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People of Athens fight for green space amid sea of concrete

by Staff Writers
Athens (AFP) March 26, 2009
It is one of the most built up cities in Europe. Now fed-up residents of Athens -- enraged by the pro-development attitude of their politicians and emboldened by recent anti-government riots -- are taking matters into their own hands.

Residents of the bohemian district of Exarcheia have scored a rare victory by turning a carpark into a small but much-needed park almost overnight.

In the space of one weekend residents -- including artists, architects and veteran left-wing militants -- got together to provide the money, equipment and elbow grease to transform the area into a something positive for the local community, complete with benches, flower beds and a children's playground.

The makeshift park stands a stone's throw away from where 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos was gunned down by a police officer last December, sparking a wave of youth anger that boiled over into weeks of protests marred by violence.

Locals say the spirit of disobedience that pervaded Athens and the country's other main cities that month has encouraged Greeks to take a more pro-active approach towards improving living conditions too long neglected by the state.

"We created a fait accompli to regain a bit of public space in a city that needs it so badly," said Haralambos Valtos who teaches at the district school.

"For once, we'll be able to leave the four walls of our classroom and do some outdoor activities," he told AFP.

For every resident, Athens offers a mere 2.5 square metres (eight square feet) of green space -- one of the lowest ratios anywhere in Europe.

Olive, almond and lemon trees have also been planted in the park.

"We even collected a 3,000-euro (4,000-dollar) kitty for maintenance," said a 30-year-old local militant who declined to give his name.

"All this would not have been possible without the December mobilisation that rallied and brought new members to a slumbering anti-authority movement," he added.

-- 'People have had enough' --


"People have had enough with the never-ending sellout of free space to developers that happens even in violation of state laws," said Elpida Alevizou, a nearby district councillor and member of a citizen's coordination committee.

"December provided an impetus but it must be said that the city authorities and the government had it coming," she added.

Greece has no environment ministry as all related duties are grouped under a super-ministry that also includes urban planning and public works.

And environment-conscious Athenians are also incensed at conservative City Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis over a number of controversial development projects.

The mayor in January made few friends in the congested central district of Kypseli when his municipal crews removed trees to make way for a parking lot.

Last summer, he also infuriated residents in the district of Pangrati with plans to open cafeterias inside a local park.

He even alienated the patricians of affluent Kolonaki district last year by removing a row of venerable sour orange trees to broaden pavements, some of which were subsequently taken up by coffeehouse tables and parked motorbikes.

The fact that the mayor himself is a regular patron of one coffeehouse was a further affront, one protesting resident wrote to AFP.

The city's urban development plans, however, suffered a setback earlier this month when the Council of State, Greece's highest administrative court, blocked works on a city-backed giant new mall in the former industrial zone of Elaionas.

The area has been marked for regeneration that includes the creation of a new stadium for Athens powerhouse Panathinaikos FC which numbers Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and Public Works Minister George Souflias among its fans.

To defend the stadium project, the mayor has unleashed a wave of attacks on the city council's left-wing minority whom he accuses of backing "wandering protesters" to hound his administration's efforts.

"When the stadium is inaugurated two markers will be erected -- one for those who helped the regeneration and one for those who opposed it," he said in January.

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Washington DC (SPX) Mar 26, 2009
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