Politics and Agency of Space in Athens

harvard graduate school of deisgn / cambridge, ma.
advisors: susan and norman fainstein  

There is politics of space because space is political.” (Lefebvre 1976: 33)           

            Space and particularly the urban space of cities is political and highly significant in democratic procedures and actions. More than ever, the city of Athens is a clear manifestation of this premise, not only in its direct formation by top-down and bottom-up political positions and actions, but also by its role as the capital of the country that becomes the main ground for political dialog and tension for not only local but also national matters. The 21st century has been a turbulent period for Athens, as the city has been significantly affected by the political decisions and the radical shift from economic growth to decline for the Greek state. The turmoil of political and economic oscillations at the national level are directly reflected on the capital of the country, affecting in many aspects the urban planning decisions at a municipal level and the response by the locals. Greece’s introduction in the European Union in 1981 and the Eurozone in 2001 (Council Decision L 167/21), and the Olympic Games in 2004 promoted a neoliberal growth in Athens, where state and European-funded capital is invested in the development of large scale infrastructure and private corporations in the metropolitan region. This neoliberal growth is currently further intensified in 2010s, where the enforced austerity measures in a national level to respond to the economic crisis include agendas of reduction of the public sector, privatizations and facilitations for foreign investments in the country. The city reflects the political conditions, and as Peck (2012: 651) argues in the “Austerity Urbanism”, the financial crisis is interlinked with the state and urban crisis, where each feeds and affects the others. In similar perspectives, Koutrolikou (2015: 173) states that cities such as Athens “enter the ‘crisis debate’ both as the locus of power (governmental, institutional and bottom-up)” and as “places where the effects of the crisis are more evidently manifested and experienced”. In all the national political decisions, the popular expression has been present and greatly manifested in the capital, with the city’s center filled with demonstrations and manifestations of democracy. In the turbulent 21st century, the political dialog between the national government and the populace has and continues to actively shape the city of Athens, whether that is through national legislation and measures or public demonstrations and gatherings across the parliament and in the city streets.

Before neoliberalism.
            Prior to the introduction of the country in the European Union and the undertaking of the Olympic Games, the city of Athens was largely defined by planning acts prepared by the central government, with significant state intervention focused on local needs and desires. The first significant planning act was introduced in 1983 to respond to spatial inequalities in Greek cities from environmental, social and functional issues, resulted from uncontrolled post-war development in housing properties and insufficient public infrastructure. The 1983 Act delegated the responsibility to the central government to prepare physical plans for the management and development of the urban areas, while allowing the implementation of a unified regulatory development framework for the rural areas (Zifou 2015: 156). The act was largely inclusive of the local post-war tactics of development, and deviating from the dominant western European standards. In particular, it had provisions for small-scale property of land and construction capital related to high percentages of housing ownerships, for the increasing role of the private sector in the development, particularly in housing and for the promotion of small scale construction sector as the primary drive of economic growth (Zifou 2015: 157). It is important to note that the particular state intervention in the planning of Athens was focused on supporting development from bottom-up approaches by locals and small-scale ownership rather than the externalization of the territory to foreign capital and investment, reinforcing the “right to the city” for the Athenians.

            By allowing certain freedoms for individual ownership and development the city of Athens was and continues in certain respects to be, according to Leontidou (1990), a representative example of the “Mediterranean city”, differing from other forms of European urban development in the North. In particular, the urbanization processes are not triggered by material economies and manufacturing processes of the market, but rather by the choices and decisions of the locals. In ways of emergence, the city growth is supported by an unplanned mode of self-financed small-scale property developments, with agency given to the locals and with minimal state intervention that mostly occurs in the form of infrastructures (Chorianopoulos et al. 2010: 251). The Athenian urban development prior to the 2000s was largely defined by certain state policies, planning acts, and primarily the small-scale entrepreneurial activity of the individuals, creating an urban environment that is largely specific to local culture and needs, and at a certain level introvert to external influences.

