Greece has been creaking under the burden of an economic crisis for the last eight years. Many people have lost their jobs and their hope too. However, the people around Varvakeios Square are doing something to lift the doom and gloom: they are breathing new life into this run-down town square.
By Alkyone Karamanolis.
Translator Patrick Sheehan.
Reaching over the piles of peppers on sale at a market stall, Stephania Xydia hands the vegetable seller a colorful flyer: “It’s on tomorrow!” The flyer is an invitation to a community dinner on Varvakeios Square in Athens. “It starts at 7 p.m., and there will be food, music and an exhibition with the best suggestions for what to do with the square.” The trader weighs a kilo of tomatoes for a customer. The market on Varvakeios Square is a busy place at this time of day, just before midday. Once the market is over, people always come by to pick up the fruit and vegetables that have been discarded or have fallen on the ground— a clear symptom of the crisis. However, today is just a normal market day: customers still come along to examine the produce at the stands—potatoes, onions, and heaped-up stacks of peppers and tomatoes. There are also cherries, decorated with snow-white gardenia, as well as peaches and apricots. The vegetable seller is still studying the invitation when Stephania adds: “It would be great if each of you could contribute with some vegetables for the dinner, whatever you can manage.” The man nods, and Stephania Xydia says goodbye and moves on to the next stand.
Mary Karatza and Stelios Voulgaris are also walking around the market with Stephania. This trio came together in fall 2013 and become active as “Actors of Urban Change” in Athens. Each of them brought expertise from various fields to the table. Stephania Xydia had been campaigning for more citizens’ participation in the city for a long time with her “Place Identity gr” NGO. The interior architect Mary Karatza had been a representative of the commercial sector, and Stelios Voulgaris from the city authorities in Athens. Working together with traders and the few residents still left on the square, they developed ideas for the square in a number of workshops over the course of a year. The project created an opportunity for doing something that is unusual in Greece—namely, thinking from the citizens’ perspective: what makes Varvakeios square so inhospitable as it is? What went wrong in terms of planning, and how could the square be changed so as to increase its acceptance amongst the locals? Even the notoriously gruff traders showed up at the workshops. Finally someone was interested in hearing what they thought of the square!
The term “square” is actually a bit of an exaggeration for this location. An underground car park was built here the last time the square was redesigned, in 2004 just before the Olympic Games. Since then, the car park entrance has divided the square in two. When the traders close up their stands in the afternoon, nobody else comes here—and there are hardly any local, long-term residents left. However, the underground car park isn’t solely to blame. The depopulation of the city center in Athens started in the 1980s. The crisis in recent years has only helped to finish off the job: many shops have closed, offices have moved away, and buildings in downtown Athens are falling into disrepair. Varvakeios Square too is surrounded by empty buildings with dirty windows and crumbling plaster. The area would already be dead if it wasn’t for the market and the other little shops that are generally run by immigrants.
“We couldn’t have chosen a more difficult neighborhood to work in,” says Stephania Xydia in retrospect. If our project works here, then it will work everywhere, she says. “The traders start work here at four in the morning. And when they close, they only want to go home and rest for the following day.” Nonetheless, they came to the workshops when we were discussing how the square could be revitalized. “If we had been able to promise them that our ideas would actually be implemented, more people would have come out, and people would have been even more enthusiastic,” says Mary Karatza, an interior architect who was involved as an Actor of Urban Change from the commercial sector. “However, this definitely doesn’t mean that there is no civil society and no voluntary work here,” says Stephania, rejecting a cliché that is often heard abroad. “These things are just not organized on an institutional basis. It would never occur to the old lady here in my neighborhood who feeds the stray cats and gives them fresh water to refer to herself as a volunteer.”
By now, the group has arrived at one of the restaurants in the market. The owner will let them use his kitchen tomorrow—for free, of course. While Stephania is discussing details with the man, Stelios is handing out flyers. “Trust is a very important issue,” he says. Stelios Voulgaris is the Actor of Urban Change from the urban authorities in Athens. “Citizens in Greece are very sceptical when it comes to the authorities. At the same time, the authorities are mistrusting of citizen involvement too. They are afraid that they will cede areas of responsibility and lose control.” The group believes that their project, by involving various stakeholders, has helped to build bridges. In Stelios’ experience, individuals in the municipal authorities are actually very interested in engaging with the citizens. “Urban planners sit in their offices, they often live far away out in the suburbs, and they are quite simply out of touch when they have to come up with suggestions.” Word quickly got around about the project on Varvakeios Square. “An architect from the planning department in Athens recently got in touch with us. The city wants to convert an old multipurpose hall into a creative market and, following the lead set by our project, she asked us to put her in touch with similar groups or citizens’ initiatives.”
Varvakeios Square is also typical of the communication problem between citizens and authorities in many regards, says Mary. “Planning decisions are taken by bureaucrats who don’t know the situation on the ground. Citizens are not consulted.” Planning can be conducted quickly in this way, but the problems only become apparent later on. “There are a lot of places in the city that residents have never really accepted or made their own. For this reason, we wanted this project to tackle one issue in particular: how is public space planned in Greece, and what needs to be improved?”
The following evening offers a vision of how Varvakeios Square could look if more people spent more time there. One of the citizens’ ideas for revitalizing the square was to transform it into a source of information on healthy eating. To give people a taste of how this could work, a long table has been set up this evening to serve slow food – i.e. regional and traditional products that are intended to be the opposite of fast food. The ingredients were donated by the market traders—a remarkable gesture when one considers that their turnover has fallen by as much as 70 percent over the period of the economic crisis. However, they felt that the citizens’ project was a worthy cause. There were platters of ham, cheese pastries, sweet dishes, wine and salad, all from the region—and of course ratatouille too from the market restaurant. “I would like to see ...” was written on the white paper tablecloth, and there were pens laid out for guests to write down their ideas. A DJ played music and there was a relaxed atmosphere. Konstantinos Karantinos, who owns one of the buildings on the square, explained that he had been waiting for years for the city center to be revitalized. The workshops, which he of course participated in, made him hopeful that change was possible. Thanks to the project, people got to know each other better and was able to network, said the architect Katerina Pitouli, who is part of a small group of creative people who moved to the city center of Athens around ten years ago and were actively campaigning to create a livable urban environment.
Later on, the guests threw so-called “seed bombs” containing plant seeds—this was part of Katerina Pitouli’s idea of creating an oasis of greenery on the roof of the underground car park, which is accessible to the public, but is ugly and dominates the square. One seed has already been planted: residents of the town Missolonghi plan to start their own citizens’ project following the example of the Actors of Urban Change in Athens, and contact has already been established. However, urban planners from the city authorities in Athens have also approached Stephania Xydia’s group. A building on the square is in need of renovation and a tender for this project will soon be announced. The city authorities have asked the Actors of Urban Change if they would like to submit ideas developed in consultation with locals. Nothing has been decided yet, but with a little luck maybe the suggestions of the Actors of Urban Change will soon become reality.