The centre of Athens “in Crisis”: in search of critical approaches and alternative practices

Παρουσίαση στα πλαίσια του 6ου Διεθνούς Συνεδρίου Κριτικής Γεωγραφίας (Presentation in the 6th International Conference of Critical Geography – ICCG) στις 16-20/08/2011 στην Φρανκφούρτη.

Evanghelia Chatzikonstantinou, Paschalis Samarinis, Dimitra Spanou

Good morning from us too.

We are here as members of the EncounterAthens, a network of students and young researchers that was formed this year at National Technical University of Athens. Our main motivation and goal has been to establish a platform of critical discussion on the rapid transformations that have taken the form of a severe urban crisis in the city of Athens. While we initially started it as a discussion inside the university, our aim is and has been to open it up to social movements and organizations active in the center of Athens.

So, what we wish to present here is an overview of our ongoing collective work. To start with we will make an introduction to the multiple and complex geographies of crisis in the central areas of Athens.

MAP1: The municipality of Athens and the city’s broader area

One of the main issues we have been working on as EncounterAthens is the critical evaluation of the responses to this “crisis” situation from the various social and economic actors.  Thus far, we have worked on the themes of
– The construction of a dominant “public” discourse for Athens centre through the media, concerning migrants and inner-city regeneration
– Recent real estate strategies and land development projects
– The Housing Problem and the need for alternative housing policies
– The role of urban planning in the context of the crisis

To start with, we believe that the historical context, especially the post-war period, is crucial for understanding and interpreting these spatial and social transformations. This of course would lead us to a longer discussion concerning the particularities of southern European countries, their particular economies, spatial patterns and urbanization processes. To cut a long story short we should keep in mind some key elements, characteristic of the way the city grew to what it is today.
– First of all, the city of Athens is a relatively new city, shaped by a rapid urbanization process primarily caused by internal migration, that became particularly intense during the postwar decades of the 50’s, the 60’s and the 70’s.
– The service economy, the construction sector and the housing market became the primary fields of this growth.
– Small-scale land ownership, small construction capital, private housing and small family enterprises have been the key-factors for the production of urban space. The state provided a flexible framework to support this kind of economy, while public housing and planning remained marginal and catered only for particular groups.
– By creating opportunities of social and economic mobility for many social groups, this process, to some extent, substituted the weak welfare state. Athens became a relatively coherent urban system; a vibrant city due to its social mix and its multi-functional urban spaces, both in central areas and in its periphery. A city where the – broadly defined – middle classes formed the basis of social, economic and political life. The city center acquired a multiple role as the economic, administrative and political heart of the country, maintaining at the same time its character as a residential area.
– On the other hand, speculation on land and lack of central planning caused a continuous degradation of urban environments in central areas leading to a suburbanization process from the beginning of the 80s onwards. Urban planning came in the spotlight of public discourse for the first time in the postwar period.

However, the attempts of the early 80s for a progressive reform in order to “rationalize” urban development were never actually implemented. There were no policies or initiatives implemented in order to address the lack of open spaces and public infrastructure, or the advancing deterioration of the built environment in central urban areas. These problems were overshadowed by the still vibrant everyday life in central areas. Besides, economic interests were turning to the new areas of the sprawling city.

So, the most significant shift in urban policies took place from the 90s onwards. This was the period when neo-liberal policies were gradually dominating the central political agenda. Probably the most outstanding moment has been the Olympic Games of 2004.

The Olympics, along with the incorporation in the Euro-zone, were part of an extended political program of “modernization” and “adjustments” to neoliberal politics and economic trends. A program that included radical reforms in
– the labour market, resulting to more flexible and precarious forms of working
– the credit system and its expansion in basic spheres of economic activities,
– the function of the public and the private sectors of the economy, through privatization policies, the adoption of entrepreneurial practices from the public sector, Public Private Partnerships etc.

