By Prof Ares Kalandides
In this blog article I explore the opportunities of creating an institutional framework for citizen participation in the new public company Athens Urban Renewal SA.
The consequences of eight years of austerity can be seen everywhere in Athens. The past years have left deep scars in the fabric of the Greek capital: unemployment and homelessness, poverty and public disinvestment, growing social rifts and street riots – paired with a threatening growth of extreme right-wing ideology permeating many aspects of public life (e.g. media, police, justice, church – even schools). At the same time, the number of tourists visiting the capital has risen exponentially, creating tensions in the housing market, as more and more flats turn into holiday rentals, making prices soar. While the art scene is flourishing, youth unemployment remains above 40%. Abandoned buildings and deteriorating public space on the one hand; AirBnBs, vibrant street life, cafés and entertainment venues on the other. I can’t remember Athens so fascinating and so depressing at the same time.
The Municipality of Athens has undertaken a series of measures to tackle those issues, including the renewal of central neighbourhoods and the rehabilitation of municipal buildings among others (s. Vaiou 2018 for a critical assessment of the reuse of the former municipal market). Additionally, a new public organization with the telling name of Athens Urban Renewal S.A. (Athens Anaplasis SA.) was founded, complementing the actions of the Municipality. I was asked by its President, Prof Nikos Belavilas, to join the advisory scientific committee of this new state agent, an invitation which I gladly accepted, as I see here the opportunity to institutionalize citizen participation in urban development.
I have been studying citizen participation for many years now and I am currently working on a long-term assessment of relevant policies and practices in Berlin, Germany (s. blog post here and journal article, Kalandides 2018, here). Of course, you cannot simply transfer such things from one place to the other. One of the first things that my research has shown is that the politics of participation are deeply embedded in places – both historically and spatially. Transferring policies, albeit useful, is a risky undertaking and needs to be approached very carefully. It includes a process of ‘translation’ and adaptation, but also the mobilization of local structures and actors as well as an openness to criticism and self-reflexion.
With the above limitations, here are four steps that I believe we can implement easily at this stage:
Company statutes. Add participation to the aims, the functioning or the code of conduct of the organization. Although this may seem trivial, it sends a strong signal.
Real transparency. Make information about your plans available as early as possible, making it is easy to find. This will need multiple channels: website design, media, public events and direct presence in neighbourhoods. Also, ensure that people understand in what way and at which stage they can participate, what will happen with their concerns, etc. It is not enough to make information available, it also needs to be understood. Use your language carefully. Make sure that you avoid too technical terms when addressing non-experts.
Knowledge. There is a vast body of knowledge out there – among experts, activists, residents and other citizens – which you need to collect and make accessible. A variety of research methods, including ethnography, can provide deep insights, complementing quantitative data. Although most people will not be experts in the field of urban development, it does not mean that they do not have highly pertinent knowledge. This is something you need to actively respect.
Location. Find or create a place where you can engage in a dialogue, where people can actively talk to experts, receive information and give their opinion. Whether you do this centrally or in a decentralized way, close to each intervention, is a matter of choice. A combination of both would be ideal.
For me there is also a guiding principle: Participation is no charity granted by the powerful to the people; it is a citizenship right and, if needed, should be claimed by citizens[i]. We need to find a way to talk to people with utter respect. Participation is our right, not something somebody is granting to us out of generosity.
It is hard to say whether the whole venture will succeed or not. The team is highly motivated and optimistic, but the conditions are far from ideal. In the context of austerity there are serious financial constraints. Also, a lot is at stake for the citizens of Athens, but also for large financial interests in the real estate business. Deep political divisions in the country and city are not going to make the task easier for anybody. My hope is that we will manage to create a broader alliance behind this undertaking, which if successful, will make people’s everyday lives better – which is the only thing that matters in the end.
[i] By ‘citizenship’ I do not refer to the concept of ‘member of the nation state’, but rather the set of rights that stem from partaking in other polity scales such as the city.