A view from Athens

It was by coincidence that I read the piece (yet again) on the density debate from afar shortly after a pleasant experience of “density” in another city where there is no debate at all, people just live it:  Athens, Greece.

It was dinner at a friend’s apartment on the top floor of a five-storey building in amongst streets of other five, six and seven-storey buildings with ground-level garden areas interspersed with some detached housing in a reasonably well-off “suburb”, but really more like “inner middle” Sydney or Melbourne.

It was 20 minutes by late-model tram from the centre (we could also have caught a bus) and then 10 minutes pleasant walk along relatively cooler footpaths lined with orange trees. There was a small supermarket and some other shops clustered around the tram stop. The carriageway was crowded with cars parked cheek-by-jowl because there was only limited off-street parking – but really isn’t that how it should be? Keep vehicles on the streets leaving the residential land for, well, residents and their amenity.

Natural areas – a line of hills with walking trails in one direction and the coastal beaches in the other – were nearby. The apartment was only one-bedroom but felt roomy because of its open plan design and because three sides opened on to the large wrap-round deck.

We ate there amongst the plants, the view and the breeze. From the fifth floor we were still able to lean over the railing and connect with, wave and say hello to the others who were to join us as they walked along the footpath.

"Generous" density connects to the street
“Generous” density connects to the street

The buildings around us all had similar configurations – one apartment per floor each with wrap-round balconies and lots of awnings for shade, like a series of Australian colonial-style houses all stacked on top of each other. The impression was one of a “generous” density. Kids were playing in a neighbourhood open space also in view from our deck and in some of the other places we passed in the tram families congregated into neighbourhood squares for evening meet-ups.

It does make one wonder about the desirability of the high-rise solution end of the Australian density debate.  More about ego than empathy one suspects.   And it is an empathy with the human interface rather than simply looking at returns that we need if we are ever to achieve a density of livability that Tim Williams for example seems better able to capture in his recent piece.

A final, necessary comment. Generally without prompting most people I have talked with here have all said the same thing, and in a similar tone that is hard to pinpoint, but which perhaps denotes a feeling of helpless concern:  that there had been no “real” winter in Greece this year. It was all unusually warm. Getting density right is important in creating convivial and health-supportive cities and in halting the permanent destruction of our food-producing lands. Hopefully it will also provide an antidote for the changes in climate we have already naively and not so naively generated.

Greg Paine is a Sydney based urban planner

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  1. You make a good point that the Oz mega city does not really exist in Europe – apart from the national capitals, few cities exceed the optimum limit.
    I was a,ways fascinated by the German propensity for having brassica/spud fields interspersed with urban life even in Bonn, then the capital of the BDR.
    My favourite will always be beautiful Stuttgart which had vines within a stones throw of the Hauptbahnhoff.
    Can any Schwaebischer tell me if my 50 year old memory survives?