The ongoing shift in urban policies has actually been part of a neoliberal reform. Planning rhetoric changed drastically, adopting the dominant logic, the priorities and clichés of the neoliberal urban policies. A flexible, “fast track type” legal framework allowed the construction of the Olympic Venues while it overlooked social and environmental issues. This kind of exceptional policies were also implemented in other large-scale land investment and infrastructure projects. Athens was portrayed as an “international metropolis”, envisioning its role as the “capital of South-Eastern Europe”. There was a vast amount of public investments on a variety of construction works and the construction sector was booming. We can trace these changes in practices and ideas in:

– The construction of urban transport infrastructure such as the Metro, the suburban railway, the new Athens Airport, the new urban highways. These mega-projects transformed in multiple ways the geography of the broader Attica region, leading to a relocation of important activities from the center to the periphery of Athens.
– Changes in the housing sector and in the attempts of large scale companies to enter the housing market. These attempts varied from housing complexes in the suburban areas to loft buildings in certain central neighborhoods.
– The extended program of privatization of public land, including the Olympic Property, the property of the Greek Organization of Tourism and others. This led to further decrease of public spaces in Athens and elsewhere.

– In the context of the “global”, “competitive” Athens there has been a renewed interest in the center of the city. Urban development projects focused on promoting the international image of Athens. The unification of Archaeological sites is the most emblematic project of that period. The attractiveness of the city for tourists, international capital and economic activities was set as the number one goal of urban policies, while the pressing needs of everyday life in many inner city neighborhoods were completely ignored. A new urban geography of polarization, social segregation and inequality was rising.

This offensive political program was strongly opposed at both central and local level. There has been a series of political struggles concerning labour, education etc. But what is interesting, in regards to the city, is the rise of numerous local initiatives and movements against the new urban policies:
The Anti-2004 movement
Local movements against the privatization of public spaces
Movements against the construction of new urban highways
And others
Many of them evolved to permanent local committees posing demands and actively intervening in neighborhood issues, mostly around issues of public space and quality of everyday life.

MAP 2: Local movements and places of resistance in the broader area of
Athens (Παρατηρητήριο Ελεύθερων Χώρων Αθήνας-Αττικής, 2006)

Another important parameter of this new Athenian geography has been the settlement of immigrants. In the beginning of the 90s Athens emerged as an immigrant destination mainly for immigrants from South Eastern and Eastern European countries (like Albania), and after 2000 as a destination for immigrants from African and Asian countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia etc.), while Greece in general was also considered as one of the key transit migration countries.  The majority of immigrants settled in central areas of the city; areas that were already in a process of degradation, and thus offered opportunities for affordable housing. Immigrants have contributed to the urban economy in many ways, especially as a labour force for the construction sector and as domestic workers, and they also supported the demographic revitalization of central neighborhoods.

MAP 3: Immigrants’ settlement in the Municipality of Athens (Dina Vaiou
et al, Intersecting patterns of everyday life and socio-spatial transformations in the city. Migrant and local women in the neighbourhoods of Athens, 2007)

But after 2004, and with the end of the “Olympic dream” (in which they contributed largely), in a context of economic depression and rising unemployment, immigrants became highly vulnerable to economic and social exclusion. This has been particularly intense due to Greek policies that denied immigrants basic legal and civil rights (and due to the further diminishment of welfare state policies).

So, gradually, we have the issues of migration and xenophobia mixing with the advancing dissolution of the middle classes, and creating an explosive social condition. The centre of Athens emerged as the main terrain of social transformation and conflict.

From this perspective December’s Insurgence in 2008 was far from accidental. It may have started from an incident of police brutality, but it brought to light all these contradictions and the suppressed social rage. For one month students and young people experiencing the lack of future perspectives together with precarious workers, unemployed, immigrants with no papers and other marginalized groups appeared as the protagonists in the political scene by claiming the city’s public space.

MAP 4: Occupied buildings and centers of resistance during the 2008 Riots
(Athens Unfortified City, 2010)

The crisis
After 2008, in the context of the global economic crisis, the public debt crisis and the latest IMF policies, Greek society experiences an even more aggressive neo-liberal attack. Reforms in labour, education and the tax system are being put forward under a state of emergency, leading to unforeseen phenomena of poverty, social destabilization and polarization.

To sum up, we are talking about a political, social and economic condition that has serious impacts in all spatial scales; a condition that is simultaneously materialized in space, forming new dynamic geographies of crisis, power and resistance.

