Georgios Kokkolis – Urban Sprawl and Debt Sprawl – Two sides of the same coin

KokkolisKokkolis_01George Kokkolis (27) is a political scientist. Since 2014 he is the Vice-Mayor of the Municipality of Rafina-Pikermi. In 2012, he was awarded with the “Charlemagne Youth Prize” from the City of Aachen for his activities in European projects. He is interested in continuing his career in local and national politics.

In our attempts to envisage a modern, powerful Greece, we usually focus on the country’s macroeconomic performance and growth model, stressing factors such as market economy, investments, and the quality level of services. But all the scenarios, however ambitious, do not take into account a crucial parameter, which, if turned to account, could operate as a catalyst in all aspects of what we call “New Greece”. I refer to the Greek cities themselves and their form.

From the 1950s and thereafter, urbanisation became a synonym for the country’s post-war recovery model. It brought about a concentration of the population and better administrative control, but also led the way for industrialisation and made available a cheap labour force. At the same time, and along with a very sharp increase in living standards, the post-war “Greek apartment block” altered the traditional city patterns, lending – due to the multitude of laws and rules and the rough and ready nature of the new development- a sense of anarchy and lack of aesthetic considerations, in the name of dealing with the pressing needs of the time.

Unfortunately, this model was also applied in the provinces, both to counter a sense of inferiority as against the centre and as a measure of upward social mobility, as city dwellers built country residences at the places of their origins. The result is what we see today: random construction, disregard of aesthetics and an overall aspect that resembles countries of the Middle East more than it does Europe.

How is this related to the crisis? Irrespective of economic performance, Greece will need to address a crucial issue in the coming decades: How will the country deal with the ageing of the concrete and therefore of its post-war construction?

The hasty manner in which the urban centres developed was typified not just by the lack of aesthetic considerations, but also by the nature of the materials used. Concrete has finite life duration, and the apartment blocks constructed in the 1950s and 1960s are now sixty years old. How will the Greek state deal with the replacement of its urban structures and the immense social issues this entails? If after World War II the replacement of the traditional house led to the new, horizontal form of property, how will hundreds of families be persuaded to leave their homes so that a new apartment block can be erected in place of the previous one? And if such blocks are erected, what will they be like? Will we restore their facades in the historical centres in front of new building shells or will we adopt new, forward-looking models? How will environmental strategy be incorporated in the new buildings and how will the chronic administrative problems be countered, especially as concerns uncontrolled, arbitrary construction and the unrestricted expansion of the cities with the costs that their networks entail?

These are just a few, indicative questions that show how imperative is the need for a well-thought out plan, a vision about the new aspect that the country’s urban centres will assume. The answers involve cost – political, social and economic cost – but could potentially liberate immense forces that can contribute very greatly indeed to an increase in the country’s GDP. Better urban centres mean higher quality of life, tourist-friendly cities, revitalisation of construction activity, new uses for the land, and growth.

The experience of local governance shows that such plans of reconstruction must be tested on a small scale by municipalities, in a low-cost, low-intensity manner. If they are successful, qualitatively and quantitatively, we could proceed with larger-scale interventions, with financing by the Regional Authorities or the Ministries, in combination with economic incentives for a revitalisation of specific services and usages. The benefits will be very considerable, since residents would enjoy higher-quality homes that will be self-sufficient as to energy, and cities could turn these changes to account and acquire a new character (from skyscraper hubs to country/holiday homes) that will provide new tools for them to project themselves and attract investments.

However, certain necessary preconditions must apply, if such a revolutionary change is to take place. The first concerns the “Kallikratis Plan” [about local authority administration] and the new form it must assume, reinforcing further the administrative and economic independence of municipalities from the central state, as is the case in the United States and many European countries. The second concerns the difficult issue of land usage and land registration. Citizens, but also the authorities, must be given clear guidelines about what and where to construct. An objective system of land registration and forest mapping would allow the state to determine which land is public and which is private, and protect the residential and natural environment. The course towards such a target-ideal would require the elimination of town-planning and forestry departments as they function today: they have either become breeding grounds for corruption or create obstacles, even in cases of simple and environment-friendly public projects.

This course of institutional change leads us to the third and most important issue, one that cuts across almost all considerations: strict observation of the law, this being the core of every state’s power structure throughout history. The main problem affecting all efforts at reform in Greece is centred on the partial implementation, or non-implementation, of the laws. This results in citizens, but also local authorities, to operate without a plan, certain that the central state will always come up with a “general” law that will legalise previous violations. But ultimately this undermines the functioning of the state, while also compromising it in the eyes of its citizens.

The rationale of “anything goes” undermines every effort at institutional modernisation. The country has now reached its limits, and all of us sense that this is perhaps a unique opportunity to undertake the above reforms, which are so essential for a state that wishes to operate along modern-day lines. A change in public space, in the narrow sense of town-planning, can liberate immense forces and restructure the economy in a substantial and organised way, correcting the errors of the past. It is a unique opportunity, since following such a crisis; the so-called political cost would be very small compared to the past or to painful fiscal measures. In every case, our failure to undertake institutional reforms is the main cause of the continuing crisis and our inability to regain prospects of growth. It would be a shame to waste this historical opportunity.

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