Hans Kelsen (1955) places the roots of the term democracy in the 5th century BC in Athens. The term consists of two words, demos referring to the people, and kratein, which refers to the state of governing, signifying that the word democracy in its roots is related with a political system where decision-making is determined on a great degree by the citizens. Today democracy is used to describe the modern nature of states, which is based on the existence of a constitution that safeguards and protects the fundamental rights of its citizens in a representative and constitutionally guaranteed form of government. However,in the dawn of the 21st century, it is common to question how a modern democracy effectively protects a citizen’s fundamental rights in the context of modern forms of government that revolve around the notion of capital at a time of liberal political programs but of neo-liberal economic policies.
In 1968, Henri Lefebvre formulated the term The Right to the City. In his homonymous book, Lefebvre defines it as “a passionate request for a new radical kind of urban politics” and gives a new dimension to citizen participation in the basic practice of everyday life and his role in a modern democracy – participation in the formation of the public urban space. David Harvey (2012), refers to the right to the city as a collective rather than an individual right that entails the utopian quest for a change of urban lifestyle as a precondition for changing the urban environment one lives in. The above right, as defined by Lefebvre and subsequently reviewed by several scholars such as Harvey, remains extremely topical, as modern policies tend to shrink or alter the public character of the urban space to a kind of public-private space with restrictions that automatically abolish public nature. Typical examples of such sites are modern shopping centers or bonus spaces.1
At this point, a term is introduced, which is meant to describe the re-transition of urban space and its functions into the sphere of the public. Using the term “republicization”, we will try to highlight the effort made by the basic unit in a democracy, the citizen, who is organized into larger groups of citizens in order to claim the public character of the urban space in contemporary cities, for in modern democracies we find the following paradox: The state, in a form of modern bourgeois democracy, does not recognize the public space as the place of the very essence of democracy, where citizens have the right to shape the environment in which they live. On the contrary, the public space is a field of economic policy making in order to generate profit,not so much for the state itself as for private bodies to which it is granted.”
This is generally described as the privatization of the public space. The “protagonist” of democracy, the citizen himself, seems to be on the sideline. In recent years, we are witnessing a developing number of citizens’ groups, who are re-arresting the public space for themselves. As Mark Purcell (2002) has pointed out, the concept of the right to the city has the potential to contribute to a re-regeneration of postmodern bourgeois democracy itself. In that sense, republicization regards both the concept of appropriation, as well as referring to public spaces as spaces of democracy that have the capacity to stimulate the sense of community and belonging through collective action.
The purpose of this article is to define the process of the collective appropriation of urban open space, and more specifically urban voids, and the transformation of this space into an urban public space, by focusing on the nature of collective citizens schemes as well as methods, through a specific case study and in the context of the notion of the right to the city. Our case study, deriving from the Greek experience, concerns the creation of a pocket park in an urban void in the city of Thessaloniki by the “Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood Initiative”.
Before we proceed to the case analysis, it is necessary to clarify some basic concepts that are directly related to the issue we are proposing, starting from a complex and complicated term of modern urban centers, the public urban space. Etymologically, the concept of public, refers to a commodity that is and should be accessible and available to everyone. As far as the word space is concerned, it does not only refer to a geographical concept or a place. In an urban landscape, one does not exclusively come across building structures and elements of the anthropogenic and the natural environment. Public space is partly created by the very society that appropriates and uses it, reflecting at the same time its needs, perceptions, visions and cultural elements. Public spaces form the urban fabric, as a structure that builds the city itself, shaping the current hierarchies and offering life, diversity and meaning. Through this grid, the city itself is also experienced and recognized (Koliyanni & Papastamataki, 2008).
At the same time, a city consists of its people, thus urban space is not just a narrowly geographically defined one, but more likely a set of socio-economic, cultural, political and other factors (Karoutsou, 2010). According to David Harvey (1973), once having understood the space and the ways of its representation, it is possible to proceed with the analysis of urban phenomena by introducing our view of human behavior into a more general perception of space. Approaching the character of public space through its opposition to the private one, we define it as the field and the geographically defined area, which is accessible to any group living and operating in a city, regardless of its particular characteristics.
