360º Architecture

02 December, 2010

Another Athens Is Possible

Adopting the right to the city as a political ideal, a claim and a demand, the mayor-elect of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis, and his collaborators called for the participation of all inhabitants to the open project to make a city ‘after [their] heart's desire'.

By Styliane Philippou

Greek version

When in the 1860s Claude Monet, the eternal painter of nature, obtained an artist's card for the imperial museums - the official authorization that permitted young artists to study the artworks in the national collections - he frequented the Louvre not to copy the great masters, as his fellow artists did, but to paint the views from the windows and in particular from the exterior colonnade. The spectacle of Second Empire Paris that so fascinated Monet had been orchestrated by the apostle of modern urban planning, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, over the previous decade. Aided by new technologies and organizational forms, Haussmann's urban operations had resulted in the radical transformation of the city, the scale and organization of its spaces and its monuments as well as of the life of its inhabitants. David Harvey has argued that the drastic urban reconfiguration of Paris was the crowning project of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte's vast programme of infrastructural investment, aimed to resolve the crisis of unemployment and surplus capital that brought him to power, and to achieve social stabilization. Entrusted with the task of making Paris the modern capital of Western civilization, Haussmann set up 'a proto-Keynesian system of debt-financed infrastructural urban improvements' and 'transformed the scale at which the urban process was imagined'. Haussmann's embourgeoised City of Light, tourism and consumption, however, did not escape the financial crisis of 1868, followed by the disastrous Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune, 'one of the greatest revolutionary episodes on capitalist urban history, wrought in part out of a nostalgia for the world Haussmann had destroyed and the desire to take back the city on the part of those dispossessed by his works'. (1)

Harvey has also related the 1968 uprising in Paris to the contemporary massive movements against the invasion of the city by high-rise developments such as the Tour Montparnasse, and the Left Bank Expressway. It was in the context of this local resistance to the modernist urbanization projects, he suggests, that Henri Lefebvre wrote The Urban Revolution and articulated the 'right to the city' (Lefebvre's 'Le droit à la ville' was written in 1967 and published the following year). Lefebvre argued that there are specific social needs inherent to urban society that urban planners' commercial and cultural infrastructures were not taking into account. Noting the urbanization of the countryside, the colonization of nature by urban dwellers and its transformation into the 'ghetto of leisure', Lefebvre argued that urban dwellers' 'claim to nature, and the desire to enjoy it displace the right to the city'. To this tendency to flee the deteriorating city, he opposed the claim to the city, 'the right to the city...formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life,' and stressed that the 'urban' implies 'place of encounter, priority of use value [as opposed to exchange value], inscription in space of a time promoted to the rank of a supreme resource among all resources'. (2) For Lefebvre, this 'right to the city' manifests itself in creative terms: it is the right to participate in the perpetual creative transformation of the city, which thus becomes 'the ephemeral city, the perpetual oeuvre [i.e., collective artwork] of its inhabitants...The right to the oeuvre, to participation and appropriation (clearly distinct from the right to property), are implied in the right to the city,' insisted Lefebvre. (3)

Lefebvre's revolutionary concept of the right to the city has proven extremely influential and powerful, especially as a tool for urban social movements. It has also undergone considerable rethinking and reformulation in the context of recent urbanization processes and especially with regard to how it may be effectively implemented. Harvey has emphasized that the 'right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the process of urbanization'. And he added: 'The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights'. (4)

