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.
After the Greek city’s financial crisis, disconnected private citizens drove much of the recovery. The SynAthina Platform connected these groups, says Athens Vice Mayor and founder Amalia Zeppo.
If you took a walk around parts of inner Athens in the years following the 2007-8 financial crisis, you might have been forgiven for assuming the city was in the process of being evacuated. Empty shops and dilapidated buildings gave an impression of abandonment, of people giving up. In fact, at grassroots level, the opposite was true. Crisis may have hit the city hard, but in the immediate aftermath the Greek capital fizzed with hundreds of citizen projects that served in ways large and small to make life just that bit more liveable, whether it was lawyers offering free advice to people at risk of eviction or empty buildings being used as impromptu refugee shelters.
The variety of activities undertaken was highly encouraging, but they remained disconnected, both from each other and from a municipality about whose efficacy many Athenians had become deeply skeptical. So how could the city find a way to link all these initiatives up in a way that created a more resilient civil society?
Amalia Zeppou, now Athens’ Vice Mayor for Civil Society and Innovation, came up with a proposal: a virtual platform that would allow all these disparate community groups to link up and share their resources and activities. Called SynAthina, the platform launched in 2014, supported by funds and expertise it earned as one of the winners of that year’s Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge. Since its launch, SynAthina has had 2,700 activities uploaded, ranging from people who are working to protect Athens’ street art to community groups debating new uses for a refurbished market hall. By recording specific activities rather than the good intentions of people who might like to be involved in community work but aren’t, the platform also provided the municipality with an invaluable degree of access to what exactly was going on at grassroots level in the city, enabling public officials to be better informed and more flexible in responding to the requests of ordinary citizens.
Such is the platform’s success that SynAthina is now being used an a model for similar projects internationally. Citylab talked to SynAthina creator and founder Amalia Zeppou at this autumn’s Citylab 2017 conference in Paris, to learn more about how the concept could also work for cities not currently in severe crisis—and why she thinks it’s not always unhealthy for citizens to mistrust local governments.