The coexistence of different groups, and their continuous interaction due to universal accessibility2, also implies an element of conflict. As Mitchell (1995) pointed out, public space is also a product of competing ideas about what exactly constitutes this space, and what is its form and function. In the public urban area, there are fermentations from social groups with different interests and aspirations. These fermentations can involve either violent conflicts or peaceful interactions. Due to these conflicts, the public space is sometimes perceived, besides the area of collectivity and “integration”, as a field of exclusion and segregation (Stavridis, 2009).
All these theories concern, directly or indirectly and unconsciously, the mechanisms of ownership of the public urban space by its citizens/users. However urban public space can not only be understood in the light of its ownership status. A public space can be defined and understood through the functions that it offers as well as the networks of interactions and behaviours that are generated within it. These are fundamentally distinctive aspects of public spaces that separate them from all other types of spaces. For example, a public space can be an open space, but an open space cannot automatically be considered a public space if lacking important and distinctive functions related to social activity (Gehl, 2008).
Appropriation is an important term that is central to understanding the concept of re-publication, as explained in the present article. It can be understood as a dynamically evolving term, whose parameters are being developed in a continuous dialogue with the socio-cultural context of a city. According to Raymond (1976), appropriation is understood as a set of practices that contribute to a certain space the qualities of an individual or collective space, thus giving an identity to this space. In this definition, it should be added that the form of ownership of public space clearly reflects the attitude of society towards the public space as well as what this very space stands for. Therefore, from the exercise or a picnic in a park, to the vandalism of urban equipment, they can all be seen as acts of appropriation3.
Paradoxically, delinquency is more often recorded in public space. This may occur due to the legislative framework in question, which often stifles spontaneous action and initiative, for instance, the concentration in a square, which is the predominant structure for public gathering in the urban environment, if it has not been authorized. In addition, street art, by definition, refers to artistic interventions in the public space that take place within the bounds of legality, upsetting and remaking them. In modern urban centers, however, any collective attempt to appropriate public space must be welcomed because it is a clear reaction of citizens towards the tendencies of privatization and commercialization of public space, which is approached as a commodity and not as a common good.
It is very common in modern cities to find, within the urban fabric, forgotten/neglected parts,which are pieces of land that have either been abandoned in relation to an earlier function or were excluded from a provision in a city plan. The void in a city has the notion of the inability of an area to satisfy a need for the community. A city is a living organism that is only functional if all its individual parts create a sustainable urban continuity; an urban void disturbs this harmony, disorienting its users. Of course, the biggest issue with regard to urban voids is not the disruption of urban harmony, but the possibility and the ability of an empty space to cover a real need of a city or neighborhood, depending always on its size. Urban voids are distinguished by their size, location, and function they serve or at least have served in the past, and their localization in the urban fabric. According to Lee and Hwang (2015), urban voids are defined as“unused,underused or currently used but can be in better usable conditioned spaces” and can be divided into three main categories: street, block and edge condition.
This article’s case study deals with urban empty spaces of building blocks, which were a result of the development of contemporary Greek cities, particularly in Athens and Thessaloniki. The structure of these cities, as well as the collective memory of what comprises the public and private space, are the main factors shaping the modern urban Greek landscape. Apart from the established perceptions and structures, which mainly concern parks and squares, any other form of public space is almost automatically integrated through social legalization on the map of urban voids, according to the definition given above.
Pocket parks are small-scale public green spaces that are created occasionally, on irregular parts of empty or neglected urban land, such as urban voids, the shape of which depends on the layout of the building blocks and the road network of a city.
The design of a pocket park requires special attention as it greatly determines its smooth integration and proper operation in the region, factors that are very important in the long-term success of the project. There is not any specific methodology or standards, which dictate how pocket parks can be created, in a strict and inelastic way. Instead, each of them is a unique design concept, tailored to the needs and capabilities of the surrounding area, while keeping pace with the aspirations of the local population (National Recreation and Park Association, 2013).
