A professor at the London School of Economics speaks to the Greek publication Kathimerini about the results of a two-year research project on the present and future of the Greek capital.
Athens is a complex city. On the one hand, it is densely built up, with very little green space and the largest number of cars in Europe. On the other hand, this is a city that has survived many crises and today is experiencing another, with renewed vigor.
These unique features that define Athens have been the subject of research by scientists at the London School of Economics, together with Greek experts, over the past two years, comparing the characteristics of the Greek capital with those of other major cities in Europe and the world. Building and housing density, free space, transport complex, social and socio-economic identity, how it is managed, and neighborhood features are among the issues analyzed.
The results of this two-year programme, an initiative of the Athens City Working Group, will be presented on Thursday at a public event at the Serafeio Community Complex. The presentation was also a good opportunity for an engaging conversation with Ricky Burdett, LSE Architect and Professor of Urban Studies and Head of the LSE Cities Research Center, which studies megacities around the world.
Burdett talked about what makes Athens special, pointed out the problems it faces as a city, and spoke in favor of a radical reform of the administrative structure, merging small municipal governments into one large municipality of Athens, similar to London.
What is the Urban Age program?
The program has existed for more than 15 years with the support of the Herrhausen Gesellschaft Foundation. It has an intellectual and practical side. The intellectual one, for which we started the program, is to understand the links between the physical organization of cities and their social and environmental consequences. Over the past few years, we have realized that the best thing we can do with our research and collective knowledge is to work with city governments to improve knowledge sharing on sustainable and inclusive urban development topics – and this is the practical side of the program.
So why Athens?
Athens is a city that has fascinated everyone, not only for obvious historical reasons, but also because of its physical and socio-economic environment. It is quite unique: its location in the Attica Basin, surrounded by mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. And its extraordinary density. There are not many cities so compact and so continuous. Seen from above, it is a sea of concrete flecked with green and brown. This is a city of the 21st century, part of which is not planned, it happened, especially after the Second World War. And part of which has this German grid in the base. It is also a very difficult to manage city, which over the past 15-20 years has experienced incredibly difficult times with numerous crises – economic, migration and pandemic. Also, when we started, a new mayor had just been appointed, and that created an opportunity to work and make a difference.
What elements distinguish Athens from other European cities?
If I had to choose one thing, it would be its extraordinary density. Athens is the second most densely populated city in Europe after central Paris. On the other hand, it experienced negative growth. Over the past 20 years, its population has declined slightly. If we calculate the growth of cities in person/hour, Athens is about zero, Vienna is just under 2, London is 9, and Lagos (Nigeria) is over 76! At the same time, Tokyo is losing 10 people per hour. What does it mean? Athens is a city that is losing young people, of course, it has been hit hard by the economic crisis. We were interested in the fact that one of the mayor’s ambitions is to try to balance this and make the city more attractive to work and live.
Let’s see how mayoral ambitions turn into deeds…
Any mayor has a limit to the power of what he can do. For example, the mayor can attract high-tech businesses through clusters and planning. But at the end of the day, keeping an economy competitive is tied to other things of national or global importance. Particularly in Athens, the mayor has limitations: the city covers only a relatively small area of a much larger metropolitan area. The Mayor of London has broad jurisdiction over the area where people live, transport, police, environmental policy.
So is the system of city government in Greece inadequate and in need of reform?
The system of Athens, four sub-regions and 35 municipalities, and the responsibility for transport, tourism, the environment, coming from different layers, all this makes it very complex. But you are not alone! In Paris, for example, the mayor is responsible for only 2 million people, and negotiations are under way with the central government to reorganize the regional government. Barcelona is struggling with the same issues and they have invented the Barcelona Regional with more powers in the metropolitan area. Athens will eventually benefit from the restructuring of governance. Let me remind you that London has only started re-inventing itself since 2000. These things need to be done, but they require energy and recognition that the new system can deliver better services and management.
Besides governance, what other problems does Athens face?
One is obviously transport. The number of people who actively move around, walk and cycle, is very small in Athens, only 11%, while in London it is 27%, and in Barcelona 36%. What struck us most was the fact that Athens has the most cars: 779 out of 1,000 people own a car. However, not all of them use a vehicle every day, and this speaks of culture and investment in public transport.
How can the planner put in place measures to ensure sustainable mobility in such circumstances?
Above all, you need a political vision and commitment to change. None of this can be put down people’s throats. There must be recognition that the city wants to be healthier, breathe better, live longer. The answer then comes through a series of layered policies. For example, London introduced a traffic tax and began a pedestrian transformation, but permission from the local government was received only after public transport improved by 20%. A few days ago, we opened a new Crossrail line that will change the accessibility of several areas.
But it takes more than 20 years to build a metro line. What happens until then?
London Crossroads took 30 years! But Paris and Milan have built an expanded bike network, using the pandemic as an excuse to introduce more bike lanes.
Greek municipalities were given this opportunity, but almost no one took advantage of it.
“The number of people who are actively moving, walking and cycling is very low in Athens, only 11%, while in London it is 27% and in Barcelona 36%.”
First you need a vision and a process of engagement, consultation with your constituents. Athens is beginning to embark on this journey.
What other features are there in Athens?
The lack of greenery and open spaces contributes to the hot island effect. The presence of mountainous areas outside the city is an advantage, access to them can be easily opened. Former industrial areas can not only become new areas, but also become the “green lungs” of the city. Eleonas is perfect for this. Housing is also a very important issue. If you don’t invest in affordable housing, you can’t get young people to live in the city. The city government of Athens intends to create a housing agency.
Could this also be achieved by controlling short-term leases? I mean, no one will build 1000 houses in Athens.
Athens could learn from Barcelona, which has been very ingenious in putting restrictions on Airbnb and hotels while accelerating growth at the same time. The relationship between the market and the public sector is an argument in favor of Stalinist directives or letting the market do what it pleases. The Scandinavian example shows that the private and public sectors can effectively coexist. Personally, I am for the introduction of a tax on empty real estate.
Is the center of Athens becoming overly touristy?
I will give you my impression, not a fact. I would not say that the center is like Disneyland for tourists. It still looks like a real, authentic city. Of course, there are places with a lot of tourists, but I don’t think Athens has lost its urban character.
A question still little discussed in Greece is how the project to create a city of 10,000 people in Elliniko will affect Athens.
I am for development. Cities must change, grow up, never stay the same, otherwise they will die. There are some issues that need to be taken into account now. Such investments should never be considered as independent developments. Planning ideology and the role of local governments can play an important role in making sure such developments provide assets such as parks, educational infrastructure, and add something new. They also need to be really connected to public transport. A talented planner should keep this in mind.
After your experience with the Urban Age project, how would you describe Athens?
Athens is dense both physically and within her experiences. This is a city with a pronounced urban character, not always beautiful, but urban character. You can feel the pulse.