Neoliberal trends and globalization in Athens.
            At the rise of the 2000s and the emergence of Greece within the European territory, such urban development was contrasted with other European cities, where—in comparison to them—it was attributed with indicators of low competitiveness and introvert economic traits (Chorianopoulos et al. 2010: 252). State intervention in the planning of Athens remains, but the political agenda begins to shift its focus on addressing the “issue”, bringing a radical change for the city of Athens, through practices of externalization and integration of the city in processes of globalization. The integration of the Greek territory in the Schengen Area signed in 1992 and first implemented in the beginning of 2000 (Council Decision L 327/58) formed a passport-free zone amongst the many European counties, facilitating traveling and commuting, and contributing to an externalization of Athens and the attribution of the new identity of the European city. Such transformation was also much facilitated by the adoption of the euro currency and the introduction to the Eurozone in 2001, which is when the city began to be not only subject to national legislation, but also to European standards and initiatives. The various funding opportunities and policy recommendations were highly influential in the shaping of Athens, transferring the agency of the national government to the policy of the European Union. The tipping point can be considered to be the Olympic Games that broadcasted the city not only to its European Borders but throughout the world, manifesting an ultimate state of globalization. In the particular stage of state intervention, we could arguably assume that the externalization of the city would consequentially reduce the participation of the locals in the shaping of the city, which is determined primarily by the national government and the European Union guidelines.

            The state intervention in the planning of Athens changes not only the agencies and the stakeholders that begin to affect the city, but also quite literally the transformation of the urban environment. Right before the turn to the 21st century, a new planning legislation was introduced, which stood as an oppositional ideology to the previous planning policies, promoting more state intervention in the large-scale construction of infrastructure that was either in part the result of EU funding programs or part of the Olympic Games projects (Zifou 2015: 157). The political agenda was focused on revamping the indicators of low competitiveness of the Athenian Metropolitan Region—a result of introverted economic practices, outdated infrastructures and lack of environmental policies—to raise Athens to the standards of other contemporary European cities (Chorianopoulos et al. 2010: 252). Such infrastructures emerged through public and private partnerships for their construction and management, and were later privatized with their toll income transferred directly to the private sector (Dalakoglou 2013: 27). The urban development conducted by the state at this stage is not small-scale and owned by the public, but rather neoliberal in character and transferred to the ownership of larger—often foreign—corporations, reducing even more the agency of the residents in the city (Chorianopoulos et al. 2010: 253).

Athens in crisis, austerity measures and the reinforcement of neoliberal trends.
            The tipping point of neoliberal manifestations in the urban development and loss of agency of the state and the public in the shaping of the city was reached in the still-ongoing national economic crisis through the enforcement of the austerity measures. Greece officially entered a financial crisis in 2010, with the adoption of the “First Economic Adjustment Programme for Greece” or “First Memorandum”, signed by the Greek national government and the European commission—on behalf of the Eurogroup, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (European Commission 2010). Agency was indeed lost, when the national government declared to be unable to cope with the economic distress of the state and requested assistance from the European Union and the IMF. The various national governments would often even declare that decisions made at the national level were not expressive of their particular personal desires and ideologies, but rather guidelines imposed by external financial agents. Nevertheless, the externally-imposed established regulations and legislative modifications significantly affected not only the financial status of the capital, but also the societal dynamics the collective. The “externally” prescribed structural adjustment program for the reduction of the national debt entailed a neoliberal agenda, with the shrinkage of the public sector and its restructuring—such as the “Kallikratis ”plan and the merge of local municipalities in larger administrative units—and the extensive privatization of the public property (Markantonatou 2015: 200). This was directly connected to the spatial planning policies, which were now oriented towards austerity and reduction of the national debt through the creation of favorable conditions for private investment, entrepreneurial activity and competitiveness. (Zifou 2015: 155). For the sake of economic growth and increase in entrepreneurial activity particularly in Athens, certain enterprise agreements would even bypass national and collective agreements, favoring bargaining between individuals (Markantonatou 2015:200). At the same time, the imposed austerity measures of increased taxations had devastating effects on the existing small and medium scale local enterprises that were once the core of the Greek economic growth. From the first month of the implementation of the measures, more than 65,000 local enterprises were closed (Mylonas 2011: 8). Maria Zifou argues that the reform of the Greek planning strategies was largely associated with post-Fordist economic dynamics, in the facilitation and opening of the Greek economy to global processes of accumulation of capital (Zifou 2015: 156), which would also imply an increasing loss of agency in the city from the part of the local populations.

