One striking feature of Athens, for me at least, is the way that rooftop space is massively underused. This is not only the case for Athens: the same is true of London, or endless other cities. But Athens presents a case of a very densely populated city where, unlike London, most roofs are flat. Although space down below may be at a premium, a whole extra city’s worth is available up above. All that’s there, in most cases, is a washing line or two, and a few TV aerials. I look out at all this, imagining naively what it would be like if every roof was used as a communal space, draped with greenery.
There are all sorts of reasons why this space is left empty, including the question of how it might be regulated. Blocks of flats are usually maintained collectively by their multiple owners or residents; each household has to contribute a certain amount of money each month towards things like cleaning the entrance hall and stairs, use and repair of the lift, general upkeep, etc. Since these arrangements are inevitably informal, and rely on a degree of goodwill, they need to be kept as simple as possible – especially at a time when money is short.
Dreaming of rooftop gardens or the like is one thing, then, but who would look after them? And who wants the headache of having to intervene when one family (perhaps the one living on the top floor) starts to colonise the space in subtle ways? It’s rather like the ‘hot-desking’ system in open-plan offices, which goes wrong when people start marking particular desks as their own with personal items. This problem can be partly resolved through a rule that all desks have to be cleared at the end of each working day – but that produces a rather sterile working environment (and, even then, people may effectively claim a particular desk as their own simply by sitting there each day). The best way to avoid conflict is simply to leave the roof as a not particularly welcoming space, where nobody is allowed to leave personal belongings.
But never mind dreams of communal gardens in the sky. What about solar panels, at least? Of course, they raise a whole new set of practical and administrative problems. And yet, Athens is graced with abundant sunshine for much of the year.
The sun, the sun. Since we’re on the topic of the sun, let me share a thought from William Cronon’s (1992) well-known history of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis (my holiday reading at the moment). He reminds us that, while we may want to understand economic growth through labour theories of value, the real basis of capital lies not in production but in consumption – of natural resources: “In any ecosystem, only the sun produces” (150). Thus, “The abundance that fueled Chicago’s hinterland economy … consisted largely of stored sunshine: this was the wealth of nature, and no human labor could create the value it contained. Although people might use it, redefine it, and even build a city from it, they did not produce it” (149-150).
In a place where the sun bestows its value so freely, what other uses might be made of all these empty roofs? Well, if you’re rich, you can always install a swimming pool.
Athens, 15 August 2016
Cronon, W. (1992). Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.