[MGSA-L] In Athens, the financial crisis is driving collaborative new forms of municipal government

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Sat Sep 19 18:10:16 PDT 2015

In Athens, the financial crisis is driving collaborative new forms of
municipal government
By Vas Panagiotopoulos

The Acropolis: one of the older bits of municipal architecture in Athens.
Image: Vas Panagiotopoulos.

Life in Athens is changing rapidly. The economic and social challenges
brought upon by the financial crisis have forced Athenians to rethink how
they interact with their city. Vital municipal functions, that elsewhere
are the results of meticulous planning and city council intervention, are
now undertaken by collaborative citizen initiatives in the fiscally bereft
Greek capital.

Loukas Bartatilas is a Bauhaus University-trained architect, and a curator
at the community project of cultural foundation *NEON*
<http://neon.org.gr/en/about/> that remodels public spaces through
participatory and socially engaged art. "The crisis, and the absence of an
adequate institutional and legal framework, have forced people to take
matters into their own hands," he says.

Collaborative urban regeneration projects are now commonplace in the
Agora* <http://pedio-agora.gr/project/> for example, a *Robert Bosch
Foundation* <http://actors-of-urban-change.eu/> project that Bartatilas
worked on, focused on a deserted square opposite the *Varvakios Market*
<http://www.athenswalk.net/_/Shopping_Varvakios_Agora.html> in central
Athens. Its purpose was to engage with local residents in a participatory
planning process in order to come up with recommendations for the future of
the square.

"This was done through citizen workshops on the needs of the
neighbourhood," explains Bartatilas. "The results were delivered to the
city council."  Similar initiatives include the *Place Identity*
<http://placeidentity.gr/> network that hosts workshops on participatory
design and the social innovation lab *180º*

As the crisis negatively has influenced Greek environmental politics, urban
agriculture citizen interventions, including *guerrilla gardening*
 and local*consumer-producer networks* <http://www.facebook.com/Thalein>,
have become another emerging trend in Greek city life. Architect
Konstantinos Zarbis attracted a lot of *media attention*
he turned the roof of his apartment building in central Athens into a farm,
complete with trees and chickens.

"Athens is *brimming with initiatives* <http://citiesintransition.eu/athens> by
social entrepreneurs that empower citizens to take responsibility and
provide sustainable business solutions," says Betty Tsakarestou, an
assistant professor in the media and culture department at Panteion
University. (She's also a co-author of a *research paper*
<http://openarchive.cbs.dk/handle/10398/8997> on "Cities as Platforms for
Co-creating Experience-based Business and Social Innovations.")
"Entrepreneurs, the local startup ecosystem and cultural institutions are
acting as urban innovators and cultural accelerators with their

*Athens' Impact Hub. Image: Vas Panagiotopoulos.*

Collaborative co-working spaces such as the *Impact Hub*
<http://athens.impacthub.net/en/> in the *Psirri*
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psyri> area and the Netherlands
Embassy-backed *Orange Grove* <http://www.orangegrove.biz/> have also
become very popular. "Athens has the potential to evolve into a platform
for urban and social innovation, connecting those hubs and initiatives into
a coherent storytelling to be embraced and scaled up both by Athenians and
global stakeholders,"continues Tsakarestou.

Meanwhile, the acute need for food in Athens’ deprived neighbourhoods gave
rise to a lot of social support initiatives. *Organization Earth*
<http://www.organizationearth.org/> hosts weekly participatory food
workshops in a park, while an unnamed citizens’ group – that counts in its
ranks many former homeless people – operates urban kitchens in the areas
such as *Metaxourgeio* <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaxourgeio> and
*Kypseli* <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kypseli,_Athens>. For hygiene
reasons it's actually prohibited in Athens to set up soup kitchens in the
open – but the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye.

Further local initiatives include the political innovation platform *Politieia
2.0* <http://politeia2.org/>, which aims to create a constitution for
Greece through citizen contributions. Then there's *Generation 2.0 for
Rights Equality & Diversity* <http://g2red.org/>, that addressescitizenship
issues of second-generation immigrants. And the *Babel*
isproviding psychological support to refugees.

Elsewhere, a local electrician set up *Bright Kypseli*
<http://www.fotinikipseli.gr/> to illuminate with LED the entrances of
apartment blocks for energy-saving and safety reasons in an underprivileged
part of town where darkness and fear prevail. Finally, the regularly
occurring *Alternative Tours of Athens* <http://www.atathens.org/> "promote
tourism through alternative landmarks putting an emphasis on modern city

Mapping and linking all these grassroots groups has been challenging.  But
the*Omikron Project* <http://omikronproject.gr/grassroots> has started
listing them, and the *Synathina* <http://www.synathina.gr/> platform,
which aspired to provide an ideas exchange platform for these groups, was
set up in 2012.

"Through the platform we got some tangible numbers on what has happened in
the city in the past two years," explains Maria Chatzopoulou, Synathina’s
head of communications. The numbers are impressive: "A total of 778 actions
have been listed online since July 2013 in the fields of urban
intervention, environment, culture & education, networking, and children’s
activities. There are currently 167 citizens’ groups taking part."

To scale up new initiatives, and transform distinct best practices into
more systematic and impactful outcomes, institutional and legal innovation
is the key. What initially started as a mere grassroots project, became
official in 2014, when the Synathina platform won the backing of the
council and a new "Vice-Mayoralty for Civil Society" was created. "Our goal
is to strengthen this cooperation with the help of the reliable services of
the Athens City Council," continues Chatzopoulou.

Athens is in the process of redefining its mission and storytelling on the
global map. "Now that old certainties are under reflection all over Europe,
Athens could provide the missing link," summarises Professor Tsakarestou –
"a narrative on how to rethink European cities and their infrastructures
for local and global collective action."

*Vas Panagiotopoulos is a London-based writer and PR consultant. He tweets
as at vas_ldn <https://twitter.com/vas_ldn>.*
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