City Plaza, Athens: a new approach to housing refugees

A very different approach to the migration crisis. Image: Vicki Squire/author provided.

There are now around 55,000 people stranded in Greece as a result of Europe’s failed response to the so-called migration crisis – and refugees are losing hope. Many languish in camps dotted across the Greek islands; others have decided to stay in Turkey rather than face the bleak conditions in Europe.

But there is a new accommodation project in Athens called City Plaza which is providing refugees with much-needed hope. City Plaza is a disused seven-storey hotel near Victoria Square, which has been occupied by the Economic and Political Refugee Solidarity Initiative. The hotel has been closed for business for around seven years, but the building remains fully equipped and is now being used to house nearly 400 people who arrived to Greece from Turkey in the past year.

Unlike the accommodation provided by the United Nations and its partners, people at City Plaza are not chosen on the basis of their vulnerable status or nationality. The people accommodated on site were purposefully chosen not according to whether they qualified for relocation, and questions about why people migrated were not a factor in identifying those to be accommodated. Instead, attention was paid to ensuring a mix of nationalities, a gender balance, and a combination of religious beliefs.

When I visited in May 2016 there were about 400 residents; these included around 20 single parents, six single men, ten unaccompanied minors, four people with extreme disabilities, several pregnant women and three newborn babies. All had to agree to abide by a basic set of rules, such as not drinking alcohol on the premises or acting in a violent way toward others. They also had to agree to participate in the daily activities of the collective, such as cooking and cleaning.

City Plaza is not funded by any external agencies, and relies on donations and fundraising. Decisions in City Plaza are made on a collective process which occurs through different assemblies that are held on a regular basis. Each resident agrees on entry to participate fully in the community based on respect for each person regardless of gender and religious or ethnic backgrounds.

Building a community

Though clearly the process of deciding who gets to stay at City Plaza is a difficult one, the activists involved in setting up the site deliberately select a combination of people who require additional support and those who could provide it, such as teachers and translators. This reflects a broader ethos within City Plaza: recognising that people are facing precarious situations but trying to avoid defining their existence according to their vulnerability.

A small scale experiment that is changing lives. Image: Vicki Squire/author provided.

By contrast with the charitable and sometimes victim-centric ethos of many organisations working in the area, the aim is to build a culture of mutual respect. The idea is that residents will then feel able to go out from City Plaza and find their own way forward in the city.

“We don’t want to make a ghetto within the city – even if it is a nice ghetto”, Nasim Lomani, a refugee from Afghanistan who is a long-standing resident of the city, tells me. City Plaza aims to be a place where people on the move in precarious situations can begin to rebuild their lives without being constrained by their status or vulnerabilities.

Clearly City Plaza is just one site and does not meet the needs of the up to 55,000 stranded people in Greece. Indeed, this is precisely why the activist collective seeks to do more than simply provide support to those within the re-used hotel. Members of the collective also work on refugee projects beyond the building.

“We can’t solve the problem, Lomani tells me, “but we can be ready [to act in solidarity with refugees] when we are needed”. City Plaza has already inspired projects elsewhere, including a temporary residential facility, HOOST, in the east of Amsterdam.

The now closed camp at Indomeni, on the Macedonian border Image: EPA/Kay Nietfeld.

City Plaza offers an alternative to camps – and it appears to be incredibly effective for those whose lives it touches. Many of the people I spoke to living in City Plaza explained how even though they are frustrated at being stuck in Greece, they are in the best place they can be given the circumstances. Having visited several camps in Athens during my visit in May, I can only agree.

Of course City Plaza would be difficult to scale up. Government agencies can’t replicate this model for some migrants according to the same criteria as the collective, while leaving the rest behind in camps. But when we think about the squalid camps that tend to represent Europe’s current approach, the question has to be asked as to whether there is a different way to deal with this problem.

Couldn’t the many disused buildings, not only in Athens but across various European cities, be used to foster collective living in a similar way to City Plaza? The Conversation

Vicki Squire is reader in international security at the University of Warwick.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.


The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.


The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.

So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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