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‘It’s about survival’: Athens mayor focuses on getting capital through extreme heat | Greece

‘It’s about survival’: Athens mayor focuses on getting capital through extreme heat | Greece

Trees, cooling centers, water stations. All three topics are on Haris Doukas’ mind as he sits in his office on the top floor of the town hall, which has been converted into a control center.

Barely six months in office, the Athens mayor’s top priority is simple: making sure the people of Greece’s capital – the hottest metropolis in mainland Europe – survive the summer. After the hottest June on record, the Attica region has already experienced record temperatures and wildfires.

“It would be difficult to deal with such extreme weather phenomena anywhere,” says Doukas. “In a city with seven hills and such dense development, it is particularly complex.”

This is why Doukas is so passionate about planting trees.

“In a green district, temperatures can drop by five percent. That’s the difference between an agonizing day in a heatwave and not,” says the mayor, who was a political unknown teaching energy policy at the Athens Polytechnic before being nominated for the post by the social democratic Pasok party.

“It’s not about lifestyle or improving the quality of life; it’s about survival when 23% of the green lungs around Athens have been destroyed by fires in recent years. It’s vital that we have more trees, more air-conditioned community centers and more water stations on our streets and squares.”

For Doukas, the climate crisis and the dangers associated with it are nothing new.

“The best thing about this job is that you can improve people’s lives,” says the 44-year-old. “It’s no longer about theories, but about making Athens more sustainable and resilient.”

But he has no illusions. “Of course I’m worried… We’re doing what we can.”

Last week, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose center-right government has invested heavily in a “war chest” of firefighting equipment, including early detection drones, warned that this summer “is expected to be particularly dangerous.” After firefighters spent days battling fires fueled by hotter, drier and windier weather – the telltale signs of climate change – it was clear that “the most difficult times” were ahead, he said.

With temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius in mid-June and meteorologists predicting temperatures of “six degrees Celsius above normal” for the rest of July, Athens City Hall has opened air-conditioned public spaces, set up a 24-hour “heat hotline,” increased staff at city clinics and expanded a home care program that sends social workers, nurses and psychologists to the homes of elderly people living alone. As part of a pilot project to monitor the effects of heat on the older generation, seniors have been fitted with biometric watches that can alert authorities if necessary.

Haris Doukas, the mayor of Athens in his office. Photo: Helena Smith / The Guardian

“Greece has an ageing population that is and will be more vulnerable to heat,” says Olga Dourou, the deputy mayor in charge of the program and whose doctoral thesis on active ageing is also being put into practice by the municipality. “People are living longer now and we will have to take measures to deal with this.”

Such moves are a far cry from the youth of Efi Petropoulou and Rena Papadaki, both retired and still alive with memories of Attica’s once famous dry climate. “The atmosphere in Athens has really changed,” says Petropoulou. “It’s so oppressive and humid and it’s definitely gotten a lot hotter. Before, you could cope by closing the shutters and turning on the fan. Now you can’t do that without air conditioning.”

“And who would have thought that it would come to this?” asks her friend Papadaki, pointing to the air conditioning in the neighborhood friendship club where the two 70-year-olds meet every day.

The club is one of seven community centers in central Athens that the city has opened to provide shelter and accommodation for people during heatwaves.

“Most people come at 9 a.m. when the doors open and leave at 9 p.m. when they close,” says Aliki Kirmitsa, who lives in Neos Kosmos, a working-class neighborhood of post-war apartment blocks where the center is located. “It’s a blessing. People like us in the third age would struggle without it. Who can afford to have the air conditioning on 24 hours a day?”

Rena Papadaki, Efi Papapetrou and Aliki Kirmitsa in the air-conditioned community center opened by the Athens City Hall. Photo: Helena Smith / The Guardian

Greeks who may never have spoken about the weather – or at least approached it with a nonchalance bordering on stoicism – now follow it in real time via mobile phone apps, often shaking their heads in disbelief.

Recently, Dimitris Dimitras, a waiter in Plaka, the picturesque district below the Acropolis, was among those cursing the humidity, which made working particularly difficult.

“Look at this, this humidity, we could be in Indonesia,” he says, pulling out his phone. “I’m 61 and the heat is really getting to me now… if it continues like this, there will be no one left to wait tables.”

More and more Greeks are choosing to holiday in the north, with Norway and other parts of Scandinavia becoming increasingly popular. “All our flights are fully booked,” says Frosso Stavraki of the Cosmorama travel agency, which specialises in trips to Northern Europe. “When it’s so hot, people are looking for somewhere cool, really cool.”

Back in his office at City Hall, Doukas explains his goal is to plant 5,000 trees by the end of the year – 25,000 by the end of his term – to reduce pollution, lower temperatures and improve air quality.

It’s a big task, but he’s determined. “I follow our new tree app on my phone every day,” he says, pulling it up on his phone screen.

“At 11%, the green space in Athens is well below the European average… this allows me to see exactly where and when new beds were planted. Things are moving forward here.”