Many Pocket Parks came from initiatives of collective actions by citizens or social groups. Untapped areas, failed intervention efforts, and the general decline of urban space reinforce the will to redesign it through active citizenship and the creation of pocket parks. Depending on the case, management and use of pocket parks is orientated around important features that design should take into consideration in such a space:
- the sense of security (appropriate lighting, good visibility)
- predicted resting and recreational facilities (tables, chairs, stairs, stands)
- the possibility of isolation from city nuisances
- the promotion of the natural environment (trees, planting beds, aquatic elements)
- satisfactory climatic conditions within the park (shading, sunshine, cooling)
- its transformation flexibility for a variety of emerging activities (gaming, sports, cultural events)
Regarding the social status of pocket parks, their primary objective is to strengthen social cohesion through the cohabitation, intimacy and security that they can offer users. Additionally, the ability of a pocket park to support a multitude of alternative uses, gives the user flexibility and freedom of action, creating a meeting point and interaction between the inhabitants and the area (Ploumidis & Serraos, 2013).
As witnessed through international experience,pocket parks are welcomed by a variety of supporters or individuals, willing to take full responsibility. Typically, the state, individuals, businesses, non-governmental organizations, groups of residents, and volunteers are the groups who implement and support these projects. It should be noted that the formation of a pocket park is often easier than preserving it in the long run, because without adequate planning, support –as mentioned-, uninterrupted use, maintenance and effective participation of all stakeholders at all stages of the initiative, its life cycle will inevitably be short (Blake, 2013).
The Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood Initiative
The Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood Initiative was formed in 2013 from citizens of a very central, historical and commercial neighborhood in the city of Thessaloniki, which had already been experiencing the results of the economic crisis that was affecting urban space. Later on, the initiative was joined by students, artists, professionals and citizens in general interested in the idea of commoning. The initiative was created based on some important principles that relate to urban lifestyle as a precondition for changing our cities themselves, as mentioned previously. Those principles emphasize on the breaking from the ties of individualism and consumerism by creating new horizontal social structures based on solidarity and collective participation (Svolou’s Neighborhood Initiative, 2018). The initiative recognizes trust as a fundamental concept that has the potential to transform the fundamental spatial unit of every city, the neighborhood. The members of the initiative refer to it as an “urban experiment”, a pilot collective project for a new form of social organization through organizing several activities that bring together citizens in order to strengthen ties and the element of trust between people. The basic node around which the actions of the initiative evolve, is local identity and cultures as a response to the globalized cultural reality (Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood Initiative, 2018; Chatzinakos, 2017). It is important to highlight that decision making (Image 3) is achieved through horizontal structures and decisions are taken from a weekly assembly of the members of the initiative which is open to everyone who is interesting in participating. This is the main reason why the Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood Initiative can be described as a diverse group of concerned citizens, when it comes to age, gender, profession and whether these people are actual residents of the neighborhood or not.
One of the first events organized by the initiative was the “Spring Dinner”, in 2014, an idea which derived from similar events organized in Barcelona, such as the Fiestas de Gracia. During this event, which eventually became an annual occasion for the neighborhood, the Alexandrou Svolou street that runs through the area is closed and filled with tables and chairs for one evening and anyone who wants can join and become part of an open dinner that celebrates the beginning of summer. At the same time this event has a deeper goal of bringing together citizens into a collective practice that attempts to break the alienation of the individual that occurs in the contemporary urban environment. It is also a claim and a projection on how public space could function beyond the idea of the city as a commodity, as a space of collective organization and sharing of goods, in this case for instance, food. The event is funded through a crowdfunding platform, by actively involving local businesses in the process and turning them into active members of the neighborhood.