Thanks to the efforts and pressure exercised by civil society organizations, networks and movements, the right to the city has been incorporated in a number of charters, treaties and declarations. In the 1980s, the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre pioneered social inclusion and the redistribution of municipal resources through its participatory budgeting (Orçamento Participativo) and auditing mechanism, which also served to reduce corruption within local government. Since then, over seventy cities worldwide have adopted this model in their own procedures. Brazil's 1988 constitution - one of the most progressive in the world - included a chapter on urban policy, 'aimed at ordaining the full development of the social functions of the city and ensuring the well-being of its inhabitants'. On 14 February 2000, the 26th Amendment recognized access to housing as a social right and, with the enactment of Federal Law No. 10.257 of 10 July 2001, 'City Statute' ('Estatuto da Cidade'), Brazil embedded the notion of the 'right to the city' in its constitution. This ground-breaking new law, which regulates the constitution's chapter on urban policy, gives priority to the social functions of urban property and the city, and promises to support municipal initiatives to solve mounting urban, social and environmental problems, improve the quality of urban life, ensure the democratic management of cities, and 'democratize the conditions of access to urban land and housing'. (5) In 2003, the Brazilian Ministry of Cities was founded, to spearhead and coordinate programmes for the elaboration and implementation of an inclusive and sustainable urban development policy, predominantly targeting the low-income population.

A World Charter on the Right to the City, developed by a range of social movements coordinated by the Habitat International Coalition (HIC), municipalities, national governments, universities and NGOs, was discussed at the second World Urban Forum (Barcelona, 13-17 September 2004) and at the first Americas Social Forum (Quito, 25-30 July 2004). It defined the right to the city as 'the equitable usufruct of cities within the principles of sustainability, democracy, equity, and social justice', and led to the adoption of local charters in a number of cities. The Right to the City Alliance was established in the US in January 2007. On 18 March 2005, UNESCO and UN-HABITAT signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which 'has committed the agencies to develop common approaches on the role of cities in the reduction of urban poverty, and to reinforce their collaboration on specific topics and common interests like the concept "Right to the City".' (6) Earlier this year, the fifth World Urban Forum, in Rio de Janeiro, organized around the theme of the right to the city, produced the UN-HABITAT's report, 'State of the World Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide'. This document states that 'In today's fast urbanizing world, the drive for democratic inclusion makes a rights-based approach to urban living an important force for social change,' and recommends giving every resident the right to the city in which they live. (7)

Peter Marcuse has highlighted the difference 'between rights in cities (in the plural) and the right to the city (in the singular)', and maintains that it is 'a political and strategic difference that reflects the extent of the ambitions and the nature of the visions' of the users. Marcuse points out that Lefebvre used the right to the city as 'a cry, a demand, a claim...a political slogan, intended to broaden the scope of demands for social change to encompass a vision of a different society'. The 'right to the city' is, for Marcuse, one unitary right that includes all rights such as the right to housing, to an ecologically sustainable environment, the right to education, to inclusion, to participation etc., implying a unitary vision of a city that meets the needs and satisfies the desires of all its inhabitants. This unitary view, Marcuse proposes, 'raises the stakes and holds out the hope for a greater benefit and a brighter future...that leads to a whole other and better world. It gives meaning to the slogan "Another World Is Possible," and calls for its creation. It can provide a motivation, an inspiration, and a justification for a commitment that extends beyond the remedy of individual wrongs'. (8)

Embracing the right to the city as an idea, a rallying slogan, a political proposal and a programme for change, Giorgos Kaminis was elected mayor of Athens on 14 November 2010. As Greek ombudsman from 2003 and deputy ombudsman for five years before that, Kaminis defended citizens by dealing impartially, effectively and fairly with their complaints against public authorities, and many citizens' complains have been translated into action. Adopting the right to the city as a political ideal and a mobilization instrument, Kaminis proposed a whole new vision for the city of Athens, and affirmed a commitment to ensure broad social participation to ensure its will. He also implied a strong commitment to deal with and try to remedy the increasing injustices and inequities he observed over the years he served as intermediary between citizens and public authorities. Addressing the inhabitants of Athens as a unified group of people with allied interests and a shared, deep interest in working together to remake the city 'after [their] heart's desire' (urban sociologist Robert Park's terms), Kaminis was able to reach a broad constituency, and call on civil society to confront the challenge in order to remake the city so that it meets human needs - the needs of all its inhabitants. Embracing the singular, unitary right to the city - effectively the right to a good urban life - Kaminis was able to maintain an affirmative perspective, and advance the idea that 'Another Athens Is Possible' - for all its inhabitants.


Built entirely from low-cost, reclaimed and reusable materials, the installation promoting the election of Giorgos Kaminis for the mayorship of Athens was designed by architects Maria Kokkinou and Andreas Kourkoulas. Photograph source: Athens Voice.

In the face of a severe economic crisis that is affecting urban society - that is society as a whole - and an increasingly segregated and conflict-prone city, the mayor-elect of Athens campaigned for ideals of urban identity, strengthening a sense of citizenship and belonging. He called for a 'return to the city' and rather than gentrification and commodification he proposed mechanisms to encourage a young, student and low-income population to inhabit and revitalize the centre of the city. Kaminis's open programme speaks of urban public spaces - the very spaces that define the modern city - and calls for their return to the inhabitants and their use in terms recalling Lefebvre's perception of the streets, squares and monuments of the city as spaces representing the unproductive value of the city, spaces where the citizens' rights are enacted and renegotiated, spaces for the consumption of pure pleasure. Kaminis also highlighted the importance of strengthening social solidarity, and a dignified standard of living and working for all.

Adopting the right to the city as a political ideal, a claim and a demand, Kaminis and his collaborators implied a commitment to a close and perpetually evolving relation between the citizens and those who exercise political power. As ombudsman, Kaminis nurtured and promoted this relationship. Considering that the right to public participation in local governance and voting rights in local elections represent a more inclusive system of political participation and democratic representation (as voting rights extended to foreign residents in Greece for the first time this year), embracing the right to the city as a tool to a better city held out the hope of a better society. The idea that 'Another Athens Is Possible' holds out the hope that 'Another World Is Possible'.

'In post-Independence Greece and until the 1940s,' write John Koliopoulos and Thanos Veremis, 'people generally left Greece as emigrants and came into it as refugees...crowds of destitute refugees from across the frontier with Turkey or Crete after each irredentist insurrection and its savage suppression...from the newly independent Balkan states like Romania and Bulgaria,' from the southern part of Albania or Serbian Macedonia, and, in far greater numbers, the refugees of the First World War from Asia Minor, Pontus and Russia, who were anything but welcomed by the locals. (9) With few exceptions, the great Neoclassical monuments of Athens, from the parliament building (former royal palace) to the university and the national academy, were all designed by the few northern European immigrants who followed King Otto to his kingdom. But these left Greece even before the departure of immigrant King Otto. The unprecedented influx of close to half a million destitute refugees from Asia Minor in 1922 exerted a far greater and long-lasting impact on the city and its society.

Between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s, internal migration from the villages to the urban centres, especially Athens and Thessaloniki, more than doubled the population of the capital. The fact that many of these internal immigrants appear to cling tenaciously to their village identity to the point of refusing to participate in the political process of the city where they live and work impedes the progress of civil society. Their preference for electing representatives of a constituency to which they are only historically related (thus interfering with the political process of that constituency) is often presented in sentimental terms: nostalgia for the ancestors' village, cultural identity and the like. Despite the blatant inefficiency, and economic and environmental costs of this refusal to integrate in the society of the city where they live and work (while they frequently criticize recent immigrants for unwillingness to integrate), in fact, so-called eterodemotes (citizens registered in other municipalities) prefer to maintain ties to their places of origin and misuse their right to elect their leaders and representatives for purely personal benefit.

