In an exclusive interview for the first print edition of Athens Riviera Journal, the “constant mayor” of Athens outlined his vision for the city that “wants to live its life, which is vital and growing, takes inspiration from the past and belongs unquestionably to the future.”
As Athens moves forward and becomes a stunning tourism destination with a modern seaside area, are you optimistic for the future?
Athens is back. After a decade moving from crisis to crisis, we are moving forward with confidence and dynamism. Athens has returned as a global destination, and we have established a reputation as a hotbed for creative culture and innovation. The city is coming back to life in an exciting way, and as proof I can point the 50,000 people and more who attended performances and joined conversations about the city during the This is Athens City Festival in May. Plus, we are seeing visitor traffic hitting new records for the first time since 2019. Undoubtedly, this is the moment for Athens, and we are extremely proud to have a role in this great success story.
What well-being and livability objectives is the City of Athens focused on at the moment?
We are moving quickly to upgrade all our services as we have no time to lose. We are creating and upgrading parks and public spaces, cleaning graffiti and fixing sidewalks. This summer, we are completing a significant redevelopment project on Syntagma Square, and we are moving forward to the redevelopment of Panepistimiou. As far as our social policy concerns, during the pandemic we created an umbrella of protection for all Athenians regardless of whether they are residents or visitors who will stay for only a few days. When we invest in the quality of life of our residents, we are also investing in Athens as a destination for visitors. We need to change our way of thinking and understand our city holistically. We do not want a competition between tourism and the local economy; instead we need to treat our destination and our city as one place. In fact, we are already seeing the benefits of this approach in a burst of construction activity throughout the city that will make Athens more livable both for visitors and for locals.
For Athens, how big a concern is climate change as regards the health of citizens, for example, in relation to air quality?
Climate change is a concern for every city in the world, not only Athens. Almost every week I am talking with other mayors about the challenges that we face, many of which are the same on every continent. Together we are exploring ways to use our strengths as municipal authorities and we study the best practices to get the job done – to lower emissions and protect the health of our residents.
We implemented a Heat Alert system that helps residents and visitors to be informed about hot weather, so that they can understand the risks of changing weather conditions in order to stay safe.
Athens is leading the way on issues like urban heat. We were the first city in Europe to appoint a Chief Heat Officer, and we are proud that she has already been tapped as a global leader on the issue who will utilize lessons learned from Athens. For example, last year, we implemented a Heat Alert system that helps residents and visitors to be informed about hot weather, so that they can understand the risks of changing weather conditions in order to stay safe.
Though Athens has always issues with traffic congestion, do you think that Athenians are prepared for the new greener era of their city? What are Mayor’s of Athens priorities on this area?
The discussion about traffic and congested streets started decades ago, and many of the solutions we are applying today have also been on the table for decades. The City of Athens is prepared to lead this discussion. In fact, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council has rated us as excellent for the work that is already being done to make Athens a sustainable tourism destination. That work encompasses green projects like parks and trees, but it’s also about equitable development and making sure that our infrastructure and public spaces are accessible to everyone. It’s our priority to be talking about the whole City of Athens, all our 129 neighborhoods.
The Athens Riviera is returning to a world-renowned beachfront destination putting the Greek capital on the map, for the right reasons. How are you involved in all that?
Through our international brand This is Athens, we are inviting visitors to see a city that wants to live its life, which is vital and growing, takes inspiration from the past and belongs unquestionably to the future. The Athens Riviera is part of that strategy to promote the city as a visitor destination that has everything to offer regarding quality of life, and keeps moving forward.
Three times the size of Monaco, Europe’s largest urban regeneration project of the Ellinikon is Greece’s most significant private investment in a decade. Do you see the potential for more investment here after the plans regarding Athens Riviera?
The old airport at Ellinikon has remained an open wound for decades, and finally we are going to start the healing process. We desperately need large new parks to serve as our urban lungs, but we don’t have space to create them in the city center. Now we have the opportunity to create green parks in a few spaces that are not densely built, both at Ellinikon as well as at Votanikos where we will soon start creating a new athletics complex that will be surrounded by a large park.
The Athens Riviera is part of our strategy to promote the city as a visitor destination that has everything to offer regarding quality of life, and keeps moving forward
Finally, these spaces will close the divide between Athens and the Western Suburbs, as well as Athens and the Riviera. We can connect all the pieces of the region together so that all Athenians will have access to a world class waterfront as well as cultural performances and museums that are spread throughout the city.
Athens Riviera would soon have what it takes to emerge as an international hub of innovation, well-being, and culture, as well as one of tourism and commerce. Given this incredible development, which is the biggest challenge for the city of Athens?
We have spent a decade facing challenges. Today our goal is to stop losing time. We have a lot of catching up to do, but little by little the city is changing. The pandemic reinforced the need to move swiftly, and we need to be sure that we are utilizing our investments smartly. We need to mark our achievements and keep moving forward.
Let’s say a friend of yours was visiting Athens but only for 24 hours. What three things would you recommend, beyond the must-see attractions?
First, I should say that I want my friends to visit longer than 24 hours, and the same goes for all our visitors. Athens would be a good candidate to lead the slow tourism movement because so much of our quality of life is about taking time. We could choose one or two of our incredible museums to check out the latest exhibition. We could go to a great performance at a theater or an open-air cinema and spend the evening under the stars. Or, if we’re lucky, we could pass the whole afternoon with friends slowly drinking a coffee and eating some mezedes, until suddenly it’s evening and we find ourselves at dinner under the Acropolis.
Having in mind that now the majority of human population lives in cities, the importance of mayors’ roles is bigger than ever. In your opinion, how can more young generation leaders be attracted to engage more in local politics?
There are already many people engaged in local politics at all age levels, especially young people, and we are really grateful for their commitment. The key thing is to reverse the brain drain of the last ten years. We need to compete to retain and attract talent in the same way that we compete for visitors, and we can do that by investing in quality of life. That starts a cycle in which people will stay in Athens, invest in Athens, and engage with Athens. When residents see something nice happening on their street and like our efforts to repave sidewalks or make schools accessible, they become interested in the work and they may become inspired to stay in the community.