The Pocket Park on Agapinou Street- A process of appropriation
At the beginning of 2017, the initiative’s members began to consider the possibility of an intervention in the public space of the neighborhood. After several meetings, it was decided to investigate the case of appropriating an urban void in the neighborhood of Alexandrou Svolou, as a permanent intervention in the public space, which would be both a milestone for the initiative and an inspiration for similar actions by other citizens’ initiatives. The design procedure for the creation of the park has been following specific stages, as the project is underway. First, the members of the initiative chose the area of intervention from some proposed spaces. It was decided that the pocket park would be created in an urban void at the junction of Agapinou and Michail Street, which is property of the Municipality of Thessaloniki and the Building Infrastructure SA4. At the beginning, Building Infrastructure SA was against the use of this space. However, situated in a rather densely populated neighborhood of the center, close to schools and public services, since the site was used for waste disposal as well as the use of drugs by passers-by, an immediate intervention was needed to resolve this contradictory situation and redefine the image of the neighborhood.
After negotiations concerning the site, a coordination group, involving members of the initiative, was formed in order to organize the creation of the pocket park. Its public and democratic character distinguishes this group, since anyone eager to offer to the venture in any way, is encouraged to participate in the collective creation process of the park. The coordination group is divided into subgroups according to their role. Typical examples of sub-groups are the creative team, the finalization design/construction team, the cultural events team, and the legal support-advisory team etc. All team members meet once a week in the Municipal Library of Thessaloniki, discussing the progress of the pocket park. These meetings are recorded and shared in social media platforms, like Facebook, thus becoming accessible to everyone.
In April 2017, after an open call for participation, a participatory design workshop5 was organized by the members of the initiative, aiming to collect and exchange ideas for the design of the pocket park. The number of the workshop’s attendants was remarkable; however, the vast majority concerned students and designers, instead of those who would directly benefit from the creation of the park. This fact raised an issue of the rapprochement, concerning the people, who are actually living and working daily around the pocket park to be. The main promotion event was the “Dinner of Spring”, organized by the initiative in June 2017.
Since then, significant steps have been taken. In November 2017, in coordination with the elementary school of the neighborhood, the participation of children was integrated into the design process. More specifically, they asked the students to generate future images of the park in the form of paintings. These paintings were then exhibited on the fence surrounding the site, in that way communicating the vision of the intervention through the eyes of the neighborhood’s children. At the same time, the members of the initiative, promoted the pocket park, via an info point, located at a central crossroads of the neighborhood. Through this action, the initiative succeeded not only to provide information about the park and its benefits, but at the same time to create a sense of legitimization. More than 1000 people who live, work or were just passing by, signed a petition concerning the implementation of the pocket park on Agapinou Street. At the end of the same month, the finalized plans and drawings of the park were presented. These drawings were based upon the problematics and the suggestions that were proposed during the participatory design workshop held in April. The basic conceptual idea of the design was the zonification of the park into different thematic areas (e.g. educational, resting, area of expression etc.).
The Municipality of Thessaloniki assisted the efforts of the initiative, by cleaning the site with its own staff and equipment. Although the Buildings Infrastructure SA continues to keep a neutral position, the municipality seems supportive towards the right of the collective appropriation of the site by the initiative, thus “legitimizing” its actions. As mentioned however, the ultimate legitimacy of the initiative derived from the citizens themselves who supported the effort, providing on many occasions their help and by considering that a pocket park would substantially reinvent the character of the neighborhood, by becoming an oasis for its inhabitants giving a new use to a problematic urban void. Semiologically, this form of legitimacy is superior to the one given by the authorities for several reasons. Since the beginning of the idea of the pocket park, several locals and shopkeepers of the area remained skeptical about the purposes of initiative and the way in which the park would be appropriated. Indeed, some residents, had openly expressed their opposition.
It was only after the aforementioned promotional strategies that the initiative and the pocket park gained the support needed by the citizens in order to proceed with the plans and to ensure the practical help of several residents, who were willing to join forces with the initiative by attending the weekly meeting or joining the sub-working groups.