In Greece, a distinct lack of trust in public and government institutions, in politicians and generally in all those who hold public office or political power hampers the development of citizenship and democracy. 'Abuse of public office,' say Koliopoulos and Veremis, 'should be ranked as one of the nation's most consistent pursuits.' (10) That such acts are seldom punished undermines both citizens' confidence in the rule of law and their understanding and appreciation of political rights. Unable to hold accountable for their actions those who hold political power, they in turn abuse their political rights, a symptom of a dysfunctioning democracy. Feeling disempowered, rather than using their voting rights to influence how and by whom they are governed - at the local and the national level - they use them as a form of transaction currency. Politicians, who in small constituencies are more likely to know their fellow citizens or at least their families, are expected to favour those who vote for them, i.e., to distribute benefits and state resources in a biased way once they are in a position of power, primarily in the form of secure employment in the public sector, including public or state-controlled companies, in exchange for votes. The distinct absence of meritocracy and entrenched social corruption, particularly clientelism and nepotism (combined with the lack of a significant private sector that offers better employment opportunities), mean that citizens use their votes to enter into a patron-client relation with office holders, and deal with them in a way beyond the limits of propriety, the law and regulations, in order to gain access to state resources regardless of merit. Withdrawal and political apathy are also consequences of the citizens' perception of the political system as illegitimate.

Throughout his campaign and programme, Giorgos Kaminis declared a will to encounter the problem, promote good administration and strengthen the citizens' trust in local government. The terms he used most frequently and the principles of his programme concerning the role and function of the local authority spell out precisely this task: legitimacy, (achieved through) transparency and accountability to promote public participation. Reaching out to all the inhabitants of Athens, ensuring equality of conditions and opportunities for all and meritocracy, promoting the creation of civil society organizations and maintaining an open, transparent and regular dialogue with them will encourage Athenians to become active citizens by fully participating in the political process, thus strengthening the notion of citizenship as an ongoing, direct and creative relation between the citizens and the local authority (attaching the notion of citizenship to that of residency and contributing to the demise of patrimonialism and the reduction of corruption). Kaminis and his collaborators clearly recognized that the introduction of appropriate mechanisms to achieve openness and transparency - easy access to accurate, quality information, including information about citizens' rights and how to redress them - and accountability - which grants citizens true political power - is the only way to enable active participation in the political process and collaboration in the activities of the city, and to empower citizens vis-à-vis the local government, thus making the right to the city truly effective. In this sense, the collective right to perpetually reshape the city - Lefebvre's 'right to the oeuvre, to participation and appropriation' - reshapes and transforms the citizens. Soon after his election, Kaminis expressed satisfaction for what he interpreted as the successful creation of a new identity: 'a civil identity'.

Insisting on the need for the right to the city to be established, and articulating a political programme through this claim, Kaminis and his collaborators claimed the right of all inhabitants of Athens - and in the face of constant provocation Kaminis remained inclusive - to a different kind of urban experience, the right to perpetually remake the city in a different image, and called for the participation of all inhabitants to the open project that may guarantee a city 'after [their] heart's desire'. The response was positive and encouraging. Athenians believe that 'Another Athens Is Possible'.


1    Harvey, David, 2008, 'The Right to the City', New Left Review 53, September - October, p. 26. See also Harvey, David, 2003,
      Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York: Routledge).
2    Lefebvre, Henri, 1996, Writings on Cities (Oxford and Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell), pp. 157-59, italics in the original.
3    Lefebvre, pp. 172-74, italics in the original.
4    Harvey, 2008, p. 23.
5    Edésio Fernandes, 2003, 'A New Statute for Brazilian Cities',
7    World Urban Forum 5, 2010, 'State of the World Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide', Rio de Janeiro, 18 March.
8    Marcuse, Peter, 'Rights in Cities and the Right to the City?', 2010. In Ana Sugranyes and Charlotte Mathivet (eds),
      Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences Towards the Right to the City (Santiago, Chile: Habitat International Coalition), p. 87-89.
9    Koliopoulos, John S. and Veremis, Thanos, 2003, Greece, The Modern Sequel: From 1831 to the Present
(New York: New York University Press), pp. 200-06.
10  Koliopoulos and Veremis, p. 225.


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