City issue

Urban Theory, articles and research

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.

Losing Rights
As long as the definition of the term citizen remains complicated and nebulous, covered with ambiguity, the rights that come with it are getting lost, as repeatedly emphasized Saskia Sassen. The rights are getting lost. But not for all. There are some privileged citizens, as there are some privileged immigrants, entrepreneurs or creative nomads, and all these have nothing to do with the national-racial identity but purely with the economic power and authority. A new society is built beyond national borders, where the few are gaining rights and the many lose them in exchange for some other secondary, non-costly rights.
For example in our country, one can obtain a permanent residence permit if only he can buy a property worth more than 250.000 euro. In Great Britain a married couple, in which one is not a British are not entitled to live together in the country , except they have a certain income and above. At the same time, in certain economic zones around the planet, multi-national companies and foreign investors, non citizens of the country where they invest, enjoy special privileges and exemptions, from which the citizens of the country are excluded and who on the other side are totally defenseless against these companies. Their rights are not valid there.
So, investors may not have the typical right to vote, – a typical right which stands for our poor democracy-, but they are free, inside these zones, to take down the collectively established by the State regulations of labor and market. They finally have more power and influence over our democracy than all of us citizens. All these will be worse if the Free Trade Agreement US-EU (TTIP) comes into force, according to which the companies will have the right to sue a State if their competiveness is threatened in any way, ie. if the State tries to defend the rights of its citizens against the companies. So, if our collective self- regulation under the umbrella of a state, comes second in power after the power of the company, we surely don’t have democracy. The right to vote and elect the authorities of the Municipality or the State seems a minor right when, at the same time, in the name of the Civil Society, some can oust the elected Authority and get what they want.

What does Civil Society reply to all these? In June 2014 the UN’s Human Rights Council adopted a decision to establish a working group in order to prepare a legally binding instrument for setting the international Law for human rights, the activities of multinationals and other enterprises. As it is reported in an article by D. Christopoulos “it is characteristic that throughout the preparatory procedure, from 2011 to 2014, major international Human rights organizations, such as International Amnesty and Human Rights Watch didn’t’ take a position on the issue. ” These organizations, prominent examples of what is Civil Society were initially against the defence of citizens’ rights.
Civil Society is not innocent- participating in it cannot replace the participation in the State or the Municipality. Members of the Civil Society , are invariably NGO, associations, unions, collectives of citizens, and whatever non-governmental, with no institutional graduation between them. There is no collective democratic decision about how Civil Society can regulate itself. In its ambiguity and generality that supposedly favours and pout forward all the citizens, all the discriminations are possible.
It’s not an egalitarian society, but rather a jungle society. For the moment Civil Society is a primitive society, where the law of the powerful reigns, where only the one who has the means and money can go on. It brings us back centuries before the French Revolution, whose foundational text “the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” equates the human and its rights with the citizen and its rights. Human and citizen- one and the same. The fall from the rights of citizen means the fall from the rights of human and this is so clear and obvious around us, from the “bare life” of the undocumented immigrants to the recent statement of our governments’ representative in September 2014,when Roma families were displaced from the upper-middle class neighbourhood of Chalandri , that they were removed because them there were living people next to them “. Therefore it is absolutely crucial to define who is the citizen, cause only  he will count as a human too.