During the phase of creation and the planning of awareness actions, the initiative was actively supported by local businesses that reside in the neighborhood through a crowdfunding platform, in this way creating a small solidarity economy. Financial support towards the initiative was crucial to the survival of the park in its first stages. Its members decided to rely on local support rather than the interference of other construction companies or foundations. This is a way of keeping the venture localized and avoiding an erosion of its initial scope. In parallel to the support by local businesses, the initiative organized fund-raising events such as a concert in the March of 2018. Following this event, various do-it-yourself actions have been organized in the park, such as landfilling, followed by the creation of the first urban gardening project in this space, as preconditions to shaping a friendly environment for hosting more activities, such as movie night, music events, workshops and other actions such as the “1st De-Growth Festival” in June 2019 (Parallaxi, 2019).
One can observe that specific coordinated steps were followed in the case of this appropriation of space. To sum up the different steps taken, the initiative began the processes by selecting a space in the heart of the neighborhood, an urban void that most of the residents pass by every day and can relate to. Then, the members opened up the process by conducting the first workshop in an attempt to brainstorm for more ideas and convey their goal and scope of action. This resulted in achieving wider acceptance and civil legitimization, deriving not only from the residents of the neighborhood as well as a great fraction of the civil society in general, but also from the (municipal) authorities. After this stage, when the venture gained further acknowledgement and support, the initiative proceeded with more DIY actions, funding and awareness campaigns and happenings in the park. What is yet to be decided is the final form and functions of the park, its access and its regulatory framework, which will of course have an impact on its accessibility and inclusivity. This is one of the reasons why as for now the space is not yet open to the public,with the exception of events or actions. This presents an important and complicated issue to engage with, since the initial goal was that the pocket park would belong to the society as a whole, and not exclusively to the members of the Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood Initiative or even the residents of the area, as a precondition of becoming a multifunctional and inclusive public space.
Considering all these, the role of a professional6 in an urban space intervention ought not be underestimated or, even worse, ignored. As far as the public space is concerned, designers (e.g. architects or planners), ought to coordinate, direct, express and materialize the needs of society as a whole, and not to operate exclusively in technocratic terms, favoring a market driven approach to spatial issues. Thus, the planner or the architect should be able to face the bureaucracy and the state mechanisms by defending the interests of the stakeholders and expressing their real needs (Aravantinos, 2007). These parameters of design can be accomplished through participatory strategies that encourage and unify all those implicated.
The conditions of the economic crisis have greatly favored the self-action of citizens in Greece. When the state is unable or unwilling to create the urban environment that meets the needs of residents, due to either economic circumstances or lack of vision, it is not uncommon for citizens to take action. Residents of an area can be thought of as experts of their experiences, being more aware of its needs since they live and act daily in it, interacting with other individuals or groups that experience the same or different problems and might share a common vision for their neighborhood in order to overcome them.
However, few projects related to the appropriation of public space have managed to “survive” in recent years, most of which concern collective citizens’ initiatives7. The most important part of such actions is their long-term management. In the case of the Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood Initiative, in order to establish the proper use of the park, constant care is required so its character and its symbolism will not be altered. If the pocket park on Agapinou Street becomes once again a drug addicts’ spot or a site of waste disposal, would mean that the initiative has failed to maintain and fulfill its aspirations. It should be recognized therefore, that the most crucial phase of the implementation relates to the decision-making on the different functions of the pocket park and most importantly their maintenance. On the other hand, Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood is an initiative that clearly expresses and demonstrates principles of the right to the city, especially through Harvey’s approach, projecting an alternative more collective urban lifestyle.
It is very important however, to pursue and establish the citizens’ rights to appropriate public space, through the encouragement of collective,consciousness based action and through a safe legal space to act. In Greek cities, quite similar projects encounter the reluctant or hostile attitude of the public opinion. Citizens could recognize that they are responsible for the space they live in and this goes beyond one’s private space and sphere, and that is indeed an inherently democratic act.
