City issue

Urban Theory, articles and research

The shifting Public Space

Constantina Theodorou, Public Domain, curated by Artemis Potamianou & Giorgos Papadatos, Lo and Behold edition, 2015, Athens

The debate around public art has to deal with the exceptional difficulty of being founded upon a ground that is anything but solid: that of public space. Once public space had been understood as a term, becoming potentially public, a representation of the function of democracy and hence subject to all its nuances, it remained constantly in question, much like democracy itself. And while the theoretical debate moves into increasingly intangible realms —to Bruce Robbins [1], public space will always be a spectre that was never there, existing only through its absence— in real life the quest for public space is stepped up as local authorities, companies and organisations try to capture its spectral presence and delineate it in the form of designs, programmes and redevelopments for better public spaces. The standardised, predictable results vindicate the laments of urban planners and human geographers who claim that public space as we knew it is finished [2] – if, indeed, it ever existed . The recognition of what is lost re-triggers the search for it, although it is not certain whether the spectre of public space can ever become tangible, even fleetingly; whether it can fit into the pattern of reality and have all its contents gain the designation ‘public’ – public art, public debate, public action.

The lost squares
Reclaim the streets. Whether as a slogan of the activist movement of that name which claimed the streets for pedestrians or in its subsequent guise as the ‘occupy movement’ or, conversely, as the beacon in the programme of former New York mayor R. Giuliani [3] and his many subsequent imitators who pledged to remove the ‘undesirables’ from public space, the very same war cry about reclaiming public space permeates the rhetoric of both sides. At the back of all those quests for an ideal public space there is always this nostalgic, idealistic image of the traditional square, the ancient Greek Agora, the European square. It was on these, and for these, squares that the recent battles of democracy were fought. The greatest virtue of this ideal public space is its accessibility to all, since public space is activated by the crowds that fill it.

It is precisely in the name of accessibility that the ‘public’ aspect is debased. Continue reading

Citizen, resident or volunteer? The right to the city

By Constantina Theodorou

News no1
“Citizens will clean from graffiti the pedestrian way of Apostolou Pavlou (the one that surrounds Acropolis). This action, which calls the citizens to protect and show off their city is the result of collaboration of three different bodies : the journalist’s Nikos Vatopoulos group of citizens “Every Sunday in Athens”, the municipality of Athens and the deputy mayor of Cleaning Andreas Varelas and the anti-graffiti materials company Booka of Elias Andreopoulos. With Nikos Vatopoulos at the role of the basic negotiations person and instigator of the action, it is finally feasible this gathering of power in the name of the city” (link here)

News No2
“With the coordination of ELLET( Hellenic company) and with the initiative of Lydia Carras and Maya Tsoklis, institutions and citizens created the Citizens Network for the Historical Center, aiming to make the Historical Center of Athens viable again and put an end to its degradation. At the historic building of ELLET, citizens of the Historical Center were there on Tuesday 04.11.2014 to declare their decision for the historical Center of Athens to exit the quagmire and make it viable again. (link here)