ATHENS, Diversions of Civil Society
Back to Athens, in terms of city issues, the definition of “citizen” has to do with who designs, controls and takes benefit from the space that belong to all of us. References to citizens -active or not- and invocation of Civil Society are never innocent and they have offered in many cases the alibi and the communicative guise for diverse economic interests.
The best example is that of Oliaros Company at Metaxourghio, which is trying to promote its investment plan on properties in Metaxourghio through actions such as the creation of the non-profit organization ” Metaxourghio-Keramikos model neighbourhood”. The “KM model neighbourhood” rehearses parts from the Civil Society and pretends to be a collective of residents and neighbours who participate in public actions and claim benefits for their neighbourhood, whereas the real claim is European funding for totally private, with the municipality as mediator. Some parts of this investment plan are included in the SOAP (Plan of Integrated Urban Intervention of Athens), as actions for the citizens, though none of these actions will be for their benefit at all. The major issue with this so much discussed case of “Oliaros” or “Tsakonas” is not the private interest by itself but its disguise in public.
It is very interesting that in the google-like map “Human Grid” of TEDx Athens, which aims to map the Athenian Civil society through its organizations and institutions, the selected citizen collective on display from the area of Metaxourghio is the “KM model neighborhood” instead of all the blogs and collectives of real citizens and residents of Metaxourghio. Equally politically nuanced is the choice of TEDx Athens in the neighborhood of Kypseli. At the time when the ex-municipal market “Agora of Kypseli” was operating as an open occupation of residents, the TEDx map chose to depict on his map not the blog of the collective which runs the occupation, but another group of residents “ilove Kypseli”, supported by owners of the cafeterias around, who want the shutting down of occupation and all of its activities. So , while we have two different collective voices, only one of them is given publicity and it is the one who succeeds to be heard by the Municipality. The Agora closed after those few residents’ request, a request not at all representative of the common will of all the residents.

The open occupation of the ex-Municipal Agora of Kypseli

The Agora after the occupation was shut down is now functioning as state’s office

In situations where more than one collectives are active in the neighbourhood, the resolution of their issues cannot happen with the selective exclusionary terms of Civil Society, which is finally proven to be very problematic.

Another special case that shakes the faith on Civil Society, is this of Plaka neighborhood and its residents, or at least a part of them. While there is a nationwide outcry against HDRAF (Hellenic Reublic Asset Development Fund) and its goals to sell public land -properties and plots-, there is one case that it didn’t met any reactions but instead was greeted with enthusiasm. This was the case of selling the 19 properties of Ministry of Culture in Plaka. All of them, buildings of historic value in the immediate vicinity of Acropolis, inside it’s so called ” buffer zone”, house offices and services of the Ministry of Culture, or they are reserved for excavations. What happens and the so hated HDRAF found willing allies in a minority of residents in Plaka? These residents owners of properties of very high value, with financial standing themselves, are trying for years now to establish in Plaka a luxurious neighborhood for few without the noise of the many. The possibility of HDRAF selling the Ministry’s properties to rich North-Europeans to be used as holiday houses suits perfectly matched to their scenario, as opposed to i.e. a use of artistic residency or an archeological bureau , or a small museum.
These residents are privileged to be in close proximity to a monument with reputation that extends far beyond the metropolitan or national borders, one of the most important monuments of international heritage. The residents of Plaka are not alone in the claiming of their neighborhood – the whole humanity has a say for it, and this is depicted clearly by UNESCO’ s intervention to declare the disputable area as “buffer zone of Acropolis”. That’s an international organization has a say for the neighborhood, as they have all the other less privileged citizens of Athens. What social contract gives residents of Plaka the right to deprive other citizens access to public uses in at least a few properties around Acropolis?
Do they have they right to privately enjoy their neighborhood? The answer officially given by the State through the current Masterplan of Athens and the General Plan of Uses for Athens is that the center of Athens is “metropolitan area”- so the answer is NO. According to Civil Society, though, the answer is yes- the residents of Plaka can arbitrary claim their private consumption and possession of Plaka.

One of the 19 buildings that are sold by HDRAf in Plaka

So when the HDRAF, or the Municipality, or the State collaborates and talks with citizens, we should pay special attention and look carefully at the footnotes. With who exactly citizens the Authorities talk? The answer is not fixed. The participation of some privileged citizens in the civil procedures and their access to transactions with the Municipality is not at all ensuring the right of the all the rest of us to participate in this process.
For example on the first news, about the cleaning of Apostolou Pavlou, we learn that the mediator and the privileged negotiator with the Municipality is a journalist who promotes all the private investments in Athens. On the other side, the citizens of Plato’s Academy where never upgraded to citizens by the Press -instead they were characterized as hooligans, in their effort to protect the equally internationally reknown archeological site of Academy of Plato against the interests of an English company who wants to build a mall there.
Of course politics is a practice of power, under all pretexts. There is nothing innocent and new. The strong will win. What is new is only the pretexts, the new use of the word citizen by the media as an exercise of political ethos, an education to what it means to be a citizen.