The Alexandrou Svolou Neighborhood Initiative could be an example of collective action to follow for many neighborhoods of Greek cities. In time, it will become clearer whether this will be a successful or unsuccessful paradigm, since the process of appropriation and re-publication is still ongoing. It should be underlined that a pocket park is not able itself to change the image of abandonment of an urban center due to any form of crisis. Yet it can become a reference point of encouragement of citizens’ appropriation of urban space. Additionally, it is of high importance to legitimize the right of the citizens to intervene in the urban sphere, through a legal framework that safeguards and protects citizens’ collectivities, as well as defining their obligations towards the community. The absence of this particular legal framework prevents a great portion of the Greek population from proceeding with collective actions in the public urban space, mainly because of the fear of suppression by the authorities. Of course, this fear is not without reason. Collective radical action related to appropriation highly depends on the authorities’ stance, and the newly elected Greek government has already demonstrated its negative attitude towards bottom-up informal action. It is encouraging though, that local governments such as municipalities have begun to accept the spontaneous actions of citizens, such as in the present case. This might be a sign that the idea and the conditions for creating such a framework as well as the proliferation of collective ventures in Greek cities have begun to mature through the reinvention of citizens initiatives practices and scope.
1. The zoning laws for New York City in 1961 stated that in a building it would be possible to add up to 20% more floors if the density in the building block would be reduced. This created voids that would be attributed as free space. In New York there are now 506 such spaces. This legislation was in favor of investors as they were profiting from the increased number of floors in a building. Indeed, surveys showed that for every $ 1 spent by investors to maintain public space, the extra gain due to the elevated floors was $ 48 (Nemeth & Hollander, 2009). These sites have been formed based on the security and control policies of their visitors. Some groups of people are excluded from their use, as they are legally not permitted to host political or religious speeches. Other groups excluded from such places are street musicians, the homeless, and those who generally do not keep up with the standards of the area that the owner requires. The partial or total absence of socialization and politicization, as well as the exclusion of groups from the use of bonus spaces, leads to the conclusion that they can be used with great caution as substitutes of the public urban space.
2. The accessibility is taken into account, as long as the design and the concern of the competent governmental body permits so (e.g. people with disabilities).
3. The first manifestation of ownership is strongly observed in countries that have invested in the quality of public space in favor of the standard of living of their citizens, while the second occurs in countries where the state mechanism has been skewed as it neglects and fails to enhance the value of public space. A prominent example of this latter manifestation is Greece.
4. Building Infrastructure SA is the sole construction institution of the Greek state concerning public buildings, such as schools, hospitals, penitentiary facilities, etc.
5. Participatory design is one of the most basic approaches to design theory. It is based on common interests, mutual support and common objectives of the participants to deliver practical results depending on the resources, the dynamics and the specialization (Roberts, Sykes, 2000). It is referring to an interactive design model where key stakeholders are involved, along with the relevant professionals, to ensure the smooth operation of the overall effort in a broader framework of collaboration and co-responsibility. A basic pursuit of participatory design is the involvement of all interest groups in planning processes. The activation of the various social groups in the area where civil interventions occur is a structural objective of the project.
6. Architects, Planers etc.
7. For example, the Navarinou Park in the Exarheia district of Athens.
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Spilios Iliopoulos is currently a masters student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in the programme Sustainable Urban Planning and Design, following the track of policy and planning. He obtained his diploma in the School of Spatial Planning and Development at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and his thesis focused on the theme of participatory planning for pocket parks as a tool for the revitalisation of the center of the city of Thessaloniki in Greece. He is interested in issues of citizen participation in formal and informal schemes of planning as well as innovative and inclusive forms of urban governance, focusing on social aspects of the built environment.
Michaela Litsardaki is a diploma holder in Architecture from the Faculty of Engineering in the University of Thessaly in Greece. She is currently a masters student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, in the Urbanism Studies programme. Over the past three years, she has developed a great interest in the relation between the body (physical and social) and the built environment. By focusing on the unnoticed details of the postmodern city, through her thesis projects that concerned behavioral patterns and taboo aspects of the urban life (public toilets and sex work), she is constantly curious in comprehending the process of producing space and the dynamics of its functions.