Initial reactions and Athens as an urban space of political contestation.
            The national decisions of neoliberal agendas and the recent austerity measures implemented in the country, from the “First Memorandum” in 2010 to the subsequent second and third signed in 2012 and 2015 respectively, were received with intense reactions from the public. The public spaces of the capital were soon filled with demonstrations against the national austerity and crisis measures particularly in 2011 (Dalakoglou 2013: 28), where people regain space and agency in an increasing neoliberal ground. From the first day of the signing of the initial memorandum, around 100,000 citizens gathered in the central “Syntagma” square across the Greek parliament to demonstrate and express their disagreement to the established policy (see Figure 1). On that day and throughout the subsequent demonstrations to the imposed measures, the center of Athens reflects Lefebvre’s vision for the city, as it is rendered as a “projection of society on the ground”, and particularly the “place of confrontations . . . the ‘site of desire’ . . . and the site of revolutions” (Makrygianni 2015: 181). Dalakoglou (2013: 36) argues that the square changed its meaning in the city and the country through the suicide of a retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas in 2012. In his declaration in a written note he stated that his age did not allow him to directly react to the political conditions, and that he preferred a dignified ending rather than the search for food in the garbage. Through radical acts and outbreaks, the citizens regained for a moment their right to the city or rather their right to the country, after the continuous and increasing prevalence of external agents in the country. As Makrygianni (2015: 195) points out, the demonstrations weren’t only a defense against the violence of the State, but more importantly against “all that resembled the presence of sovereign power”.

            Lefebvre’s “right to the city” did not last long for the citizens, as the right for participation and appropriation in the urban space was quickly suppressed by state, municipal and police forces. During the 48-hour anti-austerity strike by public employees on June 28th 2011 was combatted by police enforcements in the “Syntagma” square, where the use of approximately 2,000 tear-gas canisters made it difficult for people to gather, rally or even simply be present in the city center (Dalakoglou 2013: 34). The police repression during the days of the demonstrations was largely criticized even by international humanitarian organizations, such as the Amnesty International (2011a), which urged the forces to “not use excessive force during protests” (2011a), observing the increasing hospitalizations of protesters due to the high exposures in tear gas (2011b). Nevertheless, both the central government and the municipalities stood against the demonstrations in the city center, with the then-mayor of Athens George Kaminis stating that a portion of the population should be prohibited to occupy public spaces that are aimed to remain clean and orderly, and used by all city residents (Makrygianni 2015: 189). In response to this, it is quite interesting to note that the particular square is named after the Greek term for “constitution” and after the demonstrations of 1843, when the then Bavarian king of Greece Otto I was unable to resist to the demonstrations of the Greek army and the citizens, providing the first constitution (Hou and Knierbein 2017: 122). Under such historical considerations, this can only make us wonder if there is indeed a better use of the square than that of the demonstrations that are opposed to a series of memorandums that have often been criticized by scholars raising concerns for unconstitutionality (Koutrolikou 2015: 187).

            The politician’s view of the “right to the city” is indeed highly distorted, which is particularly also evident when encountering political science literature. We can consider Harvey and Potter’s perspective, where the right to the city isn’t only a “right of access” but rather also “a right to change it more after our hearts’ desires”. The freedom to remake ourselves and our urban environment is “one of the most precious of all human rights”, which is to be established only through the “social mobilization and collective political/social struggle” (Harvey and Potter 2009: 45). They also argue that the demonstrations in public space and through claiming urban territories allow for such movements to be visible to the larger population giving their demands and cries a significant voice and force (Harvey and Potter 2009: 49). Nicholls and Vermeulen (2012) move even further, suggesting that we replace the “right to the city” with the “rights through the city”, arguing that the urban space with its unique attributes of density, mobility, number etc. can be utilized by social movements and activists to initiate dialogues with the political initiatives and decisions. It is important to note that the rights of the individuals—to participate “in the social, economic and political life of the country” (Mexi 2018: 96)—are stated to be protected and guaranteed by the state and all of its agencies by the Greek Constitution (art. 25 par. 1, translated from Greek), therefore the “right to the city” is not only an optional ideology to be adopted, but rather a value that is mandated by the state.

