Greek cities eke out resources to help the vulnerable

 26 Jul 2017 - 20:04

Greek cities eke out resources to help the vulnerable
Mules transport goods from commercial ferry on the Greek island of Hydra on November 12, 2016. AFP / Louisa Gouliamaki

By Sophie Hares / Thomson Reuters Foundation

NEW YORK: Tackling rising temperatures, turning empty Greek buildings into homes and better integrating migrants could help Athens deal with future shocks and stresses, according to a city official.

Athens, like Greece’s No. 2 city Thessaloniki, was also looking at ways to fund its resilience schemes and ensure that projects help vulnerable locals as well as the thousands of migrants that call it home, said resilience officer Eleni Myrivili.

The Greek cities have both signed up to a Rockefeller Foundation-backed, $164 million, 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) programme, which is designed to help urban areas better protect their populations from stresses and shocks.

“Resilience is absolutely the best fit for a city in economic crisis,” Lina Liakou, chief resilience officer for the northern port city of Thessaloniki, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The basic concept of resilience thinking is with one stone you can kill many birds, and have multiple benefits and make the most of your resources -  in our case, limited resources,”  she said at a 100RC summit in New York.

While the Greek economy is expected to grow by 2.1 percent this year, after seven years of economic crisis, the country has seen a collapse in living standards, thousands of businesses close and Europe’s largest rise in poverty.

More than 20 percent of people remain unemployed, with youth unemployment affecting up to one in two people.

“We’re seeing deeply set-in patterns of poverty now that are more difficult to deal with as time goes on, as it’s more systemic,” said Myrivili.

She said a quarter of people were experiencing “energy poverty” and were unable to afford heating or cooling.

URBAN HEAT

After being overshadowed for years by economic crisis, climate change was back on the agenda.

Densely-packed Athens is experiencing growing heat for the first time, exacerbated by haphazard urban planning and poorly maintained housing, Myrivili said.

“We have an incredible urban heat island...  the difference between Athens and the surrounding municipalities can reach up to 6 or 10 degrees Celsius, which is a huge difference. We also know the heat waves are going to be more frequent,” she said.

At least 400 people die every year from heat in Athens, she said.

The Greek capital, home to about 3.8 million in its broader metropolitan area, has also launched an app which uses satellite data to track climate-related health risks.

Athens has a “dangerous built environment”, with just one in five buildings retrofitted to better withstand climate change or earthquakes, Myrivili told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

EXODUS

She said Athens wanted to exploit the slowly degrading buildings and spaces left empty as the economic crisis prompted a mass exodus, and encourage more public-private-partnerships in a city heavily dependent on European Union funding.

“Even before the economic crisis we had urban flight. People made money and left the centre,” she said. “After the economic crisis, people just left, there was a brain drain.”

Affordable housing was a priority, she said, with migrants and locals both short of homes.

The city must better integrate the 20,000 migrants living in Athens, with about 3,000 in camps and about 4,000 in apartments, said Myrivili, adding that programmes to house migrants were now being extended to help the Greek homeless or local people who are unable to pay their rent.

Greece was overwhelmed in 2015 when most of the million refugees who entered Europe landed on its shores, many fleeing the war in Syria.

The influx “put a big burden on the city’s infrastructure in ways that we were not prepared for,” said Myrivili.

However, years of economic crisis meant Greece had developed social services and other support systems to help new arrivals, said Liakou, who noted that education and retraining schemes for locals could help migrants find jobs and establish themselves. 

(Reporting by Sophie Hares, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths)