Solidarity and the lack of circular policies
Circularity in policy-making
The other side of any negative impact is that it opens a wide potential for improvement. That is the case of Athens, where the prolonged economic crisis has left a fertile ground for new policies to happen and, potentially, set the tone for innovative development standards.
In one of our previous articles, we have discussed what is circularity and what it means for cities. Here we want to focus on the level of policy-making in the situation of economic crisis, and argue that circularity can, and should, be applied from this very first level of urban development.
Circularity in times of crisis
The disparity between the reduction of natural resources and the surplus of waste, that characterizes urban environments worldwide, is an unfortunate condition from which we can understand the essential role of circularity.
As much as possible, waste should be reintroduced into the system as a resource, upscaled, and utilized in numerous sectors including design, energy, and transport. Beyond their material meaning though, we can also consider "resources" as concepts like knowledge, expertise, activism, ideas. Likewise, "waste" can also tragically mean the residual lives of disadvantaged people.
Diving into cities, there are grounds to implement virtuous circular practices. The reintroduction of waste into a wide range of resources is more or less ready. However, this depends on the awareness of holistic production systems. The willingness to start, even from the basic principles of reduction>reuse>recycle takes for granted the operational capability to do so. What happens when the economy is blocked? Can circularity assist in reactivating economic and social infrastructures? The city of Athens witnesses the effects of a prolonged economic deadlock and offers a precious insight, highlighting the importance of circular policies in times of crisis.
The linear system proved wrong
All the unfinished concrete skeletons scattered throughout Athens are almost emblematic of the economic crisis that Greece has been experiencing since 2008. Instinctively, one would find a direct cause-effect relationship between the collapse of the economy and the stagnation of the construction industry: no money, no building.
Yet the number of unfinished and vacant buildings is surprising and it does suggest a deeper reflection: whereas now the construction sector is agonizing, it must have been running on a high-speed lane before. In fact, the crisis has managed to generate such a sharp contrast because of a crucial fragility in the building policies up until the collapse of ten years ago.
The typical construction system of Athens, comparable to other modernist systems, is the "polykatoikia", a multi-story apartment building that boomed between the postwar period and the 2000s. The success was not down to its architectural qualities - being quite a standardized concrete scheme - but rather because of State regulation. Thanks to a law written up in the early ‘30s, landowners were able to exchange their land with construction companies for part of the (future) indoor built space free of charge.
As a result, the city of Athens was shaped through such private initiatives in an apparently win-win situation: landowners found themselves with houses to sell and rent at no cost, and companies found themselves with buildable plots at no cost.
The construction industry became a major driver in the Greek economy but, over time, this linear system based on economic speculation and intrinsic individuality has shown all its fragility. In fact, when the only resource sustaining the growth (= the economic capacity to build) and the unique need to satisfy (= the private need of selling) have failed, the system collapsed.
A sort of ‘gray entity’, made of all the unused, vacant and unfinished buildings, is now the heritage of the crisis. They are not ready-to-use resources, because of the need of identifying possible uses and/or to complete the construction but, at the same time, they aren't waste either, because they do have potential value and occupy relevant space. Spread across the city, generally large in size (medium to high-rise buildings), and in the majority of the cases of private property. These characteristics suggest that a possible and effective action for their reuse cannot uniquely rely on bottom-up initiatives. In fact, it requires an approach at a policy level.
In a city like Athens, the shameful paradox is that the high number of vacant houses coexists with the increasing rate of homeless people, due to poverty and to the effects of the refugee crisis. A new policy for collective urban formation is needed. A policy where the State does not leave it to contractors, but rather promotes cross-collaboration among the citizens, the municipality and all those who have the right to the city.
While at a policy level, the Greek government has been busy dealing with the survival of the country, some spontaneous initiatives for reuse, sharing and production arose, and they are strengthening the solidarity among citizens.
At the survival level, there are examples of initiatives for providing food at fair prices which are hugely beneficial for those who take advantage of them. One such initiative in Athens is the Other Human, a mobile social kitchen that offers homeless people the opportunity for collective cooking and eating.
Continuing onto the spatial use level, the public sphere is quite an immediate ground for the reappropriation of unused, open, spaces to implement recreational and gathering uses. The Navarinou park, a former abandoned car park turned into a neighborhood garden, is one such example. But the more we scale up to bigger scale and private properties, the more difficult this spontaneous solidarity finds its legal recognition.
We can find examples of self-initiated building occupation for shelter and social care but they are controversial in their legal framework. Therefore, they remain isolated cases that cannot operate in the larger network of a potential reallocation of those vacant and unfinished buildings. An emblematic case is The Best Hotel in Europe, a hotel in the center of Athens that, after standing closed for 6 years, has ultimately been occupied to serve as a shelter for refugee accommodation and solidarity space. All activities are run uniquely on a voluntary basis and depend exclusively on donations with no State funding nor recognition.
The role of solidarity
The value of the above-mentioned examples is immeasurable. At the same time, relying on self-initiative is simply not enough for systemic improvement. Self-organizations deserve to act in an environment that promotes circular policies, meaning the reintegration and intertwining of built resources with the City's social capital. There is the need for new business models, for the City to encourage alternative uses of the urban environment and for educational programs to raise awareness around the benefits of circularity, not only for the individual but collectively. To avoid ineffective, linear, top-down/bottom-up approaches, circular policies need foundations rooted in citizens empowerment, mutual exchange across levels, a sense of collectivism, and a true culture of sharing.
In these terms, the city of Athens seems to be preparing this ground: reactions to the crisis period can be found in the many examples of solidarity which surely is one of the fuels of circularity. But substantial policies are paramount. In this view, solidarity can be more effective if intended not only as individual acts of kindness but, broadly, as a union for common responsibilities and interests.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: As of 10th July 2019, the City Plaza Hotel has terminated its hosting activities. The building is returned to the former workers who are the owner of the mobile equipment. All the refugees have been transferred to other safer locations. This news, sadly, confirms the fragility of solidarity initiatives which are not supported by City institutions. To know more.
City Plaza, The Best Hotel in Europe
Domusweb, From Dom-ino to Polykatoikia
Urban Cosmography, What is circularity