The ghost malls of Athens are icons of an urban crisis – but they could be the start of a Greek comeback

Athens' not-quite abandoned malls are strange in-between places. Image: Elli Katsinavaki.

Greece has become a byword for failure, and ‘the land that capitalism forgot’ could be a phrase to easily lump on the whole country right now.

But for the most extreme example of this in microcosmic form, there are few better options than Athens’ nearly deserted inner-city shopping malls.

Dotted throughout the city’s dense central neighbourhoods, the ‘ghost malls’ have tracked the economic crisis that has gripped the nation since 2010 almost perfectly.

From fully occupied and lively to essentially abandoned to fate, they have become monuments to boom and bust.

Dead – but still open

Escalators no longer roll, potted plants grow wild, floor plans show not very much. But the perverse fascination to these spaces is that they remain at least partially in use – almost ignoring any sense of decline. In every one, a lone, bored member of security staff absently peruses the not-quite total vacancy of the place.

A couple of poorly maintained pool tables and dated arcade machines might be the main feature of a floor, or you can take a lift through emptiness to a cinema.

Cosmos mall on Kifissias Avenue, one of the city’s main roads, boasts an admin office for the Ministry of Education, but barely any retail. Those looking to register as teachers have to trust their maps app as it guides them past empty shop fronts – although they could stop by an office offering ‘Harmony and Creativity’ on the way out.

The mall’s Greek origins

The greatest of ironies here is that Victor Gruen, the father of the modern shopping mall, modelled his vision on the ancient Greek agora. These first ‘marketplaces’ were local hubs for communication and outdoor recreation, the commerce somewhat incidental.

A few lonely individuals barely populate Athens' malls. Image: Gary Hartley

It may have been the lack of fresh air or the thrust of the money-makers that meant Gruen’s vision was never truly realised, and in turn, he ended up hating what the mall came to stand for. It’s hard to know, then, whether he’d mourn or applaud Athens’ ghost ships of consumerism.

A victory for his original conception is that it’s the recreational opportunities and public goods that are keeping these malls open now – whether people come to watch a film, lift weights or get an official form stamped.

The last shops hang on

To find a handful of conventional retailers open is a rare thing. Two gadget shops – one offering slightly more practical fare than the other – are the dual survivors on a floor of the grandly titled Athens Millennium Mall, in Pangrati. When the tech evangelicals suggest that innovation lies at the heart of economic salvation, this is probably not what they have in mind.

Empty shop interiors betray the former centres of commerce. Image: Gary Hartley

The recently appointed, extremely helpful caretaker was quick to point out that this particular centre is being refurbished and rents standardised, with a view to making the swathes of empty units more attractive to potential occupants. Perhaps he is right to feel at least a little optimistic, with recent statistics suggesting that retail is bouncing back a bit in Greece.

Contrasting shops serve split city

Yet it’s also true that a small but significant percentage of Athenians have, for these last few years, lived more or less untouched by any sort of crisis. Bounce back from what, they might well ask.

Wealth was always atomised here: the ‘other half’, nowhere near a half, living at the suburban poles of the metropolis. It’s just the disparity with the vast majority of those in the middle has widened. You get a totally different sort of shopping centre in the outer circles of the city, too.

To the north, Maroussi boasts a pair of neighbouring malls that show no signs of awareness of their struggling kin. There’s the high-end Golden Hall – described as a ‘fashion destination’ no less – plus The Mall Athens, a shopping and entertainment centre that is most distinguished by being the largest illegal construction in Europe. There’s no doubt that these monoliths hastened the decline of the modest malls downtown.

It’s easy to see how ideas that the middle of the metropolis has been left to rot, malls and all, have gained credibility.

Although economic woes have touched every part of Greece and indeed Athens, it’s as you get closer to the centre of the city that they hang far heavier – bucking the international trend for the shiniest, healthiest facades being offered up to visitors in the heart of a capital.

A second life for malls?

Dying malls are of course not a uniquely Greek problem in an age of changed retail preferences, but it’s easy to feel that it’s the long-term nature of the decline that’s distinct here.

Don't look down, if you're scared of economic decline. Image: Gary Hartley

This is in spite of the fact that putting dead buildings to use has become something of an Athenian trademark in recent years, thanks to the relentless energies of the city’s community-based organisers.

Whether it’s City Plaza, the shuttered hotel that has become a home for hundreds of refugees, or Empros, the long-empty theatre that enjoyed a rebirth as a free, collective-run venue, it’s rare that dead truly means dead here.

But where America’s ghost malls are turning into medical centres, schools, churches and business headquarters, there are no signs that such innovation will – or even could – arrive here any time soon. As long as they’re open and offering scattered services, no agreements will be made for creative use of the considerable open spaces.

Playing the long game

Are Athens’ ghost malls another bleak footnote to a well-documented bleak story? Perhaps. Yet maybe it is possible to view this near-abandoned architecture in a more optimistic light. Where retail has diminished to irrelevance, the facilities still operating are often still very much enjoyed.

Typically of Greece, total surrender to fate is not an option, and it’s not only the paid services – the cinemas, gyms and lone cafes – that maintain the unlikely agora ideal. The emptiness offers up free benefits, from an impromptu meeting space for professionals amidst the high-density urban environment, or simply a location to record a beloved’s name on the wall of a stairwell. 

In spite of it all, there is a sense that Athens’ deserted malls might be resolutely staying open in readiness for the economic recovery.

In the face of Greece’s rolling stagnation, Athens’ malls are the last structures standing that still shout: ‘We’re open for business – ready or, indeed, not.’ 

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.