Rebel Gardeners armed with rakes

Witnessing Athens' green space disappear before their very eyes, citizens take the law into their own hands – by picking up garden rakes

Red clay, rich soil, and a few seeds make up the Guerilla Gardeners' bombs, as mr. Tsirhritzis (below) explains. The ‘Organization of Vyrona Citizens for the Preservation of the Ymittos Mountain’ (above) are digging in their heels to protect the environment.
They have heightened ecological awareness and are willing to take personal action to protect the environment. They are – literally – digging in their heels, fighting back against the political system, even when that means acting on the edge of the law. These people are not Greenpeace activists nor members of a WWF expedition in the Amazonian jungle; they are ordinary Greek citizens who are tired of watching the last few patches of green space in Athens' landscape get paved over with concrete, while the authorities stand idly by. Well, they decided to come forward to “finally do something about it”.

“How often do you come across ugly, uninviting spaces when you are out around the city? How often do you mutter to yourself, under your breath, annoyed, that you wish the ‘municipality was doing something about it’? I want to redirect those questions and ask: Why aren’t you doing something about it?” Giorgos Tsihritzis, aged 30, asks. He has asked himself the same question many times and always answers the same way: “Anything public belongs to me too. I have a responsibility to act, to protect, and beautify it!”

This is how the story of the city guerilla warfare began, gathering forces of… 'Guerilla Gardeners', armed with shovels, rakes and 'seed bombs'! The Guerilla Gardeners organize stealth operations that target the city’s abandoned lots and planters. Their mission is to get in, plant flowers, and get out! “Our ‘bombs’ are simple to make: red clay, rich soil, and a few seeds. We roll the mixture into balls and toss them into planters. All they need is a little water, even rain water will do, and soon enough you’ve got a seedling!” Mr. Tsihritzis explains, adding that this kind of 'seed bombing' has taken place all over Athens, from Kotzia square to Stournari Street and Dionysiou Areopagitou Avenue.

Parks instead of parking lots

In another Athens neighborhood, Galatsi, the gardener activists decided to focus their attention on a communal abandoned lot on
Iniohou Street. They transformed the space into a park against the wishes of the local municipality board which was planning to utilize the space by constructing an underground parking garage. “We decided to remove and ban all cars from the lot, we then cleared the area and organized volunteers who have planted a number of trees. We have created a little haven with our own two hands,” explains Ms. Katerina Arvanitaki, a member of the Galatsi Community Board which has worked to preserve the Iniohou street park.

Nevertheless, becoming an involved activist means one also has to accept the risks that go along with acting on the outskirts of the law. “What we’re doing is technically considered illegal, but we’ll continue the fight against the cement that has smothered Athens by creating little pockets of green space! It’s not by chance that we have the full support of members of the local community; pedestrians walking through the park often stop to say ‘Bravo, keep it up!’ Those few words of encouragement give us the strength we need to keep going,” comments a young man from the Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens. He claims to be proud of being involved in the transformation of another empty parking lot into a park at the corner of Navarinou and Charilaou Trikoupi, in the area of Exarcheia. However, he prefers to keep his identity under cover, as he knows that the appropriation of the above land – owned by the Scientific and Technical Chamber – is actually an illegal act.

In an interesting change of events, thanks to the pressure applied by the diverse group of citizens who worked to create the green space – the team included everyone from young engineers and architects to neighborhood children – the municipality of Athens rescinded an earlier ruling and agreed to officially convert the area into a public park. “After negotiating with the Scientific and Technical Chamber we reached a compromise. We are exchanging the park for a section of immigrant housing on Alexandras Street. This agreement has allowed for the park to become legal property of the municipality of Athens, thus guaranteeing its status as a protected green space,” explains Ms. Tasia Lagoudaki, head of the Athens Municipality Evaluation and Support service.

The legal route to activism

For those who want to do their part to help protect the environment, while avoiding the ‘grey areas’ of legal liability, the guerilla gardeners explain that there are many other ways to get involved as an urban eco-activist. The ‘Organization of Vyrona Citizens for the Preservation of the Ymittos Mountain’ has fought many court battles to stop illegal construction that threatened to harm the local ecosystem. “By filing official appeals and seeking legal redress in front of the Supreme Court, we have managed to stop large works from moving forward, such as the illegal arbitrary settlements on the Saketa military base and the highways proposed by the Ministry of  Public Works,” comments Mr. Fragkiadakis, a member of the organization.

From prison to the negotiation table

A girl holding a garden hoe under the surveillance of the special police forces during the 2007 'illegal' tree planting that led to arrests

Actions and infringements that are purported to be - while technically illegal - still ethically and morally right, could lead an urban activist from prison to the negotiation table! That is just what happened to Mr. Thodoris Kokkinakis who has been an active member for twelve years, of a local group called ‘The Fight to protect the Pedio Areos’, which means ‘Field of Mars’ and is one of the largest parks in Athens. In 2007, a hundred members of the group attempted to block off the entrance of illegal settlements constructed in the parks by planting trees. The special force police teams interfered and arrested Mr. Kokkinakis, along with two of his fellow protestors, on charges of police resistance. They spent a night in confinement but the news of their arrest motivated six hundred people to come forward in protest. Twenty days later new trees were being planted on site; this time with the support of the Athens City Council!

What’s more, when the Athens Prefecture reached the initial decision to reform the ‘Pedio Areos’ it overlooked the local community board; soon, however, they found their proposed plans stopped by a court ruling initiated by the ‘Fight to Protect the Pedio Areos’ organization! Following the court’s verdict the prefecture realized that they had no choice but to consult with the community board. During the planning process of the project - which is currently underway - members of the organization were consulted to negotiate and represent local opinions and ideas about the landscaping and function of the space. “We feel justified, we feel that our voices were heard and the goals of our organization were recognized. We added something valuable to the project. Our unceasing efforts will continue until the project has reached completion,” comments Mr. Andreas Boziotis, a member of the Community Board. He added that no one has yet uprooted the trees that he, and his fellow activists, planted on the day of the infamous arrests.

“The Municipality of Athens is not against honoring the city’s environmental activist movements, quite the opposite. The city’s volunteer program has developed comparable activities that aim to reach similar goals,” Ms. Lagoudaki comments on behalf of the Municipality of Athens. “However, in areas where public green space overlaps the urban grid there are certain rules that dictate where, when and what is permissible to plant,” she adds, stressing the fact that the ‘Green Map’ recently created by the Municipality of Athens constitutes another step in this direction.

Ellie Ismailidou, published April 18th, 2010, To Vima on Sunday’ print and online edition
See original story in Greek here