The discussion about the word citizen
These are two very recent news of the month November 2014. They may be small and without any importance, but there is something very interesting in them, that is not the event itself, but the language of the news, and more specifically the use of the word citizen. A year before the titles of both these articles would be something like that: “volunteer’ s cleaning action” and “residents of the historical center …”
But now the word citizen (politis in greek) comes to replace the words volunteer and resident, while totally replacing the word dimotis (in greek dimotis is the citizen of a city, and politis is a citizen in general, the citizen of a state). This small language shift would not really matter if it happened for every similar news. If e.g. all the volunteers who clean were called citizens and all the residents who talk about their neighbourhoods were called citizens too. Still though, some active citizens, as in Plato’s Academy neighbourhood,( a low income neighbourhood around Plato’s Academy) are still called “residents”, but some others who clean Apostolou Pavlou and meet at the offices of ELLET are upgraded to” citizens”.
Usually the propagandistic use of the word citizen is related with the purpose to emphasize and distinguish the Greek national identity. With this connotation it is used on the news to make the distinction between the criminal immigrant and the victim Greek citizen, or vice versa, rewarding the foreigner who makes a remarkable achievement upgrading him to a citizen, so as to say worthy to be Greek. This is a typical use of the word citizen, defined in the context of a National identity and a Nation-State. But when we talk about the issues of the city where Greek citizens, with the same national identity are discerned to residents, volunteers and citizens, what is the meaning of the word citizen?
The linguistic shift from the volunteer to citizen happens at a time when the words citizen, active citizen and civil society are in the epicentre of every debate and policy planning in EU and around the globe, whereas the word volunteer with all its negative connotations is going to be withdrawn. It is also a moment when the redefinition of the term citizen becomes very urgent, as it gets detached from the clear framework of the Nation-State and expands itself in the broader framework of a denationalized or post-national- transnational identity. What all these mean?
Roughly the denationalized identity is this that is practised even in the context of a nation-state but independently of it, through the participation in smaller or much bigger networks. (e.g. through the participation to a global petition, or the making of neighbourhood park). It is the identity of the citizen who belongs to the Civil Society and it is the one more suitable to approach the issues of the city. The post-national identity suits more to approach situations as these of the citizens of EU, who are simultaneously citizens of a state, and a union of states.
Saskia Sassen, full versed in these matters, gave a lecture last November during the Creative Summit meeting at Stockholm, asking this very crucial question “Who is a Citizen?” The discussion is not literal and is extremely crucial. It has to do with our rights- with our right to space. The definition of “citizen”  requires to define who has rights, which rights and where.

Continue reading

Adoptions of public spaces- The effects on “public life”

Constantina Theodorou, published on Architektones, vol.11, April 2014

Dos Jotas / DON’T EVEN THINK. New York series 2014

On the sidelines of the hot urban news now, there are some other minor news, which may not seem worthy of attention at first, but in a quiet, subtle, and insiduous way, they prepare a new state of things for the Public Space in Greece. The matter at stake here, is  the private management of public space, a very familiar model in other countries, institutionalized in many different variations. In Greece, it hasn’t obtained yet any official legal form, though the following examples pave the way for it, eliciting social legitimacy and consensus.
In the shadow of all the big urban issues last year we came across these little news. First all it is the Municipality’s decision to assign the National Garden to NEON foundation (Daskalopoulos, its founder, is one of the most economically powerful men in Greece and big art collector) in order to expose its sculpture collections and organize art biennales and other events. Then it is the initiative for the “adoption” of Syntagma square by the owner of Grande Bretagne, Athens’ most luxurious hotel lying just adjacent to the square, and last of all it is the initiative of the NGO “Paradigmatos Charin ” (aka “For example”) to renovate playgrounds in Athens, starting with a playground in the central neighbourhood of Koukaki, one of the least problematic areas of Athens of crisis. The first case, of NEON foundation, is fortunately at this moment on the court, after the intervention of “Friends of National Garden” group, who accuse NEON for intending to change the form and function of the garden, which is a national monument under preservation. As for the playground initiative, the whole neighbourhood rose up against it , as a response to the cut tress and the strongly intrusive design.
In the cases of National Garden and the playground, the nature of interventions, whic had to do with alterations of the existing landscape and cutting of trees, had an impact to some sensitive citizens, who reacted against them. Instead, the polishing of Syntagma’s square didn’t bother anyone at all, maybe because no one paid any attention to the rest of the news, that the maintenance of the square is undertaken by the hotel owner, with all that this entails. Continue reading

HRADF at Attica Region- Public land for sale

Click on the image and  see which state properties have been transferred to the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund and are going to be sold (or have  been sold)


(HDRAF Attica map, for the group KOINO athina, by Constantina Theodorou)

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Rethink Athens- A clear yes or no and a possibly maybe

Constantina Theodorou

On Monday 31/03 there was a presentation for the historic centre of Athens, at the headquarters of “Anichti Poli/ (Open City),  a solidarity space for the city of Athens,  left- Syriza affiliated. The presentation opened with the talk of Gabriel Sakelaridis, the candidate of Syriza on the forthcoming municipal elections of May. Till the end of his talk there was a great question left with a doubt. Does the candidate mayor stand for or against “Rethink Athens”? There was a disappointment for many in the audience, expecting to hear a clear yes or no. To be accurate they just expected to hear the “no” answer, and they found it as a weak point of the candidacy that there is not a clear stance against what is thought to be a “beautification project” in a broken city, which is officially characterized by UNESCO as city  under Humanitarian crisis.

