The city that invented democracy has become in our century the
symbol of urban anarchy. Athens today is a snarling, smog-filled
mess, the antithesis of the ordered paradise built by Pericles. So
when Athens's young mayor, Dimitris Avramopoulos, boasts that "in
one year, Athens could become one of the most functional and humane
cities in Europe," there's good reason to be skeptical.
But this time Athens says it's serious about cleaning up its
act, and it has an impressive, if short, record to prove it. The
long-delayed metro is finally under construction and work is
scheduled to begin on an above-ground trolley network in six
months. Cleaner fuels and better engines are starting to have an
effect on air quality. And this summer, a large section of the
city's commercial center is closed to traffic.
A pedestrian oasis
The city is even challenging the traditional Mediterranean
lifestyle, asking workers to stop heading home in the afternoon for
a siesta, a habit that effectively adds two more rush hours.
Begun as a three-month experiment, the traffic-free zone
downtown has already been declared a success, and the program is
now being expanded to two other neighborhoods. The first could be
closed to traffic this month.
The pedestrian oasis forms a triangle between three of the
city's main squares abutting the old Plaka district at the foot of
the Acropolis. Before they were closed, these shopping streets were
some of the most congested in Athens. Cars moved at an average of
three miles per hour, the pace of a leisurely stroll. Now trees in
boxes have replaced bumper-to-bumper traffic and bird songs have
replaced the usual background of grinding gears and whining motor
Avramopoulos says, "I couldn't understand why no one has done it
before. They said it was fear of the political cost. But, believe
me, the day after I announced the plan, there was no political
cost. The reaction from the people was and is very enthusiastic."
Even taxi drivers and restaurant owners, who had threatened a
revolt, came around since business actually improved along the
suddenly pleasant streets.
But if the people of Athens had been ready for this project for
years, the politicians hadn't. It required a break with what
Avramopoulos calls "the fanatic polarization of Greek politics."
Avramopoulos is in the conservative New Democracy Party. His ally,
Environment Minister Costas Laliotis, is a member of the Socialist
government. It's the first time the two parties have worked
Christine Tomazinaki, head of a government city cleanup program
called SOS Athens, and an adviser to the environment minister,
agrees: "This is something we didn't have in the past, a politician
and a minister who were willing to do this. The lack of decision
was the main problem. Now we have that."
But she admits that Athens is still a long way from its goal of
becoming a "truly clean city with fresh air. …