“Something is stirring in the Greek capital – and in more ways than one Navarinou Park has come to represent it.
Stavrides calls it a movement, a new form of commons in which public-spirited individuals reclaim public space; others an informal urbanism born of a spirit of solidarity that has taken hold since Europe’s economic crisis erupted in Greece in 2009. For in Navarinou – a place run by neighbourhood committee – citizens have sought new ways of overcoming the trauma of economic collapse. And they have done so by creating a place where, self-contained and seemingly beyond the reach of authority, they can meet, converse, play and produce food.
Bereft of civic protection and the great umbrella of the welfare state, grassroots groups across Athens have followed suit.
‘What we are witnessing is an explosion of social networks born of bottom-up initiatives,’ says Stavrides, who was among the activists whose spontaneous efforts stopped the lot being turned into a parking space in late 2009. ‘Navarinou heralded this new culture, this new spirit of people taking their lives into their own hands. They know that they can no longer expect the state to support them and through this process, they are discovering how important it is to share.’
It is a movement that has confounded expectation. Greece is both an anarchic and a self-absorbed nation, where notions of civil society have never been strong. Instead, individualism has always burned bright.
But the crisis, first glimpsed in the esprit de rage of the December 2008 street riots that followed the police shooting of a teenage boy only streets away from Navarinou Park, has turned that on its head.
Increasingly, local associations, resident committees and solidarity groups are forging ties, exchanging know-how, giving shape to new concepts of co-existence, and in so doing, reshaping public space.
‘The crisis has made a lot of Greeks want to work together,’ says Lydia Carras, who oversees the long-established Elliniki Etairia Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage from a building at the foot of the Acropolis. ‘There is a new mood of cooperation because people understand that the only way to get their voice heard is to make alliances.’
If Navarinou provides a compelling example of neighbourhood revitalisation, it is not the only one. The rediscovery of public space is at the heart of Greece’s grassroots urbanism – and it comes in sharp contrast to the practices of big donors shaping urban form that, from the first days of Athens being made the capital of a state romanticised as the cradle of western civilisation, have prevailed until now.”
“…the country’s debt crisis has also facilitated bottom-up initiatives. Hollowed out by the corrosive effects of austerity, large tracts of Athens’ inner city have become a landscape of decay that has allowed others to move in. Public buildings – from abandoned municipal offices to theatres, market places and cafes – have been squatted and taken over.
An unofficial support network has evolved with self-managed health clinics, collective kitchens, neighbourhood assemblies, community groups and language schools mushrooming. Backed by people from all walks of life, the initiatives have taken off on a wave of solidarity following the demise of the welfare state. At last count there were over 400.
‘There are initiatives scattered throughout the city that show it is not paralysed by the crisis,’ Stavrides says. ‘And they are happening when most of us feel powerless in front of policies and decisions taken in our name.’
One such organisation is the Social Cultural Centre of Vyronas, named after the hillside suburb north-west of Exarcheia. Established by local residents for ‘workers, the unemployed, pensioners, migrants and youth’, the centre’s utopian charter declares: ‘We put human needs above commerce and business interests. [Our] basic aim is the revitalisation of the neighbourhood’s social fabric in a way that puts collective enquiry and action above individualism, egotism, indifference.’
From an abandoned municipal building, the centre gives lessons in foreign languages, history, philosophy, tai chi, traditional dance, guitar and photography. A collective kitchen operates twice a week alongside a library and cinema.
‘We took the building over and stopped it being privatised in 2012,’ says Nikos Gretos, a father of two and activist, seated beneath a sign that reads: Misery ends where solidarity begins.
‘It’s our answer to the crisis. We don’t care about politics. There are leftists here, trade unionists, people from all the parties, who have united for the common good.’
‘Had we not moved in,’ he insists, pointing towards children playing in the park, ‘no one would have benefited and everything here would have gone to ruin. Our country is bankrupt; our state is falling apart. This is the future, our future in our hands; it is us.’
Has Greece become the poster child for informal urbanism? Activists and architects say not. Eleni Oureilidou, a leading landscape architect involved in several projects, counters that Greece is far from the point where bottom-up processes have become the norm. Top-down initiatives, such as the Niarchos Foundation – with its attendant gentrification processes around a space where culture is merchandised and sold – are still in the ascendancy. Giorgos Kaminis, Athens’ progressive mayor, has created a municipal post that actively courts community initiatives in a bid to modernise local administration and improve the quality of life. Amalia Zepou, a former documentary-maker who holds the post as vice mayor for civil society and municipality decentralisation, has created a platform for community projects, SynAthina, where citizens exchange information, find partners, and get in touch with city hall and potential sponsors. The aim, she says, is to reinvigorate the democratic process.”
“‘We are making steps forward but, given the economic crisis, I believe we could have achieved much more,’ she says. ‘And I think this is partially due to the lack of confidence of Greeks, their suspiciousness in new ideas and new ways of experiencing urban open spaces.’
But, she adds, her compatriots are also deeply dissatisfied with the state and the policies that regulate the use of public space. ‘There’s a more romantic approach now, one that says we are no longer in need of fancy, over-designed spaces,’ she says. ‘Instead, we want smaller, ‘pocket’ spaces like Navarinou Park that are accessible for everyone – spaces where we can create memories, meet with our neighbours, talk and learn to culturally co-exist.'”Photo by © Mario Gutiérrez Photographer Photo by Kaan Ugurlu