In an implicit way there was an answer. The candidate mayor during the presentation of his program said that “according to our views, the few available funding, shouldn’t go altogether to so called “emblematic projects”, depriving resources from the neighbourhoods. A city shouldn’t have as a trademark a “gentrified centre”.

Given that we talk about pre-election promises, (who can seriously count on them?)  it is assumed that the candidate is rather against Rethink. But is he really? And if he’s not why he’s not? But does it make any sense being for or against Rethink?

The answer to this question, is that it doesn’t really matter what  any candidate mayor thinks of it, as he will have no serious power in the process of approving and realizing this key project for the city. The decisions on the project are beyond the jurisdiction of the Municipality, on the level of the Ministry and the Region (the funding agreement was signed as follows: 38million euro from the Ministry of Constructions and 40.5 million Euro from the Region of Attiki). The mayor didn’t sign anything and he’s not supposed to sign anything since he has no money to put on this. Only for typical reasons the project is  under the  suspices of Municipality  amongst other operators.

So since the mayor can’t change anything, why should a candidate challenge what seems to be the new object of collective imaginary?

At this moment Rethink project seems to illuminate the people’s dreams, to restore the  hope for those who live and move around the centre longing to hear the sound of the first bulldozer as the bells of heaven. Lots of green, pedestrian ways, tourists ready to kill their money, not somewhere far from here, not at Hellinikon, but right here, under our feet. How could anyone tell them that it is silly to believe that just a row of trees on either side of a relatively slow tram can change their lifes? Rethink Athens did it to the heart of people through an excellent media propaganda by Onassis Foundation. (Onassis Foundation is responsible for the conduct of the contest and its communication campaign, trying to present the whole project as  Onassis Foundation’s gift to Athens)

Meanwhile in Athens there are at stake some other, much bigger- in size, budget and area projects as the privatization of the former airport area of Hellinikon. But the talk always returns to Rethink. It is because of the symbolic aspect of the project, it fullfils the need for a collective buoyancy, it is the “showroom” of the city,  it is in our daily routes- somehow, we, the people of the centre, will all have our piece of stardust from the new shiny-glossy Panepistimiou street. This is not the case of Hellinikon (on the south suburbs of Athens) -whatever happens there it’s almost invisible for us here.

This is why the confronting voices are few and limited to those experts of architecture and urbanism, who recognize all the shortcomings of the plans and the methodological mistakes, to those who disapprove the lavishness of the project in times of extreme austerity, and to those who use the ten bus lanes that will be cut. All the others consent enthusiastically.

So, why should a candidate mayor say no to Rethink?

The answer lies in a very small part in the presentation of another speaker of the event, Y. Polyzos, a supporter of Rethink project, professor at NTUA (National Technical University of Athens), and former director of the Organization of Athens’ Masterplan (ORSA). Continue reading

The new paradigm – The American cities or after the foreclosures what ?

By Constantina Theodorou, published in the periodical edition “Architektones” of the Greek union of architects, issue 8, December 2013

A picture of the near future seems to come from the towns of the American heartland, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. Having faced a huge disaster, with their population decreased by half and with miles of empty properties in the hands of banks, corporations or municipalities, they currently go on a spectacular flourishing of cooperative projects, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and participatory planning, actually under the auspices of the same municipalities or companies. It seems paradoxical, almost suspicious, in the country upholder of the free market economy, to emerge so original neighbourhood movements, however, like all facts demonstrate, there is no other alternative.

The procedure followed on the way to disaster looks quite familiar. In a difficult circumstance, after the exit of major automakers, which removed half of the population and left unemployed the other half, the respective municipalities not only didn’t they help with the situation, but imposed even heavier taxation on house property. This, combined with red loans, which largely had a racial determination, led to defaulted debts and charges, and from there on to foreclosures,  desolation and destruction .

