Known for its iconic ancient architecture perched atop dusty hills, the Greek capital of Athens is not usually associated with green open spaces
Greek airport to be turned into a 600-acre park along the coast
Known for its iconic ancient architecture perched atop dusty hills, the Greek capital of Athens is not usually associated with green open spaces. But that may soon change as the city's former international airport and adjacent waterfront are to be turned into a giant waterfront park larger than London's Hyde Park.
The site of Elinikon International Airport, once the bustling gateway to Greece, has been lying empty for nearly two decades. After decommissioning in 2001, the facility remained abandoned except for a brief period during the 2004 Summer Olympics, when softball, hockey, and fencing stadiums were built on its grounds. sadly different from its best days.
Early next year, developers will begin work on the Elinikon Metropolitan Park, a 600-acre revitalizing landscape that will revitalize the area, and which the Athenians hope will become a park, playground and cultural center, as well as strengthen the climate resilience of the city.
“This is a project that will change Greece for generation and transformation,” said Michael Grove, a landscape architect at the Boston-headquartered Sasaki firm in charge of the design. The Athenians were “frustrated that this was an empty piece of important public land for 20 years,” he added. Sasaki is a firm known for its landscaping and urban planning, and is responsible for New York City's Greenacre Park, Charleston Waterfront Park, and Beijing 2008 Olympic Greenland.
Some historical elements of the site will be preserved in the new form. The 1960s terminal hall, designed by renowned Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, will remain standing, as will the massive runway light poles. Over 300,000 square feet of concrete and asphalt from the former runways will be reused for benches, paving and more.
This approach helps enhance the park's environmental potential, says Michael Grove: “We're using what's already in place, exceptionally great concrete – these 30cm-thick concrete slabs with golf ball-sized marble chips.” He added that they will also try to minimize carbon emissions after the park opens, using electric vehicles and organic fertilizers and pesticides.
Only species specific to Greece will be planted throughout the park, including 31,000 trees from 86 species and more than 3 million plants. The designers collaborated with Greek nurseries to produce grass and seed blends that are sustainable and adapted to the region's increasingly arid climate.
The city of Athens is already experiencing the effects of climate change, with warmer temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events. One 2018 study from Newcastle University, analyzing the risks of climate change in 571 European cities, predicted that Athens would experience some of the worst droughts and heatwaves by 2050.
Temperatures are exacerbated by the “urban heat island” effect as urban concrete, stone and asphalt absorb and trap heat, explains Eleni Mirivilli, Chief Climate Expert for the City of Athens and Senior Advisor for Climate Resilience at the Atlantic Council. “Athens is very densely built up and all the different surfaces are absolutely unsuitable for the rising heat,” she said, adding that they don't absorb water, so they can lead to flooding during increasingly frequent downpours.
Green spaces can help counteract these impacts. “We're essentially inverting an area that is 80% hard surface…to 80% soft surface,” Grove said, replacing concrete or stone with trees and shrubs to help absorb precipitation and create shade, which has a cooling effect.
To combat water scarcity, the park will be irrigated with reclaimed wastewater provided by a nearby sewage treatment plant, and a 3.7-acre lake – fed from the Olympic site's former canoe and kayak – will collect and store rainwater.
Such design characteristics are important for a climate-resilient future, says Alexandra Kazmierczak, climate change and health expert at the European Environment Agency. “Green spaces are one of the most effective ways to reduce temperatures in cities,” she says. “If cities are designed like sponges that can absorb excess water, this can turn into an economic benefit, as floods and millions and billions of euros in losses can be avoided.”
Another major benefit of green spaces is their impact on “physical health, mental health and social cohesion,” says Alexandra Kazmierczak. People living in a greener environment are generally less stressed and obese, and a green space can reduce noise and air pollution, which can have long-term health benefits, she adds.
For Athens, where green spaces are scarce – one EU environment agency study places them in the top five EU capitals with the fewest trees in a city – a large green space is an exciting prospective development, says Eleni Mirivilli. Although the city has recently made other attempts to create green spaces and “pocket parks”, none of them compares to Elinikon in scale or attention to detail based on solutions with elements of nature, she says.
“For the mental and physical health of the citizens of Athens, this will be a place of relaxation and balance from life in a very densely populated city,” she says, adding that it will be especially important for low-income people who cannot afford to leave the city in hot summer months.
Elinikon will have everything for everyone,” says Grove. There will be sculpture parks, sports centers, outdoor theatres, places for food and drink and a city beach. With 50 kilometers of walking paths and 30 kilometers of bike paths, he wants Athenians to actively explore the area and connect with nature.
The project was expected for a very long time. The idea to turn the space into a park was born even before the airport was decommissioned, but funding problems, the 2008 economic crisis and disagreements over who would develop it all delayed plans. In 2021, the Greek real estate company Lamda Development was officially awarded a contract involving Sasaki's firm and other architects for the design. Lamda estimates the project will cost about $8 billion, including residential and commercial properties in the suburbs of the park.
Now that momentum has been built, the architects are determined to work quickly. The first phase of the park – approximately 250 acres, including the central Olympic Square on the city's streetcar line and the entire waterfront – should be completed by the end of 2025 or early 2026, Grove said.
He envisions Elinikon becoming the Athenian equivalent of New York's Central Park – a place that could change the way Athenians use public space, promote the city's public and environmental health, and last for centuries. “Looking at the history of Athens, we expect this park, in some form, to last 1,000 years,” he said.