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Friday, May 28, 2004

Environment

City of Chaos - Part 1

A Proposal for Beginning to Repair Athens’s Damaged Urban Fabric




This essay presents some ideas on how to fix the disasters in Greek urban planning and design — how to repair Greece’s damaged urban fabric. No European country suffered more from misapplied architecture and urbanism in the postwar period than Greece did. The situation has come to a head with the approaching 2004 Olympic Games, during which representatives from the entire world will come to Greece and see the deplorable state of its urban life, as well as the link between bad urban planning and ecological disaster. In preparation for the summer Olympics, of course, the previous Greek government under Kôstas Sêmitês made tremendous efforts to present solutions to problems that were obvious to everyone. Unfortunately, these solutions included constructing showcase buildings that boasted an alien, “contemporary” look. This only exacerbated the situation, for reasons I will discuss below.

Introduction: urbanism and ideology
At the time of Greek independence, Athens was a fairly small town, ideal for the new government to begin erecting imposing new buildings and planning its urban structure for several decades. For the most part, Athens by the 1920s still followed the model of vibrant local neighborhoods partially connected by an electric subway (and soon to be even better connected by electric trams running on rails). Unfortunately, this balance between connective links and the built environment was shattered by both the tremendous influx of immigrants from the Asia Minor Disaster in 1922 and the onset of global economic depression at the end of the Twenties. These factors led to the overcrowding of Athens and to its future definition as the overflowing container of most of Greece’s population.

Athens’s urban collapse, coupled with the complementary collapse of villages that emptied their populations into the capital city, generated social and political forces that are still unresolved today, and gave rise to strongly ideological — and utopian — “solutions” divorced from reality. For example, the former prime minister, Kônstantinos Karamanlês (uncle and namesake of the current prime minister), eagerly dismantled the tramlines, as he obviously identified them with Athens’s past and wanted to bring the country into the future. The world’s top postwar urbanists recommended this step in order to speed up automobile traffic. But it was a mistake, as is now apparent by the reintroduction of the old tram (albeit in a technologically updated form) — affectionately referred to as “to tram tou Tritsê” (“Tritsês’s tram”), after the late mayor of Athens, Antônês Tritsês, a University of Chicago-trained urbanist himself who battled in his last years to restore this vital transport link in Athens.

While the developmental model chosen to deal with the devastation wrought by the German occupation and Greece’s civil war was wrongheaded in the extreme (based as it was, to a great extent, on construction alone), it was an obvious choice at a time of severely limited options. To be fair to the elder Karamanlês, he chose the fast — if illusory — track to rapid economic growth in the 1950s. At the same time, however, this choice inevitably contributed to urban and social degradation. Now we recognize it as an economic choice that proved disastrous in the long run.

Worst of all was the ideology of “progress,” which could only be realized by rending the previous urban fabric. Certain essential elements of Greek urban culture — old Athenian homes with courtyards, small sidestreets, small pedestrian squares, kiosks, mixed-use four-story buildings — were condemned as useless and fit only for replacement. What was chosen to replace them were models imported from Europe and the United States (the latest in urban and architectural “progress”) that consisted of isolated villas, monofunctional high-rises connected by expressways, buildings closed to the pedestrian street, and even the total elimination of the pedestrian street. Along with these changes came an architecture that deliberately disdained life, and wore an alien face of polished metal, plate glass, sheer stone, or brutal concrete.

Greeks accepted the new “look” as symbolic of architectural (and, by implication, social and economic) progress. The left saw this utopian urbanism as a rejection of the “old,” traditional urbanism, which symbolized the right’s power base, and as a necessary part of the socialist revolution that would guarantee the country a bright new future. The right, on the other hand, was equally willing to coopt immigrant settlements that housed left-wing voters by razing existing structures and replacing them with “modern” workers’ housing. As for the right’s upper-class constituencies, they wanted new highways through the city so that they could enjoy their cars. Wealthy residents eagerly embraced an isolating urbanism within their neighborhoods, since it offered protection from “crime” (real or imaginary) and a chance to avoid mixing with those less well-off. In the end, a succession of governments, advised by respected urbanists, implemented policies that destroyed the functioning urban environment in place at the end of the Forties.

While more recent history easily confirms that the left has been responsible for its own share of urban disasters (especially during the last 20 years, and in light of the looming fiasco of Olympic construction inherited from PASOK), the blame for the depredations of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies lies squarely with the political right. During a 40-year-long postwar monopoly on political and social power, right-wing governments consistently chose to apply anti-urbanist policies. Smaller cities survived better, simply because of neglect, as Athens concentrated most of the country’s resources. Many provincial centers weathered postwar urban blight much better than Athens. It would be heartening to point to local civic pride as having tempered the worst of the urban assault, but this is not the case. Whenever they had the funds, cities beyond Athens immediately did the same damage to themselves, destroying what was most valuable in their urban environments.

