The Grand Walk of Athens is one of the largest urban interventions the city has ever seen. It is a complete plan for the revival and integration of the historic centre, creating routes connecting Athens’ historic neighbourhoods to its world-class archaeological treasures for the first time. The objective is simple; enable citizens to live the city as opposed to live in the city. The project is ambitious both in magnitude and implementation. To capture the vision, its significance and the role of cycling, we chat with Mr. Kostas Bakoyannis, Mayor of the City of Athens.
How long has the “Grand Walk” been in the making for the City of Athens? Is it part of a greater mobility plan for the city? Was the COVID-19 health crisis a catalyst for its announcement and implementation?
The ideas behind the Grand Walk of Athens have been discussed for many decades. In the 1950s and 60s, as Athens was building and expanding rapidly, it was already broadly recognized that the modern city was growing up in between archaeological sites that limited the possibility for moving traffic across the city center. We’ve had traffic congestion as long as there have been cars, and also a constant desire to return those spaces back to pedestrians. We spent decades looking for solutions, leading to the opening of the metro system. In the run up to the 2004 Olympics, Athens invested in many projects to improve mobility and repair public spaces.
We created some of the most beautiful pedestrian paths in Europe by unifying archaeological sites, but even this very famous project was only partially finished. The Grand Walk is completing the vision 16 years later.
More recently, there has been a long discussion about how to spark economic development in the city center by making Panepistimiou Street into a long urban park that would give more space to walkers and cyclists, create shade from trees, and show off the beauty of the modern city. These desires and needs have been around for many years, but these projects always hit barriers of some kind. The crisis caused by Covid-19 was indeed a catalyst to push forward. We can’t keep waiting for the city that we know we need. The health benefits of walking and cycling have been made clear to us, and there is more awareness that poor air quality as an unacceptable risk. So, we saw the right time to get moving.
What would you describe as the main expected results of this project? Any specific cycling targets?
It is difficult to talk about indicators and targets at this stage because we are nearly starting from scratch. In Athens, there has been a great increase of interest in cycling over the last years, as in cities around the world. No doubt, there is a demand to create space for cycling. But there is a perception among Athenians that the city is not yet safe for cyclists. This is something we are working to fix. For too long our streets have belonged exclusively to cars, and we lost precious time during ten years of economic crisis that made it difficult to invest in new infrastructure. Today we are creating safe spaces for cycling and we are re-building the idea that our streets belong to the people.
Are there further plans to connect and integrate existing and announced cycle paths into a city-wide cycling network?
Right now, we are building the central and most difficult part of a larger project to create a cycling network in Athens. Already the Ministry of Environment and Energy has announced plans to complete cycling paths that will connect with the Grand Walk and extend across the Athens Basin. The paths will also connect with several university campuses, and we think that students will be some of our first and most enthusiastic users of the network. Additionally, a plan was approved by the Athens City Council in 2018 to create cycling paths throughout the city, with a detailed evaluation of the streets and the necessary roadwork completed by cycling experts. We think the “Grand Walk” project will create demand to return to those plans and make the necessary investment of space and money.
In which way does the recently signed “Green Agreement for the Promotion of Electromobility” in Greece feature and / or contribute to the goals of the Grand Walk of Athens?
The Grand Walk will create a space 6.8km in length where conventional traffic is strictly limited. We’ve already announced that electric vehicles will be excluded from these restrictions. We are prioritizing climate-neutral investments as a municipality, and we are encouraging our residents to join us.
What is the response of the citizens so far?
Athenians have been enthusiastic in their response. The project began with a pilot phase. The road barriers and painted surfaces were temporary, in line with international best practices, so that our residents could test out the changes and give us feedback before making them permanent. We have received a lot of direct input and we’ve also been monitoring the flow of car, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic. We want the project to be an improvement for the city, and we think that our residents understand this very well. We appreciate that they have been very involved and giving so much thought to public space during this process.
What is your personal inspiration and aspiration for the City of Athens in fulfilling this ambitious project?
As I mentioned, projects of this kind have been discussed for decades as something that would be vitally important for Athens. I personally want to see this development completed because we need it now more than ever. We need to do a better job with traffic management to improve our record on vehicle emissions and air quality. We need to use public spaces to benefit the health and well-being of our residents. And we need to prepare Athens to compete globally for talent, investment, and tourism.