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Letter from Athens: Good Intentions, But Athens’ Grand Walk Grand Balk So Far

October 2, 2021

If you really want a great walk in a world-class city you can do the Seine River path in Paris; the Charles River walkway separating Boston and Cambridge and see a flotilla of sailboats; the Hudson and East Rivers in New York City; along Chicago's waterfront; or the Danube separating the two parts of Budapest.

Alas, in Athens – where there used to be the River Ilisos before it was paved over in what Kathimerini called "one of the many crimes that took place in Athens in the name of progress" – a walk downtown was like a running a gauntlet.

You had to walk on and off sidewalks covered with ruts, broken trees, motorcycles, and the occasional car that's allowed to park there, adding to the charmlessness of a broken city.

There's almost no grass or flowers or public arts or statues – even the great Pericles is assigned to a forgotten spot next to City Hall near sex shops, grimy, graffiti-covered buildings and a little weedy mini-park favored by less than desirable elements.

Mayor Kostas Bakoyiannis, only 43 and with impeccable pedigrees from Brown, Harvard, and Oxford, has had a string of laudable successes in trying to change the forlorn image of Greece's capital.

That included blasting the miserable concrete cesspool in Omonia Square – undoing the work of his mother and former Mayor, Dora Bakoyianni, a project that was a big blunder and giant eyesore in the city's center.

Now it's been partially brought back with a circular fountain but, again, not trees or flowers or enough grass, and it's isolated in a traffic rotary that looks like a switch-lane chicane model car race track.

Bakoyiannis sees green – and thank Zeus for that because Athens has forever been run by people as stagnant as the Ilisos River became when it was allowed to be polluted before paved over.

“I have a vision for a cooler, greener Athens,” he said in July at a climate change conference in Athens. He's so far ahead of others that were in his seat he can see twice as far into the future. He's a double visionary.

He's talked about adding trees to sidewalks, in spots where you don't have to walk around them, renovating the anarchist stronghold of Exarchia, creating vest pocket parks in filth-ridden triangles, trying to make Athens more liveable.

To do that, you have to make it more walkable, and the ongoing experiment to accomplish it is called The Grand Walk, but so far it's failed to produce any real energy or hope it will be a Champs-Elysee to rival Paris.

Because it uses temporary elements so far, the idea to widen pedestrian paths through Athens center, especially the stretch from Omonia to the main Syntagma Square, has been cordoned off with orange cones and concrete barriers.

The most liveable cities are those you can walk, like Boston, but urban centers long ago ceded themselves to vehicles that pollute, are noisy, and need parking lots and garages because people still prefer driving to public transportation.

In August, 2020 he told the European Cyclists Federation in an interview that he wanted to take back Athens for pedestrians and bicyclists, who are just moving targets for drivers now.

Bakoyiannis wanted, properly, to connect historic neighborhoods to world-class archaeological treasures and that vision should remain, but he'll have to convince a growingly skeptical public.

The Grand Walk is set off with colored lanes and good intentions and it's no failure. The idea is admirable and should continue to be pursued and he's the right guy to do it.

"We can't keep waiting for the city that we know we need," he told the site.

"For too long our streets have belonged exclusively to cars and we lost precious time during 10 years of economic crisis that made it difficult to invest in new infrastructure," he added.

In spots, The Grand Walk looks like a rush-job, however, a construction site or road project that cars need to be detoured around, and it's not inviting to walk next to high-speed traffic separated by orange cones and concrete barriers.

The initial artists' rendering showed green barriers as separation and wider sidewalks, the kind that would give Athens' downtown a Parisian street cafe feel so people will want to linger and not walk on by.

“We want more public space so we can practice social distancing, as well as to give priority to pedestrians, bicycles and new means of transport, and to safeguard public health and the environment by not allowing roads to be flooded again by cars,” he said when the plan was announced in May, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic that begged for social distance.

This is an evolving project that needs time to form and deserves it or else Athens will return to what it was downtown: gray, dirty, unkempt, and a forgettable concrete jungle.

A survey by Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and Athens' Panteion University found people unimpressed by the work in the transition period, 87.8 percent saying they were “not at all” or “only slightly” pleased with the idea to give them more room to walk, and more aesthetics.

Some 89.4 percent said it was badly designed and their needs were not considered. Those are the kind of numbers that make politicians run for cover, but Bakoyiannis won't, unless it's green and helps his city.

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