In the heart of Athens, Varvakeios Square was once a central market and gathering place. Like other public spaces in the capital, the agora suffered from disinvestment and decline stemming from prolonged economic crisis. Varveikeios Square has also been the victim of recent urban planning mistakes that elevated it several meters above street level to make way for underground parking. Turned into an out-of-sight dead end, the plaza came to be characterized by criminality, drug use and homeless encampments.
The modern challenges of Athens invite us to think about, seek and process new ways of designing and creating public spaces.
Team Athens brought together a community of advocates to develop concrete proposals for the regeneration of Varvakeios Square – in the process, prototyping a more participatory method for urban regeneration projects in Athens.
Greek citizens have been left out of the decision-making that shapes public space in their cities. During the implementation of the Urban Agora project, Team Athens was intent on bringing together diverse users of the square – local residents, shopkeepers, visitors, representatives of the government and urban designers to jointly develop ideas and proposals on urban interventions.
By whom and how are public spaces in the Greek cities shaped? If the production process of urban public spaces changes, can the image and experience of contemporary Athens be created from scratch?
The project started with open meetings to draw in many kinds of input and expertise. Experts from the University of Athens analyzed the ways people use Varvakeios Square, sociologists and designers framed the challenges and opportunities of the space. Surveys of area residents formed the basis of proposals for the square’s reuse. All came together to jointly visualize and design a better future for the square as a shared space.
The process created the conditions for mutual learning, the exchange of different ideas and the creation of trust bonds. The project results were debuted with neighbors and municipal leaders in five conferences and a major public open air event in the square. Out of this momentum, Team Athens launched a long-term partnership for Varvakeios Square’s regeneration.
Varvakeios Square project has become a laboratory for participatory decision making and participatory urban planning.
Working together on Varvakeios Square built a lasting feeling of shared purpose between locals, organizers, experts and officials. The input gathered by Team Athens is driving municipal plans for the square’s regeneration.
The project sparked a much-needed public dialogue on citizen participation in urban design in local press, academic institutions and municipal agencies, laying the foundation for new participatory urban projects. Team Athens published a manual of participatory planning — the first of its kind in Greek — making their methods available for use by other groups and promoting civic engagement to confront urban challenges.
“What happened in Varvakeios Square must happen in every neighbourhood for every important matter of the city”. – Mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis