coming up next spring is a new Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a gutted and revamped city center brewery, while a museum of underwater antiquities is also planned, part of a broader project in the Athens harbor district of Piraeus called the Cultural Coast. Located in the shell of a former silo, the museum is designed to encourage visitors catching ferries to the islands to stay a little longer, and to bring strollers and diners back to the city’s busy wharves.
These ideas look modest, however, placed next to Rethink Athens, a scheme to reshape a great swath of the city’s center. With the winning entrant to its competition announced last month, Rethink Athens is set to replace downtown cars and asphalt with tramlines, cycle paths, trees and water. Covering an area that’s filled with attractive buildings without quite managing consistent beauty, the plans could turn an area of shabby charisma into one of real, walkable charm.
It will turn three major squares – one of them currently run-down and sketchy – into green islands linked by a long, largely pedestrian boulevard. Many trees will reduce the heat island effect of a district that blazes in summer, fed partly by storm water retention tanks. Road vehicles will be re-routed to discourage cross-town traffic, with travellers redirected onto a new tramline (and possible future metro extensions) that will make it easier for suburbanites to reach downtown.
Image by Okra: One Step Beyond
The scheme may also shift central Athens’ social balance, encouraging residents back to the rundown urban core but also softening one of central Athens’ main quirks – that its priciest district is located right next to a working class neighborhood celebrated as an anarchist stronghold. While each of these neighborhoods currently has its metaphorical back to the other, the scheme will provide a new spacious, neutral living room where residents from both areas will mingle.
Up to this point, the plan is a rare bright spot in bleak times. Whether or not it’s what Athens currently needs most is another question. This is Greece, where youth unemployment has reached 60 percent, where unions fear the state may run out of cash to pay salaries by the summer and where 11 percent live in conditions of "extreme material deprivation" – the term the EU employs to describe near total destitution.
Image by Okra: One Step Beyond
Regenerating Athens might well help to moderate these grim statistics, but it might also just paper thinly over deep cracks. Currently, poorer Athenians live or congregate in one area covered by the scheme, a square that many currently avoid for its bad reputation. Making people feel safer here would be an improvement, but there is a risk that its current marginal occupants will end up being tidied away elsewhere, their problems unchanged.
Despite these potential pitfalls, Athenians’ reactions to the project seem to be generally approving, if skeptical. Any investment that helps revive Athens’ economy is good news, especially when the money doesn’t directly tax the empty national purse. Rethink Athens’ plans are carefully tailored to be eligible for EU regeneration money, which has helped revamp many cities across the union (and far from solely in its poorer member states). While EU-enforced – and as yet fruitless – austerity programs may currently be beggaring Greece as a whole, there is still some European development cash left in the kitty. That this situation is perverse is something people are keenly aware of, but right now Athens needs a future, and these plans might just be a part of it.