So what it means to be a citizen?
The current propaganda tries to convince us that we are citizens when we are active citizens, i.e. when we exchange the political democratic rights to have a say through our vote for small and big issues of the city, with the most loose, relaxed social right to offer our aid to the State with voluntary actions.
The use of the word citizen for actions that should be classified as voluntary makes them automatically political, degrading the term “political”. Actions that till recently were judged as moral acts, acts of offering and charity, now acquire a political nuance. The “privileged citizens”, through their cleaning action, interact with the Municipality showing off the limits of being a citizen today.
Yes, we can plant parks together with the Municipality, we can spread flowerbeds in parks and clean neighbourhoods, but when it comes to more serious issues, to claim a public space, to ask for infrastructure and housing for all, there is no way for our claims. The principle of subsidiarity, introduced by the EU, when applied to Municipality-citizens affairs entitles citizens to assist the State but gives them no right and power to claim their place in the city.

One of the parks that Atenistas made in Plato’s Academy neighbourhood. On the background with red letters we read “LOVE”

The anyway problematic “subsidiarity” relationship of citizens to the State is moreover mediated, it requires intermediaries. NGOs, voluntary organizations, clubs etc mediate all our requests, whereas all the institutional tools of participatory governance such as local communities’ councils remain weak and inactive. Though in a functional political participatory process the citizen should be able to participate by himself without any intermediaries, within the Civil Society he has to rely on some kind of NGO. As the State withdraws from the adjustment of public space issues, the vast field of public space stays wide open to those who will run first to establish their place in it through voluntary actions and public activities. The absence of State i.e. of institutional procedures takes us out to a space without law, where everyone with what means he has, has to fight for his place. In this wild space, the atenistas’ parks¹ or Navarinou park², those who do graffiti and those who clean them, all the big Institutions with their public activities and all the small grass-roots collectives are equally contenders of the public space and their differences are not regulated in any way.
Aesthetic or moral criteria are altogether unsuited to judge these actions. Whether on the one side or the other, all the groups of citizens are equally usurpers of the common good of public space. Nothing validates one action more than the other except from scale. How big is participation, social consensus and more importantly how strong is the vital need for it.
That is how many support actively each action, how many agree with it and to which vital need of those who act it answers. We must ask these questions every time, for every team/institution/organization which organizes voluntary actions and activities in public space. At a moment when actions in public space multiply beyond control, we have to sharpen our critical tools and invent the institutional ones. In any case, public space is always under question, and this its constitutive characteristic. Space isn’t public in the name of God and State- it is made public through our action in it, so we will always, excruciatingly, have to set the question – how “public” and “public good” are assured throughout each action. These are key issues internationally, introduced in many novel terms such as tactical urbanism, pop-up, adaptive etc. , all of them indicating the participation of citizens in the formatting of their space in the city, and still haven’t been reviewed and criticized in depth.
For the moment we have to pay serious attention to all these. Bottom-up action isn’t by itself just and good-intentioned, but in any case what is important lies on the details and the names of those implied. Bottom-up isn’t nessecary all inclusive.

In the jungle of Civil Society, that extends beyond State, we all citizens we have to be very careful to who other fellow citizens and public bodies we grant our consent, because most times we resign our space, without even noticing except than when it’s already too late.

1.Atenistas is a highly controversial volunteers group strongly supported by the authorities, with strong connections with mainstream media too, the ideal representation of a conformist active citizen.
2. Navarinou Park in Exarchia is the typical example of grassroots public action. In a very dense area they managed to make a lively park in a plot which was to be built as administration offices.

Author: Κ.Θ.

Urban narratives, theory and research

Comments are closed.