Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The financial crisis brought (literally) darker times to parts of Athens. Now one neighborhood is fighting to bring light back to the streets.
When people talk about the financial crisis having brought dark times to Athens, sometimes they mean it literally. One of the side effects of the 2008 crisis, with which the Greek capital is still grappling, is a general dimming of night-time light. Certainly street lights still function across the city—and the illuminated rock of the Acropolis continues to shine bright over the rooftops like some floating, masonry moon. It’s at street level, at eye-level, where things are somewhat dingier, as lamps in the doorways and hallways of private buildings in less wealthy areas have been turned off. These have often been extinguished by economy-seeking residents, leaving urban sidewalks not pitch black, but dingier and less welcoming by night.
In the Kypseli neighborhood of inner Athens, locals have been trying to turn the situation around. Founded in 2015 via a Facebook page, the volunteer-run Light in Kypseli group (Foteini Kypseli in Greek), has been encouraging local residents and businesses to rekindle their lamps—with considerable success. Advocating the replacement of blown-out higher consumption lamps with new ultra-low consumption LED bulbs, the group has developed relationships with lighting companies to ensure that locals get the best, fairest deal. There’s more to the group than lighting doorways alone, however. As the group’s founder, locally born physicist Costas Zambelis, tells CityLab, they are also engaged in trying to revive civic engagement and local pride in a relatively low-income, densely-built area that was once considered one of the most desirable in Athens.
“We want to help make Kipseli what it used to be—one of the most desirable Athenian neighborhoods,” he says. “There are many things that should be done, but we have decided to focus on just one: adequate, good quality lighting for the entrances of houses, apartment buildings and shops, roads, parks, and squares.The idea behind it is that simple changes can give back big returns in people’s everyday quality of life—far more than we often realize.”
On the grounds of aesthetics alone, Light in Kypseli’s push is worthwhile. Still a little too young to be attractive to visitors, Kypseli is one of those neighborhoods that in 50 years’ time might find a place in tourist guidebooks as a treasure house of 20th century architecture. The streets are an eclectic riot of art deco, modernist, and slightly older neoclassical buildings, threaded with trees and all packed densely together and blended into one by a general concrete and cement patina of grey and brown. Home to the first truly modern apartment buildings in Athens in the early 20th century, the area started to slide gently down the social scale in the 1970s and ‘80s, when people with greater means moved out to Athens’ sprawling, more spacious northern suburbs.
It’s current slightly scuffed look should thus be understood as not solely a result of the crisis. It’s also a classic example of what happens to inner city areas when wealthier residents have moved on—the relatively late onset of Athens’ mass suburbanization having delayed the re-gentrification which is likely the area’s ultimate fate. In the meantime, Kypseli’s residents are feeling the pinch. Having been hit by high unemployment, high tax bills intended to service national debt, and an austerity-driven reduction in public services, residents have done all they can to cut bills. This has seen may building’s public areas go dark, sometimes by pre-emptive choice and sometimes because residents have arrears for service charges intended to maintain communal spaces.
As a volunteer organization, Light in Kypseli’s role in turning this around has been mainly persuasive, informing residents of the extremely low cost of running a low-energy LED light nowadays. They have estimated that a single LED bulb running 12 hours a day can cost a building just €0.36 ($0.43) a month. An entire building can be lit for a few dollars a month, not just improving safety for residents and passers-by, but contributing to a sense that the neighborhood is lived in and cared-for.
The results of the community action are already clear to see. Kypseli’s streets are indeed getting brighter, with projects such as the relighting of a school playground with cost-price LED flood lamps opening up fresh spaces for night use. Even such projects as installing Christmas lights can make a difference. By hanging delicately-colored lanterns along the area’s main drag, the group is encouraging people to return to one of Athens most obviously, attractive, underrated spaces: a café-filled garden avenue that also hosts a market hall that’s already the focus of another community project covered by CityLab.
The intangible effects of the project are just as vital. This new network is encouraging residents to talk to each other, and launching a discussion about what Kypseli’s future should look like. As such, it provides a valuable model for cities where goodwill is in greater supply than money. Indeed, Athens is being swept by such projects—another current citizen campaign is pushing for the restoration of a beautiful park close to Kypseli that has become rundown and unsafe at night. Projects like these don’t change things overnight, but they help forge links that make cities resilient and livable.