Since the Greek debt crisis began to unfold in 2009, Athens has become something of an unofficial poster child for informal urbanism. But as Cristina Ampatzidou explains, this Athenian attitude to public space is actually nothing new – and neither, it seems, is the space that exists between the state, the city and its citizens.
Athens is a city where the distinction between formal and informal is sometimes very hard to establish. Transcending all scales from the local appropriation of public spaces to the large-scale urbanisation of Greek cities, the production of urban space has developed on a fine balance between state regulations and individual initiatives. Even though this condition is hardly anything new to the Greeks, in light of the ongoing crisis and the impressive response from the bottom, Athens comes increasingly to focus as the newly discovered European capital of informal urban practices.
The failure of the state to prevent the deconstruction of welfare structures has assigned the actions of citizen groups and initiatives a central role in providing many of the social public services, extending from medical services for the uninsured, food and shelter for the homeless, to the maintenance and beautification of public spaces. As the public space is where the image of each city is primarily constituted, it is precisely in this space where the political, economic and social impacts of and responses to the crisis are materialised, forming new dynamic geographies.
Grassroots initiatives encompass a spectrum of diverse approaches and ideologies, which makes it impossible to talk about them as a unified phenomenon. Some groups try to achieve broad alliances around their projects, investing time and resources in negotiating with local authorities, inhabitants and shop owners, actively engaging in the activation of local community networks, managing cultural capital and supporting the most vulnerable groups. Initiatives such as the Urban Dig Project that have spent over a year in the Dourgouti neighbourhood bringing together inhabitants, universities and artists, in a series of events and interventions. Operating outside any institutional realm, self-organised social centres, such as Nosotros or Embros Theater organise a range of open cultural activities. Representing different political positions, both these approaches express long term, sustainable and viable paradigms that extend beyond the direct consequences of the crisis.
Nevertheless the majority are groups that act in the short term, as almost activist interventions. Atenistas have collected chewing gum from sidewalks, cleaned abandoned plots of land, and painted and decorated neglected city corners. Proclaiming themselves to be “Athenians in practice”, Atenistas are the local expression of a culture of individuation that attempts to bypass the state and other forms of organised social action and “affirm their share of responsibility in improving the image of their city”.
Such collectivities often claim to assist the state and local administration, either by demonstrating what needs to be done or by substituting them and assuming their responsibilities. This notion of collective initiative and space production puts forward a new idea of citizenship aimed at changing the existing governmental structure indirectly, from within: utilising participation as a new institution that can circumvent established social structures. As time passes and the crisis deepens, some of these voluntary groups have become an institutional core to which the city turns, seeking steady collaborations.
It is also important to notice that despite the attention they receive, such efforts remain mostly individual initiatives supported by limited numbers of people and often fail to instigate larger scale coordination to address actual deficiencies of public space. This accounts both for individuals, who opportunistically support or oppose interventions in the vicinity of their shops or houses when it benefits them, and for the groups themselves that act on their own small scale projects with no ambitions for strategic thinking. This fragmentation also conditions the relation of such initiatives with city authorities. Because of the positive intentions of these interventions, municipalities are compelled to facilitate such groups to carry out projects that contribute to a favourable image of the city. On the other hand, by maintaining the strategic focus and selectively supporting some initiatives over others, the city government influences the reach and longevity of many of these initiatives.
According to Amalia Zepou, Vice Mayor for Civil Society and Municipality Decentralisation, the relationship between the Municipality of Athens and such groups is not one of dependence but a complementary one, where both citizens and the city administration can work together to increase the quality of life in the city, and where the Municipality takes on a mediatory role instead of that of a sole decision maker. Zepou is the initiator of SynAthina, a platform where citizen initiatives can present themselves, get in contact with the city administration and potential sponsors, and network with each other. For the Municipality of Athens, SynAthina serves a triple purpose: it functions as a source of information about the problems that are top priorities for the citizens, so they are willing to bring forward new solutions and ideas. It is also a platform through which the city can empower initiatives by providing information, permissions and connections to private sponsors. Finally, it is an opportunity for the city administration to modernise its infrastructure by incorporating new technologies and processes developed by these groups or updating its regulations to facilitate further participation of people in their activities.
However for Platon Issaias, architect and author of the dissertation Beyond the Informal City – Athens and the Possibility of an Urban Common, this entanglement of state and informal practices is hardly an innocent relationship. Spontaneity, informality and voluntarism often act as a smoke screen for a strategy of replacing central planning with a series of managerial tasks, aiming at what appears as an undisputable and unified common good. But, Issaias tells me, there is no single common good; there are things that are good for some people at the expense of others, and stating that a group of people is acting for everybody’s benefit implies a political choice. This is particularly true in the case of a municipality that is subjected to political processes and power relations. In that sense, grassroots initiatives and citizen groups cannot be viewed in isolation from the political positions they represent, openly or not, and we must constantly scrutinise which interests their actions may serve.
Cristina Ampatzidou is a researcher and writer with a background in Architecture and Urbanism and editor in-chief of Amateur Cities. Currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Groningen on the topic of gaming and urban complexity, Cristina is also a regular contributor to urbanism and architecture magazines and a collaborator of the Architecture Film Festival of Rotterdam.
This discourse, of course, does not reduce either the ingenuity of many interventions nor the honesty behind the intentions of the people who offer their time and resources for making their city a better place. However, cities are places full of conflicts and contradictions and each collectivity and each action needs to be positioned separately in this landscape of motivations, actions and political directions. The immediate impact of grassroots organisations on public space in Athens might currently be on the spotlight, but how reliable can they be in the long term? When these actions are filling a gap on account of the lack of public services from existing apparatuses, the nature of the relationship between the state and grassroots initiatives needs to remain a topic of constant negotiation. I