by Nikos Belavilas*
“We can prove that we are entitled to dream with realism, defining together and putting into practice what until yesterday was deemed unattainable.”
We are experiencing the effects of market design, of a “casino-capitalism” that produces crises for many and wealth for the very few. Greece and the whole of Europe, while sinking in an economic and social chaos are suffering from the same nightmare. The commodification of land, the sale of public property, environmental disasters, the big transportation and energy projects, the «mega-projects» of urban regeneration are all part of it. Hailed as development tools they are in fact tools of the real estate bubble this side of the Atlantic. Behind them lies the highly unified corruption of the European political and economic elite as well as a plan to seize state, public and private resources, a plan to conquest public space in its constitutive and physical sense.
“Almost every major European urban renewal or non-urban extension hides a displacement; from cities for all to expensive, private walled neighbourhoods; from open public beaches to closed marinas, resorts for the few and residential villa complexes for the even fewer. “
Almost every expressway project in Europe is now linked to a scandal of wealth amassment by power groups and segments of the market. Almost every major European urban renewal or suburban extension hides a displacement; from cities for all to expensive, private walled neighbourhoods; from open public beaches to gated marinas, resorts for the few and residential villa complexes for the even fewer. Renewal, spatial planning and sales go along with the eviction of the old middle and lower classes, converting them into low-paid servants for the very few favoured by circumstances. Urban and regional planning is called in to serve the prospects of an oligarchic future, which, in many cases, is already present.
Our inability until recently to realize that the idea of a toll motorway project originates, not in some documented traffic necessity, but in the demands of companies is striking. Striking is also our inability to realize that behind the rhetoric of the alleged gridlock of “derelict or unused” land, public spaces or neighbourhoods hides a ploy of land speculation involving the systematic degradation and value decrease before selling and new “development”; that the seemingly obvious public benefit from an international organization such as the Olympic Games, is a tool for sucking blood off budgets, for transferring wealth from the many to the few and for grabbing public land.
“Of course urban regeneration needs to be done – not driven by the urge to seize land, service and infrastructure, but rather with concern for the welfare of the many. “
Are we going to continue this way or will we attempt to take our own land in charge again and reset the rules?
What transport infrastructure do we need and for what purpose? Highways in cities and the countryside cannot be extended indefinitely. The railroad cannot be undermined until it disappears just because it does not suit the interests of road works contractors. Construction companies need to survive, but their survival can and should be related to their ability to redirect their attention to infrastructure really needed by the country, to opening up isolated areas and implementing projects that will not entail environmental disasters or increasing budgets and exploding profits on the way.
Of course urban regeneration needs to be done – not driven by the urge to seize land, service and infrastructure, but rather with concern for the welfare of the many. How can that happen? With infrastructure for the social benefit, with stimuli for housing, small shopkeepers and local trade, with free and green spaces, with reuse of the huge vacuum building stock in conjunction with a new type of social housing everywhere.
Of course we need to reclaim coastal fronts – but certainly not for the enjoyment of the few, but as common heritage to be preserved as a treasure. What does this mean? Opening the coast from end to end, removing abusive uses, redesigning and reorganizing tourist zones, controlling land use and saturated areas, reviving degraded beaches and lost sea fronts.
Of course tourism must continue to exist – but not as that already outdated mass consumption paradigm which has shown its limits, in the neocolonial model of Thailand or the disastrous model of the Spanish coast. Rather, it should develop in a new relationship with the unique physical and cultural landscapes of the country. These are valuable resources that should be protected for us – and for those who will come after us. They have persisted for centuries and should be preserved for centuries. Here, old tools can create a new framework: small-scale tourist facilities, rural tourism, scientific and cultural tourism. New structures should ensure environmental quality and equal enjoyment for residents and visitors of islands and villages instead of abusing funds to subsidized masqueraded business.
“There are numerous ideas, proposals and studies by the scientific community; there is a wealth of international experience, scientific ideas and practices of movements from every corner of Europe“
All this means low cost, long-term gain and high social value, unlike that of the current model with its high cost and minimal value to society. There are numerous ideas, proposals and studies by the scientific community on cities, the mountainous countryside and islands, on historic towns and traditional villages, on how to connect isolated communities and local economies, on the development of alternative forms of tourism or on the reconstitution of rural areas, highlighting the natural and cultural wealth of the country. Those studies that are missing can be created. Moreover, there is a wealth of international experience and scientific ideas and practices of movements from every corner of Europe. These are the ones that those responsible for the destruction have disdained for years by naming them utopias.
So if the revival of downtown Athens, the free shores of the Saronic Gulf, the rescue of the ancient Middle Road of Thessaloniki, the prosperity of the mountain villages of Sfakia and Grammos, the lifting of the isolation of small islandsis a utopia, while the destruction of the Attika plains, the mountains and the forests of Greek mainland, the coast of Rhodes and Corfu is realism, then let us design and achieve utopia! The scientific community together with democracy from below, with urban and ecological movements or local governments are capable of organizing this reconstruction. This way we can prove that we are entitled to dream with realism, defining together and putting into practice what until yesterday was deemed unattainable.
Nickos Belavilas is Assistant Profressor of Urban Planning, School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens. Translated and adapted by Ares Kalandides
The original article (in Greek) can be found here: http://oikotrives.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/pros-tin-outopia/