Athens is tackling urban air pollution and heat stress with “pocket parks”

Adding greenery to urban areas can do wonders for the liveability of a city. On top of providing shade and a cooling effect, trees, and shrubs also remove pollution from the air.

That’s why Greece’s capital, Athens, has embarked on a mission to green up the city by creating “pocket parks” out of unused plots formerly ridden with garbage and weeds. The new initiative is a bid to tackle urban heat stress and chronic pollution.

“It’s about creating green spaces, lowering the temperatures, giving quality of life, and creating new reference points inside the city,” said Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis.

After World War Two ended, the city experienced a mass migration from rural areas which fuelled uncontrolled urban development. As the population boomed, so did the number of cars on its streets, leading to dangerous levels of air pollution. This happened in a city where temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) during a hot summer.

“Trees were cut down, houses were built, residential areas were created, but at the same time, traffic congestion problems increased,” said Christos Zerefos, a climate change researcher based in Athens.

In an effort to curb air pollution from vehicles — which are responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions — the city is now closing traffic lanes and transforming them into bicycle paths, pedestrian walks, and small areas of greenery. It is also renovating fountains which can lower temperatures and improve air quality,

The new pocket parks contribute to this plan by offering a breath of fresh air and green space for residents to enjoy.

According to Bakoyannis, the coronavirus lockdowns have served as a window of opportunity to rethink city planning and the role of cars. “The time of cars has passed. Now the challenge is to find a new balance,” he said.

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