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Traffic-Snarled and Smoggy, Athens Cleans Up

Greece's capital establishes a traffic-free zone, steps up construction of a subway, and asks siesta-takers to break the habit

The city that invented democracy has become in our century the symbol of urban anarchy. Athens today is a snarling, smog-filled mess, the antithesis of the ordered paradise built by Pericles. So when Athens's young mayor, Dimitris Avramopoulos, boasts that "in one year, Athens could become one of the most functional and humane cities in Europe," there's good reason to be skeptical.

But this time Athens says it's serious about cleaning up its act, and it has an impressive, if short, record to prove it. The long-delayed metro is finally under construction and work is scheduled to begin on an above-ground trolley network in six months. Cleaner fuels and better engines are starting to have an effect on air quality. And this summer, a large section of the city's commercial center is closed to traffic.

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A pedestrian oasis

The city is even challenging the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle, asking workers to stop heading home in the afternoon for a siesta, a habit that effectively adds two more rush hours.

Begun as a three-month experiment, the traffic-free zone downtown has already been declared a success, and the program is now being expanded to two other neighborhoods. The first could be closed to traffic this month.

The pedestrian oasis forms a triangle between three of the city's main squares abutting the old Plaka district at the foot of the Acropolis. Before they were closed, these shopping streets were some of the most congested in Athens. Cars moved at an average of three miles per hour, the pace of a leisurely stroll. Now trees in boxes have replaced bumper-to-bumper traffic and bird songs have replaced the usual background of grinding gears and whining motor scooters.

Avramopoulos says, "I couldn't understand why no one has done it before. They said it was fear of the political cost. But, believe me, the day after I announced the plan, there was no political cost. The reaction from the people was and is very enthusiastic." Even taxi drivers and restaurant owners, who had threatened a revolt, came around since business actually improved along the suddenly pleasant streets.

Working together

But if the people of Athens had been ready for this project for years, the politicians hadn't. It required a break with what Avramopoulos calls "the fanatic polarization of Greek politics." Avramopoulos is in the conservative New Democracy Party. His ally, Environment Minister Costas Laliotis, is a member of the Socialist government. It's the first time the two parties have worked together.

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Christine Tomazinaki, head of a government city cleanup program called SOS Athens, and an adviser to the environment minister, agrees: "This is something we didn't have in the past, a politician and a minister who were willing to do this. The lack of decision was the main problem. Now we have that."

But she admits that Athens is still a long way from its goal of becoming a "truly clean city with fresh air." The capital is home to more than 3 million people, nearly 40 percent of Greece's population. It was built largely without planning or regulation. By one estimate, more than a third of the housing went up illegally, leaving just 3 percent of the land not covered by concrete.

Each day a smog cloud, called "Nefos" by locals, forms a few feet above the forest of television antennas. It is eating away the ancient monuments so rapidly that archaeologists once considered erecting a glass bubble over the Acropolis. When weather conditions trap the smog inside the surrounding mountains, Nefos is also deadly to humans. Two thousand people died during the single heat wave in 1987, an ecological disaster some compared with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

High levels of pollution

The air has been improving steadily since then, but it still violates European Union standards for most important pollutants. Last year, the city had to take emergency measures six times when pollution reached dangerous levels. On such days, private cars are banned from the city center and factories are prepared to cut fuel consumption by a third.

Pollution warnings are more common. The elderly are advised to stay indoors, schools cancel outdoor recess, and Athenians are asked to voluntarily leave their cars at home - a request that is almost universally ignored.

Athens shares with Los Angeles a hot, sunny climate and a car-loving culture. The combination produces a particular kind of smog, heavy in photo-chemicals, and the two cities are now working closely together to share ideas on how to curb smog-producing pollution.

European Union funding

But if the ideas are coming from California, the money is coming from Brussels. Greece joined what was then the European Economic Community as its poorest member in 1981. Membership forced Athens to compare itself with other European capitals. It also provided the funds to make changes.

European Union (EU) money is paying for most of the Athens metro project as well as its 11 air-testing stations.

But plans for the future are even more ambitious. Avramopoulos is hoping for an enormous sum, 250 billion drachmas, ($1.1 billion), which he calculates is Athens's share of EU structural funds due Greece.

With that money, he says Athens could realize its grand project to unify all of the city's archaeological sites by opening a vast green space in the center of the city. The plan would correct the overbuilding of the past, tearing down neighborhoods between the ancient Greek and Roman sites and turning them into park land. As unlikely as it sounds, Avramopoulos insists this garden-like Athens will be a reality one day. "It's a been a common dream," he says. "Now it's a common project."

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