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.