Thursday, May 26

‘The next decade will be all about the heat’: can Athens avoid the climate crisis? | Greece

LLike every mayor of Athens, Kostas Bakoyannis is well aware of the illustrious heritage of one of the oldest cities in the world. After all, he says, it is the busts of Pericles and his lover Aspasia that adorn the entrance to the neoclassical town hall. From the windows of his cavernous office, he can glimpse the Parthenon through the jumble of concrete buildings and antennas.

But Bakoyannis prefers to talk about the present, especially his plans for fountains, parks and trees, antidotes to the afflictions of more modern times.

“When you are mayor of Athens you are not in dialogue with history,” he says. “You are in dialogue with the problems, needs, aspirations and hopes of today’s Athenians and anyone who can visit Athens even for a day.”

With that mission, Bakoyannis has a lot of work ahead of him. Decades of reckless urban planning are catching up with the city. Pollution, densely populated neighborhoods, and traffic congestion – byproducts of an uncontrolled construction spree that began in the 1950s – are still evident today.

A small park in Athens.
A small park in Athens. Photograph: Vassilis Triandafyllou / Reuters

Under conditions often compared to a pressure cooker, temperatures can exceed 40 ° C (104 ° F) in the summer. “Our models show that annual mean temperatures across the Mediterranean increase by up to 2 ° C over the next 30 years,” says Christos Zerefos, professor of atmospheric physics. “In the summer, the air temperature will rise by more than 3 ° C. Ecosystems will suffer.”

Bakoyannis, the scion of a political dynasty, was elected to office in 2019. He knows time is of the essence.

Mayor of Athens Kostas Bakoyannis.
Kostas Bakoyannis, Mayor of Athens. Photograph: Costas Baltas / Reuters

“What we are facing is not a climate crisis, but clearly a climate emergency,” he says. “If we want to do our job well, we have to adhere to the principles of resilience and sustainability.”

With the help of state and private sector support, EU structural funds and municipal fees, the budget allocated to green spaces has quadrupled. Every year, € 10 million goes to nature conservation, according to Bakoyannis, whose candidacy was backed by the now-ruling center-right New Democracy party and led by his uncle, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Public-private partnerships, until recently a rarity in Greece, will help finance a huge “double regeneration” project involving the conversion of a football stadium in the heart of Athens into an urban park, and an ecological reform for the industrial wasteland in the poorest. western suburbs where the sand will be relocated.

A municipal employee works in a pocket park in Athens, Greece.
A municipal employee works in a pocket park in Athens, Greece. Photograph: Louiza Vradi / Reuters

Progress has been made in reducing car lanes to regain public space for pedestrians and cyclists, rejuvenate the hills of Athens, fix fountains in public squares and create pocket parks.

All projects have one goal: to offset the challenges that Europe’s warmest city is likely to face as a result of rising temperatures.

“The next decade will focus on heat,” says Lenio Myrivili, co-chair of the Washington-based organization. Extreme Heat Resistance Alliance, who advises Bakoyannis. “How we manage it and prepare for it will be vital.”

Myrivili, a former deputy mayor of Athens, has no doubt what to expect if no action is taken. The Greek capital has been highlighted in studies on the risks posed by climate change. An analysis of 571 European cities by the University of Newcastle in 2018 predicted that they would experience the worst increases in severe droughts and heat waves by 2050. In a similar study, the rating agency Moody’s also ranked the Greek capital with the highest exposure. to rising temperatures. As heat waves are likely to become more frequent and extreme, he predicted that Greece’s credit strength would also become “sensitive to climate change …”. [particularly] if heat waves depressed tourist activity ”.

Before the pandemic, Athens had become increasingly popular as a tourist destination, attracting more than six million visitors in 2019.

“It is imperative that we protect the city by mitigating the heat,” says Myrivili. “The best way to do this is by introducing nature, biodiversity and ecosystems in urban areas. We will also need to more intelligently manage our water resources and ultimately bring life back to the rivers of Attica, so scandalously cemented. “

Athens was the first city to subscribe to Prince Charles’ Terra Charter, (Earth Charter), described as a roadmap to a post-pandemic green recovery, when British royalty visited the capital for the 200th anniversary of the war of independence last month.

After a “lost decade” as a result of the nation’s prolonged economic crisis, Bakoyannis says he is determined not to waste any more time due to the coronavirus crisis.

Taking advantage of the tranquility of the confinement, the municipal teams have focused on renovating forgotten parks and hills.

Children play in a pocket park in Kolonos in Athens
Children play in a pocket park in Kolonos in Athens. Photograph: Xinhua / REX / Shutterstock

In Omonia Square, the central square also within sight of the Acropolis, analysis has shown that temperatures have dropped by as much as four degrees since a multi-jet fountain was installed last year.

Not all public works have gone well. The mayor’s desire to “liberate” public space has its critics. Bakoyannis, who also vowed to tackle vehicle emissions by reducing traffic in the city center, was forced to return a lane of traffic on a major avenue amid opposition to the measure.

“Like most Athenians, I would love for the city center to be pedestrianized,” says Kostas Hadzopoulos walking his Yorkshire terrier through the newly planted field. pocket park in Pangrati, one of the most congested districts in central Athens. But many of these movements seem sloppy and ill-thought out. That said, it used to be a garbage dump and now it’s a breath of fresh air. “

Bakoyannis is optimistic about the criticism that his political opponents have also made.

“Change is never easy,” he says. “At the end of the day, improving the quality of life is not ideological … We are all in this fight together.”

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