In the event, what we are dealing with here is a universal notion of isolation that extends over all scales. Anti-urbanist interventions cut human connections. High-tech architectural fantasies cut people off physically and emotionally from surfaces, and from the built environment in general. We cannot solve the present crisis until we acknowledge that the architecture and urbanism of the twentieth century had as its principal goal the isolation of people, from buildings and from each other. That admission necessitates the even more difficult acknowledgment that the idols of modernism were false gods, and that several generations of planners and politicians were deceived into destroying our cities by applying inappropriate urban principles.

The New Charter of Athens
I am extremely proud to be a contributor to the New Charter of Athens 2003 (see http://www.ceu-ectp.org/e/athens), which is shamefully unknown to most government planners in Greece, who continue to work on the basis of the discredited 1933 charter of Athens written by Le Corbusier (although a group of Greek urbanists co-wrote the new charter). The European Council of Town Planners decided in 1995 that the effects of applying the 1933 charter were so disastrous for European cities that it had to prepare a new one. A draft was approved in Athens in 1998 and, after more revisions, the new charter of 2003 was presented in Lisbon (not in Athens, because the government did not give its full support — and this at a time when it was funding “fashionable” architectural and urban projects).

The new charter presents an enlightened urbanism for the new millennium: one that accommodates people’s needs and social forces; understands connective networks; promotes the principle of mixed-use; respects irreplaceable elements of the past; and tries to integrate the built and natural elements of the environment. This vision considers spatial urban form as complementary to urban connections and movement, and gives priority to understanding their interdependence. It also emphasizes monitoring dynamic changes in a living city so as to catch potential problems before they become entrenched.

The erroneous and untested ideas presented in the 1933 charter were primarily responsible for ruining cities around the world. The charter’s main purpose was to erase pedestrian urban life as defined on vibrant city streets in prewar European capitals. Its ideas are an expression of megalomania and disdain for the individual. Everyone knows the seductive images of skyscrapers sitting in vast parks that come from the 1933 charter (along with the strict segregation of uses). I should mention, however, that urbanists for several generations have been taught the principles of the 1933 charter as religious dogma, which is the reason they continue to apply them. At this moment, the Far East is fast destroying itself by following this poleoctonic (urbanicidal) model.

Practical suggestions for solutions
We now face an urban Athens partially destroyed, perhaps more so than after the German occupation and civil war, because its population is so much greater today. The capital (and country) requires a radical reorientation if it is to survive in urban terms. I do not advocate radical, top-down intrusions, since these work only in select circumstances. The best way to save Athens is to promote a correct urban philosophy, and to help people save their own city with the government’s encouragement and backing. This solution is independent of political orientation; I see no obstacle to its being embraced by all political parties. We cannot move forward unless we recognize, and get out from under, the ideology responsible for the destruction of urban landscapes.

What I offer is merely an outline rather than an analysis. It needs to be filled in with considerably more detail and specific examples, which I leave to others. It is incredible that, for the most part, many Greek urbanists either do not know or choose to ignore the works of Christopher Alexander and Léon Krier, today’s leading urban theorists. (A summary of Krier’s ideas has been published in Greek by Richard Economakis, at the end of his book on Nisyros.) Let me outline some elements of this new approach, which can be used as a rough guide for developing more specific urban rules.

1. Urban components should follow the universal distribution of sizes: many small buildings, structures, streets, sidewalks, and parks; a medium number of intermediate size; and a few of large size.

2. Since the smallest urban components commensurate to the size of a human being are the most vulnerable, they must be rigorously protected from encroachment by the larger urban elements.

3. The majority of buildings ought to be mixed-use, combining different functions. This could be implemented by legislation or promoted by tax subsidies.

4. A “neighborhood” is defined by its geography as a compact area where each point is no more than a 15-minute walk from any other point. Major impediments to pedestrians, such as highways, giant parking lots, or impassable barriers, have to be situated on the periphery (or otherwise raised or buried).

5. Zoning regulations should encourage every neighborhood to be mixed-use. I am now talking of an area with buildings, in rather close proximity, of different uses (distinct from, and in addition to, mixed-use in a single building).

6. City areas that are vacant at night will be populated during that time by marginal elements of the population and by the underclass. This is a natural phenomenon, in which an urban void is filled by the available people.

7. Urban life occurs on the surface (sidewalk) level. This area contains pedestrian activities, and has to be protected from stronger urban elements. It is also where links to other forms of transport must originate.

8. Building fronts must act as connecting interfaces between private and public space, not as barriers. The more permeable the interface, the more intense the street life it can support.

9. Walls that are not perforated should instead be folded like a curtain, to provide a greater surface area for pedestrian nodes and interactions. Smooth, flat walls are essentially anti-urban.

