Saturday, January 10, 2015

Letter from Thessaloniki

At first glance, Thessaloniki seems to fit an easy narrative. One-time beautiful, bustling multicultural Ottoman port ravaged by earthquake, fire and war, victim to population exchange and holocaust, rebuilt by people who think that boulevards jammed with six lanes of motor traffic represent the best of classical beauty, and liberally sprinkled with statues of famous residents of yesteryear that root locals' sense of civic pride in the city's history rather than its future.

Of course such an assessment would always have been unfair. Thessaloniki is an exciting place, it's something of a Mecca for shoppers and clubbers (I'm told) and there are lots of nice restaurants and museums. It's just that being an exciting place isn't necessarily the same as being a nice place. In the many conversations that Aspa and I have had about places that we'd like to live, Thessaloniki never got close – exciting perhaps, but unlivable.

On my first visit it struck me as a place despoiled by the motor car, where beautiful squares are crisscrossed by busy roads and where getting anywhere involved inching along at a glacial pace in a bus or a car, or walking in hot and polluted streets having to stop every thirty seconds to yield to the near stationary traffic. That was summer 2010, and I've been back three times since, usually just for two or three days at the end of a holiday.

The great thing about visiting a place every two years is that you notice the changes. And Thessaloniki is getting better, really amazingly better. The program Thessaloniki 2012, launched to celebrate 100 years since Thessaloniki was incorporated into Greece, sought to reimagine the city, to make more of its potential. You can read about it on the wikipedia page or, if you have an ever patient partner who speaks Greek and is willing to translate, on these slides

Streets are being pedestrianised, several small army barracks being turned into city parks, and bollards are being erected to protect pavements from parked cars. People love it. Even before the surface has been laid, you can see throngs of shoppers on this newly pedestrianised street.
Not only are there more people here, but they're more relaxed, they walk slower, they look in the shops and they sit in cafes.

The jewel in the crown though is the renovated paralia. Stretching 5.5km, this wide uninterrupted path runs right along the sea shore giving great views of the city and, on a clear day, out as far as mount Olympus far across the bay. Thirteen parks have been created and three thousand trees planted. There's even a long, wide, segregated bike path running through it. At one end a renovated port houses bars, a contemporary art museum and a port museum. It's just superb.

Of course not everything is fixed. Just as in Edinburgh, if you don't protect bike lanes with bollards or enforce parking restrictions then bike lanes become car parks. And having five lanes of traffic running through the middle of your city is always going to be unpleasant. Central parts of the Paralia are not wide enough, and as far as I know there's no news yet on whether the original plan to remove cars entirely from the central stretch of the sea front will be implemented. But Thessaloniki 2012 is a fifteen year program, and four years in (it started in 2010) things are looking pretty good. The mayor, who has done a lot of good things besides city planning, has been nominated for World Mayor 2014.

So is there a moral to the story? Well what Thessaloniki did was to hire some architects and city planners to produce a report into how one could make Thessaloniki fit for people, a place that people want to linger in. Then they began to implement the plan and are reaping the rewards. 

My city, Edinburgh, also commissioned international architects to look at how to make it a livable place. These architects also produced a report. The council have accepted the spirit of the report, and made quite a few positive changes, but there's still a vast gulf between what the report envisaged and what the council have done. Let's hope the Gehl report is implemented fully, Edinburgh reaps the rewards, and we can be celebrating Andrew Burns being nominated World Mayor 2015...

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