Essay by: Panos Dragonas
June 2050. Many people walk on the beach of Elliniko. After years, bathers can enjoy the waters of the Saronic Gulf again. The activation of the new automatic protection system has finally provided a solution to the problem of jellyfish. The great environmental crisis of 2030 led to a 3°C rise in sea temperature, threatening tourism with total destruction. But all this seems forgotten as Saudis, Israelis, retired Germans and the Greek-speaking elite once again enjoy the beach under the towers of Elliniko. Impressive apartment buildings, with their peculiar morphology and large balconies, occupy the entire front of the coastal road from Faliro to Vouliagmeni. For the majority of the population, the coastal public space is the only way to enjoy the Greek summer. First the interest of the huge Asian middle class and then the environmental crisis made the islands inaccessible. The city’s entertainment is now on the beach, in a privileged public space. Athens has finally turned to the sea, abandoning its long dependence on the Acropolis.
Competition from the south coast helped the historic city centre redefine its identity. Initially, the relocation of leisure activities to the waterfront had turned the city centre into a monotonous tourist zone, full of luxury hotels and AirBnb accommodation. But the Athens Municipality’s ingenious decision to make large empty buildings available for international universities to set up branches has completely changed the area’s image and human geography. The “Athens” brand attracted the interest of major American and British institutions. Abandoned office buildings found new life as student residences. Young Indians, Chinese and Arabs flooded the streets and cafes, taking advantage of the unique opportunity to study among the ruins of classical civilisation.
Athens is now home to over 4000.000 people, despite a declining Greek-speaking population. The climate crisis has led to a huge wave of migration from Asia and Africa to Europe. Wealthy investors from the Middle East have moved in to buy luxury apartments with views of the sea and the Acropolis. Meanwhile, millions of impoverished Africans have headed north in search of a better life, with Mediterranean cities the first destination. The homogeneous Greek city of the twentieth century was fragmented and took on characteristics of intense social polarisation. The areas overlooking the sea and the Acropolis attracted the interest of investors and the Greek-speaking elite. The completion of the metro network played a decisive role in shaping the new map. The new middle class rearranged itself around the stations of the eight lines. The precariat sought economic protection in the grey areas not covered by the network. The reconstructed twentieth-century apartment blocks were once again the melting pot of the heterogeneous population. The open spaces between the blocks were consolidated and turned into communal courtyards. The roofs were planted, while the facades were redesigned with intelligent bioclimatic structures and systems to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.
Athens was slow to respond to accelerating climate change. But in the 2040s, construction began on the iconic Ilisos River daylighting project. A green corridor now links the National Gallery to the National Museum of Contemporary Art. This project was made possible by the proliferation of autonomous vehicles. The driverless cars retreat to remote parking areas at night, freeing up significant areas of public space. The width of the road has been reduced by 50%, making it possible to create visionary projects such as the new Ilisos River. Not a river, of course, but a complex rainwater management project. The now tropical Mediterranean climate, characterised by sudden and intense rainfall, has made it necessary to rethink the entire water network. Rainwater is now collected on the green roofs of apartment buildings and the soft surfaces of the old pavements, and flows into a new artificial, planted riverbed in the footprint of the old stream.
In the first half of the twenty-first century, Athens experienced a series of crises. The migration crisis, pandemics, successive economic and political crises, but above all the great environmental crisis brought the city to the brink of destruction. But with the passage of time, society has matured, technology has provided solutions and the visionary ideas of architects and urban planners have been listened to. Whether they are swimming on the seafront, gazing at the city from autonomous cars or walking along the new Ilisos, the people of Athens in the year 2050 are now looking to the future with optimism.
Originally published in Greek: Πάνος Δραγώνας, «Ένα άλλο τοπίο» ΤΟ ΒΗΜΑ (20.6.2023), https://www.tovima.gr/print/nees-epoxes/ena-allo-topio/]