In Athens, the financial crisis is driving collaborative new forms of municipal government

The Acropolis: one of the older bits of municipal architecture in Athens. Image: Vas Panagiotopoulos.

Life in Athens is changing rapidly. The economic and social challenges brought upon by the financial crisis have forced Athenians to rethink how they interact with their city. Vital municipal functions, that elsewhere are the results of meticulous planning and city council intervention, are now undertaken by collaborative citizen initiatives in the fiscally bereft Greek capital.

Loukas Bartatilas is a Bauhaus University-trained architect, and a curator at the community project of cultural foundation NEON that remodels public spaces through participatory and socially engaged art. "The crisis, and the absence of an adequate institutional and legal framework, have forced people to take matters into their own hands," he says.

Collaborative urban regeneration projects are now commonplace in the city. Domain Agora for example, a Robert Bosch Foundation project that Bartatilas worked on, focused on a deserted square opposite the Varvakios Market in central Athens. Its purpose was to engage with local residents in a participatory planning process in order to come up with recommendations for the future of the square.

"This was done through citizen workshops on the needs of the neighbourhood," explains Bartatilas. "The results were delivered to the city council."  Similar initiatives include the Place Identity network that hosts workshops on participatory design and the social innovation lab 180º.

As the crisis negatively has influenced Greek environmental politics, urban agriculture citizen interventions, including guerrilla gardening and local consumer-producer networks, have become another emerging trend in Greek city life. Architect Konstantinos Zarbis attracted a lot of media attention when he turned the roof of his apartment building in central Athens into a farm, complete with trees and chickens.

"Athens is brimming with initiatives by social entrepreneurs that empower citizens to take responsibility and provide sustainable business solutions," says Betty Tsakarestou, an assistant professor in the media and culture department at Panteion University. (She's also a co-author of a research paper on "Cities as Platforms for Co-creating Experience-based Business and Social Innovations.") "Entrepreneurs, the local startup ecosystem and cultural institutions are acting as urban innovators and cultural accelerators with their initiatives."

Athens' Impact Hub. Image: Vas Panagiotopoulos.

Collaborative co-working spaces such as the Impact Hub in the Psirri area and the Netherlands Embassy-backed Orange Grove have also become very popular. "Athens has the potential to evolve into a platform for urban and social innovation, connecting those hubs and initiatives into a coherent storytelling to be embraced and scaled up both by Athenians and global stakeholders,"continues Tsakarestou.

Meanwhile, the acute need for food in Athens’ deprived neighbourhoods gave rise to a lot of social support initiatives. Organization Earth hosts weekly participatory food workshops in a park, while an unnamed citizens’ group – that counts in its ranks many former homeless people – operates urban kitchens in the areas such as Metaxourgeio and Kypseli. For hygiene reasons it's actually prohibited in Athens to set up soup kitchens in the open – but the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye.

Further local initiatives include the political innovation platform Politieia 2.0, which aims to create a constitution for Greece through citizen contributions. Then there's Generation 2.0 for Rights Equality & Diversity, that addresses citizenship issues of second-generation immigrants. And the Babel group is providing psychological support to refugees.

Elsewhere, a local electrician set up Bright Kypseli to illuminate with LED the entrances of apartment blocks for energy-saving and safety reasons in an underprivileged part of town where darkness and fear prevail. Finally, the regularly occurring Alternative Tours of Athens "promote tourism through alternative landmarks putting an emphasis on modern city life".

Mapping and linking all these grassroots groups has been challenging.  But the Omikron Project has started listing them, and the Synathina platform, which aspired to provide an ideas exchange platform for these groups, was set up in 2012.

"Through the platform we got some tangible numbers on what has happened in the city in the past two years," explains Maria Chatzopoulou, Synathina’s head of communications. The numbers are impressive: "A total of 778 actions have been listed online since July 2013 in the fields of urban intervention, environment, culture & education, networking, and children’s activities. There are currently 167 citizens’ groups taking part."

To scale up new initiatives, and transform distinct best practices into more systematic and impactful outcomes, institutional and legal innovation is the key. What initially started as a mere grassroots project, became official in 2014, when the Synathina platform won the backing of the council and a new "Vice-Mayoralty for Civil Society" was created. "Our goal is to strengthen this cooperation with the help of the reliable services of the Athens City Council," continues Chatzopoulou.

Athens is in the process of redefining its mission and storytelling on the global map. "Now that old certainties are under reflection all over Europe, Athens could provide the missing link," summarises Professor Tsakarestou – "a narrative on how to rethink European cities and their infrastructures for local and global collective action."    

Vas Panagiotopoulos is a London-based writer and PR consultant. He tweets as @vas_ldn.


Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.

Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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