Banks have a huge share of responsibility for the decimation of cities since they proceeded to confiscations, expelling the residents, without being able to bring in new ones or develop in other ways the seized property, either by overlooking to acquire the property officially in order to avoid taxation , – which means that without entitlement the property could not be sold – either by acquiring them officially, but failing to pay taxes and dues. The result was that those properties arrived in auctions with a heavy historic.

photo Jeff Kowalsky, Detroit, 2013

So, as the buildings become hostages of the  banks, which do not care about them , and the municipalities cannot also look after them, the trading gets difficult or remains stagnant , the population continues to decline and the municipality lacks  valuable dues . Basic municipal services – transportation , cleaning , lighting , policing – in entire regions are abolished , entire neighbourhoods are conceded to the homeless and Detroit is portrayed as a crime spot . The only solution for municipalities is the concentration towards the centre and shrinking  through extensive demolitions , which however cost much . For individuals, the fires and arsons, which spread  beyond control,  is the only effective way to get rid of property taxes .

In this nightmarish scenery, even up to two months ago when there was the official  announcement of the bankruptcy of Detroit, for some it seemed as the ideal field for speculation, for huge investments and massive gentrification-  homes for sale starting from $ 1, whole neighbourhoods vacant, a true bargain.
However, the devastation and degradation have advanced to such a degree that there is no prospect for investors and those who bought in bulk properties, added another sore in the city, unable to evaluate, use and look after them. The $ 1 houses remain unsold for over a year – and the truth is that many of them are ruins, or matted with mortgages –. They  are of no interest to investors, but not even to those seeking just a basic lodging, as no one can find job there .

photo Jeff Kowalsky, Detroit, 2013

And while the grandiose business projects collapse, collectivity,  small-scale projects and alternative initiatives flourish. People of all the creative fields, artists and  film makers gather to Detroit, as a new promised land – the land of freedom, where they are free, without any bureaucratic restrictions to create their own world. Anyone can enter and use the abandoned  buildings, to acquire a cheap house, to open an outdoor café, to make interventions in the city, without getting permission from nowhere, as the competent municipal services have collapsed and the relevant planning controls is nonexistent. On the borders of legality many new experiments bloom. Collectives occupy or buy houses together, they collectively manage the rest of remaining empty houses in the neighbourhood, they make vegetable gardens and small farms, sell their products on the road and use crowdsourcing to meet their needs in urban equipment, given the inability of municipalities to finance any intervention.

photo: Dave Jordano, από την σειρά Detroit-Unbroken Down, 2013

Although out of any system, these efforts often find as supporters the municipalities. In Philadelphia, the municipality allows residents to occupy their empty bordering plot, while it  also provides cheap urban fields for as much as $ 500. In Baltimore all the vacant land is included in a special program, through which it is granted back to the citizens to create community  gardens. One could say that urban gardens, and urban farming are like placebos, diverting the debate from the real burning issue of homelessness. But Detroit went one step further, in 2012, when it chose 2000 properties  and gave the opportunity to the squatters, many of whom were the former owners, to acquire them for $ 500, with only one  commitment, to be consistent in municipal tax for 2 years. There also a lot of integration programs sponsored by charity foundations and companies, which provide the numerous homeless in the city the possibility to acquire a free house, with some proofs of  economic faith of course. The benefits of this housing allowance are many. The municipality collects more municipal taxes, the devastation of the  neighbourhoods  is avoided as well as the disrepair of the buildings, and those who donate the houses are tax exempted and avoid the costly solution of demolition .

It is not therefore a kind of charity. The huge mass of desolated properties cannot be activated in any other way, with any “big investment plan”. Whoever attempts it fails. People are the unique and irreplaceable capital of the cities. In all these cases of the American cities  there is plenty of land, and lot of property investors lurking for the big deal, but there are no people. Municipalities and companies are desperately calling back everyone who drove out. It looks like a redistribution of power. The houses are deserted to be repopulated with new terms or to be demolished, new comers are more active and participative in the city , e.g : in the design of a park, but perhaps with fewer resources and capabilities , the houses that they owned before are now  reimbursed to them as charity. In a tragic irony and reversal of history, foreclosure methods remind expropriation of houses in Soviet Russia, where after a redistribution, everyone, and no matter what they possessed before, they were entitled to get back the very 15sqm .

Back in America… the American dream never dies, nor it shrinks, as the residents of the affected cities say. But the era of big investments, easy speculation and extreme individualism is past.

Related sources:

Detroit: A city in foreclosure, Thursday, Feb 14, 2013
Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding 12/Nov/2013·
For Sale: The $100 House  Published: March 7, 2009