For years I stopped being proud of my city, Thessaloniki. I was proud of its history of course and its people, but the city leaders and planners was a different story. Corruption, mismanagement, narrow-mindedness, bad planning and ugly constructions were on the agenda of Thessaloniki for many years in the past. As for the citizens… often times, living in a big city – with huge problems around and no solution in sight – can get rather demoralizing. We become so jaded in our everyday city life. We get consumed by problems and finding solutions becomes extremely difficult. We also tend to expect the authorities to fix things and address issues, instead of taking action ourselves and getting involved with the process of place-making. When that is the case, all it takes is a new word, a new face, a new perspective that can trigger a different way of thinking and set things in motion. A new idea that will teach us how things can be done alternatively, and that will eventually spark the ignition for change. People are creatures of habit. We gravitate to what we know, so for years in Thessaloniki we were stuck in our own misery. Field trips, like the one organised by the Dutch City Makers, provide the playground for citizens to transcend the limits of their own hard reality, to think outside the box and break new ground.
In the last 6 years the city has managed to turn this sick climate around. When Mayor Boutaris came to office, in 2011, change has come to the city. I can now reclaim being proud of the city I was born and raised in. The new mayor, and his team, have helped Thessaloniki and its citizens rise to the occasion. The economic crisis that hit the whole country made any attempt for change more difficult to realise. Still, just like great art is made in strenuous times, great ideas are born in times of hardship, and great friendships are forged through the perils of an on-going critical situation.
I took the chance of joining a group of Dutch City Makers in a Metropolitan field trip to Thessaloniki, mostly out of curiosity. I am not that familiar with the notion of place-making and the parameters of city planning. I am, though, a global citizen, an urbanite. I live in Amsterdam for the last 16 years, but I always keep a journalistic eye open to what is happening in Thessaloniki and in Greece. On my radio show Hellas Pindakaas we follow the life of Greek and other expat urbanites that came to Holland in search for a better future. We also cover events that happen here in Amsterdam, and everywhere in Holland, we have guests that are Dutch and have something to share with all of us, and, in everything we do, we try to find common references between life here and the life in Greece. Building bridges is a phrase that could best explain what we do. Change for the better is our ultimate goal. And so, joining the field trip to Thessaloniki felt utterly natural – as if it was meant to be.
Listen to the audio report here.
Field trips, like this one, are inherently a unique platform for change. Maybe change won’t be immediate, but the seed of innovation that is sowed in us, will take root, at the moment that you most need it! That’s how experience is built and solidified.
In every moment of our life, there are many paths we can take, many choices we can choose from, hanging in there, like ghosts. If you manage to see them, it can change your whole life. So, imagine, 35 participants, 35 different paths at any given moment, multiply that by all the moments we had together in Thessaloniki, that makes an infinite amount of possibilities – the perfect recipe for change!
But change needs to be organic! This trip universalised the notion that you need all stakeholders on board to reach a viable solution for the city. Citizens initiatives need to work hand in hand with institutions. Institutions need to open their doors to people and involve them in the decision-making process. Authorities also need to take part, to facilitate change and give the tools to bottom-up initiatives to advance their cause.
Sustainable solutions for the city can be found only when the dialogue is taken to the place of interest. The perks of field trips like this can give us the true dimension of what is going on in a city – you have to be there to see, live and experience fist-hand the vibe of the city and its challenges. Only then we can come up with ideas that will resonate with the people and city culture. Only then our ideas can stay true to the city’s history and DNA. And vice versa, only when you visit the city up-close and talk to its people, you can expect that the city can be inspiring to you and others.
What can we learn from each other? This trip underlines the idea that you need both passion and strategy to make urban planning work for everybody. And this is something the two sides can learn from each other. Greeks have an abundance of passion, which is the prerequisite for bottom-up initiatives, but we lack coordination, vision and a culture of negotiating – the Dutch know all about strategic planning and consensus-building, the so-called overleg, but on the issue of citizens involvement in the public life, well, there might be something there that they can learn from the Greeks. When they see so much love for the city emanating from every initiative, every volunteer effort, that’s inspiring!
I created only an audio report initially, because our eyes can be deceiving. We normally see what we want or need to see. Hearing on the other hand, is a far more primal, instinctive sense. It speaks directly to your heart and soul. It touches you in a way that is difficult to describe, understand or manipulate. So I decided to only record voice interviews. Later, when I saw all the beautiful and telling photos we all took in Thessaloniki, I deviated from my initial plan and decided to give my audio report a bit of a visual identity, but a visual identity that would not interfere in what was said. It would only compliment the audio, in a free, uninhibited way. My goal, with this audiovisual report, was to help sustain and immortalize the new memories we all created in Thessaloniki. To immortalize our collective mnemonic!
In my eyes, this trip was a way for locals to create new memories of their city, through the eyes of their guests. Memories are essential to learning. They speed up the learning process. Creating new memories helps you learn new things, new contexts and new ways of dealing with existing problems. These new memories are the passage to re-imagining the old and familiar. For the Greeks and the Dutch as well. Without new memories, we cannot function in a sustainable society. It is so fundamental, not just for place-makers, but for all of us! It gives us a larger window of experience. It leads us to visionary ideas. It enhances our ability to step out of our microcosmos, step back from the small details and see the bigger picture. It helps us supercharge our brain to deal with city life’s complex problems. Memories and experiences are maximized through sharing, so this field trip is the perfect platform for that. Our collective minds and experiences, our collective memories can make us all better citizens in the end, as well as visionary city-makers.
This field trip was made possible by a great interdisciplinary group of people, in a close collaboration between Vivian Doumpa and Olympia Datsi of STIPO Thessaloniki and Tópio; Lina Liakou and Maria Sitzoglou of Resilient Thessaloniki; Anastazia Chranioti of Vereniging Deltametropool; Floortje Opbroek of Pakhuis de Zwijger; Anna Pilipenko and Mario Husten of Holzmarkt25; and Hans Karssenberg of STIPO – and the many many citymakers in Thessaloniki!
Radio interview with the organizers
Metropolitan Field Trip: Thessaloniki, City of Youth on Hellas Pindakaas – Listen ON DEMAND via this link. Joining us in the studio we had 3 of the organizers of Metropolitan Field Trip: Thessaloniki City of Youth, Hans Karssenberg (STIPO), Vivian Doumpa (STIPO THESSALONIKI), Anastasia Chranioti (Deltametropolis), but also participant Floor Ziegler, and, straight from Thessaloniki, Maria Sitzoglou (Resilient Thessaloniki).