On the ground, Athens makes squares greener but losing battle for air quality
Athens has started work on performing a makeover of Syntagma square, in the heart of the city, as part of a broader plan to make the capital greener and friendlier to residents and visitors.
However, the city’s environmental and health problems are growing fast as air quality in the capital has further deteriorated due to rising pollution levels and this summer’s wildfires, indicating the enormous battle faced by Greek authorities in cleaning Athens up.
The Athens city council announced this week that work has commenced in improving Syntagma square, located opposite parliament, as part of the Great Walk project.
Improvements include widening sidewalks, adding trees, and reducing the space provided for cars in the area, which accommodates the city’s main business and shopping districts. Running through a total of 7 kilometers, the walkway will link major archaeological sites, turning areas surrounding the Acropolis, Syntagma Square, and Omonia into no-go zones for cars.
The Great Walk project belongs to a series of initiatives undertaken by mayor Kostas Bakoyiannis to improve the city’s landscape. Other steps include a recent decision to appoint Europe’s first Chief Heat Officer to oversee a more coordinated push against climate changes and the heat-related problems affecting the city.
Earlier this month, the council commissioned an assessment of Athens as a sustainable tourism destination in partnership with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) in a process will include more than 70 on-site evaluations in the neighborhoods and parks.
The steps show that the council is more determined to tackle it’s environmental problems but the task at hand is massive as Athens is facing modern challenges with old solutions.
Apart from the underground metro station introduced to the city in 2000, central Athens has been largely unchanged for decades. Plans for the Great Walk drew criticism from many Athenians, some of whom accuse Bakoyiannis of going ahead with the project without the right planning, while others complain about the inconvenience caused to drivers.
The results from the Great Walk have so far been positive, with more Athenians exercising in the newly created pedestrian lanes and a reduction in the number of cars using the city center. But the impact is tiny compared to the city’s problems.
A reminder of these challenges was delivered by the European Commission in July when it decided to take the country to the Court of Justice for poor air quality caused by high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in Athens.
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which mostly results from road traffic, causes asthma, respiratory infections, reduced lung function and increased risk of lung cancer.
“Greece has continually and persistently exceeded the annual NO2 limit value in Athens. It has also failed to adopt appropriate measures to keep the exceedance period as short as possible,” the commission said in a statement.
This notice was served to Greece before the devasting wildfires that hit the country this summer, having a particular impact on Athens and its climate conditions.
Among the forest areas destroyed, were those in Varympompi, an area north of Athens.
As the fires burned, authorities warned residents from going outside, unless they had to. Now that there are fewer fires, the air in Athens has somewhat cleared from ashes and smoke but a cloud of smog remains hanging over the city.
Based on data provided by aqicn.org, a site that provides data on air quality in cities across the world, air pollution levels (PM/2.5) in the Greek capital were deemed to be “good” for just a handful of days in August, in a performance that was considerably worse than the same month a year earlier.