Building Social Capital Through Bottom-Up Urbanism in Athens
Written by Jiya Benni
Almost 60 years ago, JFK famously said ‘Ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country’. It’s not an easy quote to live by because after all if you are to do the government’s job, what good is the government. And so when a streetcar is delayed or when there are not enough bike paths or parks in the city, we blame the City. We bicker and point fingers, and call it a day. To do something on your own for the city, takes great zeal, passion and commitment. But halfway across the world in Greece, an organisation called Atenistas did just that. This post is about them.
In 2010, Tasos Chalkiopoulos, a graphic designer and Dimitris Rogopoulos, a journalist – two individuals who loved Athens deeply - decided they'd done enough blaming and that it was time to do their part to revitalize the dilapidated urban spaces in Athens. Thus was born Atenistas.
In the seven years since then, Tasis and Dimitris have worked to rejuvenate abandoned parks, playgrounds, dilapidated laneways and pedestrian streets. In the process they have left an unquestionable impact on the urban and social life of Athens. They’ve become a force to reckon with and what’s more - they have encouraged similar groups to form in other parts of Greece.
What is Atenistas?
Atenistas is a citizen collective that works to rejuvenate neglected areas of Athens. They are divided into various teams: the Green Team, Creativa Team, Culture Team and Polis Team. The 'Green Team’ is in charge of clean-up drives and projects done in parks and playgrounds. The 'Creativa Team’ is the artistic department that comes up with the art for the intervention (be it a mural or a flyer). The 'Culture Team’ hosts cultural events in public spaces in neglected neighbourhoods to activate it, while the 'Polis Team’ organizes guided tours through neglected neighbourhoods in the city. Together, they help create a city that has active public spaces and a citizenry that loves, values and respects Athens.
How does it work?
The first step to physically transform neglected public spaces is to identify them . They could be either pointed out by citizens or maybe something that Atenistas themselves have encountered. They then contact the municipality and the neighbourhood for the necessary permits and proceed to develop a design for the area with the help of Atenistas’ own architects and artists.. After that, the date for the renewal is posted on social media and on the ‘day of action’, anywhere from 50 to 100 volunteers come together to work on the project.
An interesting and unique aspect of Atenistas is that they don’t accept donations in the form of money. Those keen to donate, may do so in the form of materials (paint, paint-brushes, shovels, ladders etc) or time. Pretty ingenious, no?
A few examples
Over the past seven years, Atenistas completed many beautiful and meaningful interventions ranging across different scales and themes. The examples described here are mostly laneways and pedestrian streets.
Perikleous Street, a pedestrian street near the Syntagma Square in Athens, was more or less a void in the city without any identity or activity. It became an attractive area for graffiti vandalism, garbage, and the like. Through minimal and quirky art, plants and pallet furniture, Atenistas have turned this into a landmark place with identity and activity and have given people enough reason to hang out in the alley. Rather than designing fancy posh street furniture, they've managed to utilise everyday items in designing the streetscape. AC units that are normally an eyesore were given a facelift by attaching wings to them. While the design, planning and preparation took weeks, the physical transformation of the street took 11 hours and 40 volunteers.
Another example of a transformed alley is the one near Diliados Street where a sad and forgotten alley was transformed in 10 hours with the help of 35 volunteers into a cheerful space using strings and paintings of figures playing around. In another intervention, they transformed an underused pedestrian street into a small-scale Mediterranean garden in the heart of the city. They planted Mediterranean herbs (complete with labels and everything) and placed benches to spruce up the street and encourage people to come to the gardenesque street.
Atenistas also do work on creating parkettes in neighbourhoods. More of their work can be found on their website (https://atenistas.org/). Though most of the information is in Greek, you will be able to find some in English and in any case, the numerous pictures speak a thousand words.
What makes Atenistas special? What can we learn from them?
The Atenistas was born out of a sincere intention to do good for the city. But, they have grown to be much more than just a good intention.
Atenistas is a fine example of what bottom-up urbanism can do for the physical and social infrastructure of the city. Also in a country like Greece which has been severely affected by the economic crisis, an organisation like Atenistas has a lot to do. The very fact that Atenistas were successful goes on to show that public spaces and urbanism need not take a backseat during an economic crisis.
An important takeaway from their projects might be the community spirit that they’ve created. When the volunteers and neighbours put in time and effort for the physical intervention, they are not just building a public space, they are also building a sense of community. This goes a long way in the stewardship and maintenance of these spaces. There is so much that can be accomplished when citizens come together to create and maintain vibrant public spaces. Building this social capital is vital to the success of any public project.
The story of Atenistas is at once inspiring and meaningful. The neglected public spaces and neighbourhoods of Athens have finally found their saviour. By the coming together of the citizens, the social morale of the city has found a boost and by being active through the crisis, Atenistas have ensured that urbanism and vibrant public spaces don’t disappear into a black hole.