10. Built elements provide the boundaries of urban space. The goal is to define a semi-enclosed outdoor space by arranging the buildings, and to avoid buildings that stand apart. Vast, open spaces are not urban spaces.

11. If two distinct, vertically separated, levels of pedestrian activity exist, one will kill off the other or both will be weakened.

12. When competing urban functions must be separated vertically because of density or danger, the pedestrian function has to occupy the ground level.

13. There is no sense in having strictly pedestrian areas larger than about 50 meters. It is essential, however, to protect primarily pedestrian areas from adjoining traffic by using physical structures such as high sidewalks, low walls, and bollards.

14. A city, like the human body, works through network flow. Efforts must be made to connect points within every neighborhood by alternative means of transport: pedestrian, private car, taxi, tram (if available), and local buses (privately run jitneys or minibuses). Transport has to integrate into a linked set of networks, each working on a distinct scale and speed and requiring different infrastructures.

15. The city consists of interconnected modes of transport, made possible by permeable interfaces that allow one type of traffic to flow while blocking another type.

16. Physically incompatible forms of transport, such as highways, the subway, and trains, should be located on a neighborhood’s periphery or be vertically separated from pedestrians, trams, and small local buses — which is necessarily expensive.

17. However, it is infinitely more expensive (because it destroys society and culture) to sacrifice the ground-floor pedestrian urban realm to automobile circulation and parking and other transport. Cars and trucks, if allowed, will occupy every available surface space. Pedestrians must be physically and psychologically protected while closely interfacing with moving and parked vehicles.

18. Any primarily residential neighborhoods within the metropolis have to repave local roads so as to reduce traffic speed, thus making it possible to extend human life onto the street. Excellent solutions have been given by the Dutch in their woonerven, which are vehicular streets accommodating both pedestrians and cars.

19. Where transportation paths cross, the weaker link must be protected against the stronger. This necessitates defining pedestrian paths across a street, giving a visual cue while also physically slowing down vehicular traffic.

20. Primarily pedestrian areas (such as sidewalks lined with stores and apartments) have to be fed by transport such as cars and buses; otherwise, they will die off. That means slowing traffic and making sufficient parking available nearby. The pedestrian urban element must be accessible to all transport networks.

21. Parking in the dense urban core can only be accommodated by underground garages or vertical stacking, so that it doesn’t encroach onto the ground-floor pedestrian realm. Multilevel parking garages ought to devote their ground floors to commercial use.

22. Neighborhoods need to be connected to each other by multiple transport, including cars, long-range buses, trams, subways, and trains. While the priority here is on non-pedestrian connections because of the larger scale, there must be at least one protected pedestrian connection between any two neighborhoods.

23. The government has to invest in creating crossover points between different transport types to make all competing transport possible and to ensure its seamless interconnection.

24. The city naturally divides into the car web surrounding and feeding pedestrian sidewalks and squares. The enclosed areas give priority to pedestrians, while being crisscrossed by cars constrained to specific paths. Cars are intentionally slowed within a primarily pedestrian area, but are not excluded. Occasional access to all points in pedestrian areas for delivery and emergency vehicles must be guaranteed not by a wide road, but by a road surface that gives priority to pedestrians: vehicles should be allowed access, not speed.

25. The car web contains all those functions that optimize fast automobile traffic, but are essentially hostile to human beings, including wide roads that connect such non-pedestrian nodes as heavy industry, military installations, warehouses, giant parking lots, car dealerships, garages and gasoline stations, among others.

26. The present trend to locate office buildings as isolated nodes in the car web must be reversed by tax incentives, so that offices can relocate within the pedestrian urban element. Isolating nodes that contain many people makes sense only if their activities conflict with residential and other uses, for they create a dangerous dependence on cars.

27. Using tax subsidies, light industry must be encouraged to relocate within mixed-use regions. Only heavy industry must be isolated from the city.

28. Skyscrapers (buildings higher than 10 stories) are not cost-effective, and they burden a city’s infrastructure and transportation resources in a wide region around themselves. A city can only afford to support a very small number of skyscrapers for vanity purposes.

The above propositions come from the works of Christopher Alexander and Léon Krier, as well as from my own studies. The three of us, drawing on work by others, are putting together a picture of the living city that can be used as a model for all future urban development. I have tried to orient the present essay toward the problems of the Greek city; yet most of these urban principles are, in fact, universally applicable. Joel Crawford and David Sucher from the United States, Josep Oliva from Barcelona, and Jan Gehl from Denmark have all published books of sensible advice on how to reconnect the urban fabric.

Nikos A. Salingaros is professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and currently directs research and student theses in architecture and urbanism at the University of Rome III and the Delft University of Technology. He is also associate editor of Katarxis III, an online journal of architecture, science, and urbanism; a member of the board of advisors of the Institute for Studies in Sacred Architecture in Berkeley, California; and consultant to the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC.
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