            Notwithstanding the expressed public disagreement and demonstrations of a bottom-up determination of the city, the top-down dominance of the central government and the austerity measures continued to affect the city in dramatic ways. The GDP of the Attica region followed the national trends, and was decreased by 1.2 per cent in 2009 only, and similar were the trajectories in the private building activity and the construction industry (Souliotis 2013: 243). From the 2008 to 2012, the net income for the wage-dependent households decreased by 13.5 per cent, with the lower classes experiencing higher percentages between 16.4 and 34.6 per cent. This was accompanied by a radical increase in unemployment from 7.3 in 2008 to 26.6 per cent in 2014 (Mexi 2018: 92). The rise of poverty was most evident in the capital, where from the beginning of the austerity measures in 2010, the local “Médecins du Monde” were raising concerns for the presence of a humanitarian crisis in Athens, along with the rise of food rations, solidarity and charity networks that would support the increasing vulnerable populations in the capital (Koutrolikou 2016: 185). In parallel, the top-down governance shows its “care” for the public interest and the city of Athens, by guiding the media through the “National Council for Radio and Television” to refrain from broadcasting negative aspects of the crisis in the city, whether that is poverty and deprivation, or police acts in obstructing demonstrations (Vestraete and Ampatzidou 2019: 188), in order to “protect the image” of the city. Vestraete and Ampatzidou urge us to revalorize the conflicts and the public expression in the streets of Athens, and resist the state’s efforts to homogenize and remove the noise in the city (Vestraete and Ampatzidou 2019: 189).

            While bottom-up approaches attempt to remediate the ongoing effects of the crisis and the national decisions in the urban space of Athens, the central national government continues to intervene in the city matters, by implementing measures that further reduce the agency of the people and public spaces through their privatization often in non-local stakeholders. Through the passing of the seminal law “Emergency Measures for the Implementation of the Medium Term Fiscal Strategy Framework 2012-2015 (L. 3986/11), the regulation has power over any planning strategies in the permitting and selling of the state property in Athens (Zifou 2015: 164). In addition, the Hellenic Asset Development Fund titled “TAIPED”, established by the Ministry of Finance and supported by members of the EU states and mostly foreign experts and advisors, has the absolute control over the management and privatization of all state property. The recently-constructed urban infrastructures and public spaces in the city—such as the Olympic Games property—are subject to actions of privatization, and the agency is also granted the right to issue permits and bypass existing planning legislations to facilitate the selling procedures (Zifou 2015: 165). An example of increasing concern for the city of Athens has been the waterfront site of the “Ellinikon”, which, despite its original designation as a public park and the recent demonstrations and public concerns, is planned as a mix of various land uses primarily related to consumption and catered to foreign buyers of higher income (Castro et al. 2012).

Conclusions and final thoughts.
            Athens remains a land of contradictions, where the conflictual positions of the formal governance and the expressions of the local populations each define their territories of action and reaction. Space is largely pluralistic, extending from the recent expansion of neoliberal trends to the small scale settlements that express a culture of locality. The dialog of top and bottom—as seen from the various examples in this paper—is unsuccessful, as the two opposing sides are highly polarized and segregated from each other. From the particular cases examined, such miscommunication is largely promoted by the national and municipal authorities that promote homogeneity in the urban space and often obstruct with violence the expression of the opposing views. All the various demonstrations in the 2010s, although significant and supported by many, remain unsuccessful as the political agenda continues to be enforced in the Athenian territory. Harvey and Potter (2009: 48) suggest that the decentralization of power caused by neoliberalism can be utilized for the development of local initiatives and the rise of bottom-up forces in the forms of “decentralized socialism” and “social anarchism”. Perhaps the occupations of public spaces and protests are not as effective anymore, as much as the investment in the collective action and the power of solidarity in reclaiming the “right to the city”. Nevertheless, the ultimate destiny of the political space of Athens remains ambiguous, as the level of forces and the desires of the various positions and stakeholders remain unknown.

Figure 1. 100,000 people protest against the austerity measures in front of parliament building in Athens (29 May 2011).


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