As noted before, the center of Athens has become the main setting for the unfolding of this urban crisis. Although this crisis is experienced in a variety of ways by different social groups, for some of them it takes the form of a real humanitarian crisis. The first victims are the most vulnerable, such as undocumented immigrants, drug users, homeless, victims of trafficking and generally lower income groups that are pushed in the most deprived districts of the city centre. But progressively the crisis also affects the every day life in traditional middle class neighborhoods. What we would define as the major shift in the urban geography of Athens, is the transition from a relatively coherent urban and social system to a fragmented, segregated and polarized one.

So we need to pay attention to the multiplicity of the center itself. The Athenian centre is not a homogenous area, and neither are the effects of the crisis.
We can distinguish:

– Areas like Patisia, Kypseli, around Omonoia: An explosive situation is created in these neighborhoods, expressed by phenomena of social conflict, racist violence and insecurity in public space. At the same time, the subsequent economic devaluation triggers various scenarios possible of land speculation.

– The historical, administrative, economic centre and the surrounding neighborhoods, like the areas around Acropolis, Plaka, Syntagma and Omonoia Squares. These are the spotlighted places of the centre that even today attract visitors, public and private investments.

– Areas in transition like Metaxourgeio, Gazi and “Gerani” that attract new activities and speculative capital due to changes in land uses and values. There is a relevant literature about the gentrification processes in such areas.
MAP 5: The Athenian centre_ Locating dynamics

Urban Policies
Regarding urban policies a number of fragmented measures formed the Action plan for the center of Athens. This plan was prepared by the Ministries of Public Order, Economy, Environment, Public health with the collaboration of the Municipal authorities under the supervision of the Prime Minister. Although it was presented as an “integrated state intervention that aims to reinsure the right to a safe, sustainable, attractive and lively city for its inhabitants and visitors”, in reality its main “strategic goals” were:
– The “re-conquest” of the center by the “desirable” social groups
–  The revitalization of the land market by facilitating real estate projects at central devaluated areas
– The control of public space: The majority of the new measures were about policing, control and surveillance. In a distortion of reality, the most vulnerable social groups were not faced as people with needs and problems but as the problem itself. Thus they “have” to be moved away and along come the policies for the decentralization of the few remaining social services.

This action plan is accompanied by other initiatives of focused interventions in the built environment.

In the last map we can trace where the above policies are located:
– The areas in transition, such as Gerani and Metaxourgio, gather the majority of urban and economic proposals and initiatives. They are characterized as “Zones of special regeneration” and economic incentives are given for the renovation of houses to the possible investors.
– At the same time, there is a complete lack of policies for the most deprived central neighborhoods, like Patisia and Kypseli, with the exception of the targeted aesthetic interventions in three local public squares. These squares are also places of political significance as they are mainly controlled by xenophobic and racist groups.
– Finally, there are still proposals for large scale urban projects in the historical and administrative center of Athens. The controversial plan for the pedestrianization of the historical Avenue of Panepistimiou, is probably the most important and talked about one.
MAP 6: The Athenian centre_ Locating politics

As a conclusion, we would like to argue that the neoliberal project for the city remains dominant and becomes even more aggressive. In the most cynical way, the policies that have lead to this severe urban crisis are presented as the remedy.
The answer to poverty is austerity and further reduction of the welfare state,
The answer to social unrest is repression,
The answer to urban degradation is to see it as an opportunity for real estate projects.
The answer to everyday problems and the existence of marginalised social groups is to move them further away from the center in order to make them invisible.

But with the crisis reaching its tipping point, this neo-liberal plan has lost any consensus by the broader social groups. The problems can no longer be simply moved around or hidden, as they now concern the majority of the society and affect all aspects of everyday life. This is why, over the past few months, we have experienced a rise of social struggles and a vast radicalization of claims, which target the neo-liberal project and its political supporters (the government, the IMF, the EU etc). The peak so far has been the occupation of Syntagma Square, in front of the parliament, for almost two months. Its importance lies not only in its massive appeal or its final outcomes, but in its grassroots structure which allowed usually silenced voices to be heard. And this was made possible exactly because it took place in the public space and became connected to everyday life in the city. By spreading to neighborhood squares it finally acquired the name “movement of the squares”.




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