Cities around the world are attracting people for opportunities, leading more than half of the global population (57%) to live in urban areas today. In 2018, 2.4 million people migrated to Europe from outside the continent, while 1.4 million migrated internally.
This migration makes cities increasingly less demographically homogeneous. This diversification can be an opportunity for increased tolerance and bilateral exchange, or it might lead to conflict and fear. Hence, it is important to understand how our urban neighborhoods can facilitate tolerance, connection, and interaction.
Where do people interact?
As Jan Gehl illustrates, life happens between buildings, meaning that it is in the public sphere where we can have chance encounters with others, which can then lead to further interactions. Frequent meetings connected to everyday activities increase opportunities for developing relationships with neighbors and people who are different from oneself. Such meetings can happen in “third places,” such as parks, cafés, places of worship, and public libraries. And then there are the transitional places in between: sidewalks, streets, alleys, courtyards — places that operate between public and private.
Nikea is a municipality in the greater area of Athens with an extensive network of such transitional spaces. The historic center of Nikea includes 134 building blocks with internal shared courtyards or alleys at their heart.
The research project, funded by the European Commission (H2020-MSCA-IF-2020), investigates the relationship between public space and social cohesion via the courtyards of Nikea.
Nikea’s history & unique urban typology
Nikea’s urban typology is rooted in the Minor Asia Catastrophe, and the compulsory exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece specified by the Lausanne Convention in 1923, which led to a massive population influx in the Greek state, and a housing crisis. Nikea was among many areas developed for refugee accommodation through the expropriation of private and public land. Between 1923-1927, the Government’s Relief Organization and the Refugee Settlement Commission, an independent, international organization, created a plethora of minimal housing typologies. Because the housing units developed were of a maximum of 35 square meters (373 square feet) per family, shared open spaces, laundries, and toilets were introduced as part of the master plan.
Over the last century, Nikea has changed socio-economically, culturally, and spatially. In the 1970s, people residing in rural parts of Greece moved to Athens for work. After the end of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Nikea sheltered economic immigrants from Albania and Romania. Since the 2000s, Nikea has also become home to immigrants from South Asian countries, making Nikea more diverse today.
The current state of the courtyards
Today, the shared laundries and toilets are long gone, but the network of open spaces remains and is so extensive that no two spaces look alike. Many spatial changes have taken place in the city over the last century — additions to old houses, demolitions, and new construction — which have created an intricate urban fabric.
While some spaces seem run-down and operate simply as transitional spaces or small car parks (as little care is taken by municipal services), the most beautiful courtyards are tended to by residents and are used for gardening, putting out chairs and tables to sit outside, hanging clothes to dry, or for kids’ play. Maria, a resident who grew up in the area, highlights:
The courtyard gives me the feeling of a hug. It’s my space, the extension of my home. It’s our backyard.
For some older folks, the courtyards provided a refuge during the pandemic’s lockdowns as well. As Mrs. Sofia describes, “Now with Covid and all that, my [thought] was to open my door, my window, hang out my blanket and sheets, even while wearing a mask. But we were outside. I could sweep the courtyard, water the flowers.”
The practice of taking care of the exterior of one’s house facing the courtyard seems to be heavily rooted in the area’s refugee culture. Given the minimal, single-story housing, the need to have additional space meant that people extended their everyday life outside, thus taking care not just of their homes but the shared spaces as well.
Mrs. Sofia’s neighbor laments, “We keep saying … if the two of us die, who’s going to take care of the courtyard?”
The social life of the courtyards
Mrs. Sofia describes how lively her courtyard has been during her long lifetime:
We had a close-knit neighborhood; the neighbors came out here, we had our tables, [we] brought food, we baked, we ate, we danced here, we talked. Sometimes we even had our misunderstandings, because we had a neighbor who liked cats too much, and we grumbled.
With some exceptions, few people use the courtyards as much as they did in the past; the reasons are layered and complicated. Markos, who grew up playing in the courtyards, describes, “For me, what is happening now seems extremely gray. There is no social life in the courtyards. As a friend of mine noted: [in] 1999, when the earthquake happened, and everybody was outside their homes for a week, was the year of the farewell party of Nikea’s social life in the public space.”
Since the 1990s, the population of Nikea has grown older, with a diminishing number of children under the age of 15. As the generations change, it seems that the children of the original refugees are the ones who remain, while their children and grandchildren have moved away. As older residents die, many of the houses remain empty while the rich network of relationships in the neighborhood is dismantled. There is difficulty in creating new relationships, mainly because of social distance.
Social distance is the real or perceived distance people feel towards another social group, which can be influenced by class, age, working status, gender, sexuality, race, religion, and culture. For example, Nikea’s historically family-oriented character clashes with newer economic immigrants, who are usually single men who work long hours with few opportunities for interaction. Even though they also might use the courtyards, the interactions with existing residents seem confined to a simple greeting.
There are a few examples of neighborly relationships, though, between established residents and newcomers. Saleem from Pakistan describes the caring relationship he has with a neighbor — she would bring him soup when he was sick, while he kept an eye on their house when she and her husband were on vacation. The change from a homogenous population to a more diverse one has created a new situation that still seeks to find a balance.
Lifestyle changes have also influenced the usage of the courtyards. The 1990s to early 2000s were a period of perceived affluence for Greece, followed by significant technological advances. Televisions, air-conditioning, cars, mobile phones, and the internet — as well as socializing outside of the home — all started integrating fully into everyday life.
Maria says, “First, people had no air conditioning … they were sitting outside in the evening to cool off. So, technology, on the one hand, serves us in some ways — makes [it] more convenient — but on the other hand, it deprives us of sociability. We don’t have the need to go outside anymore.”
What does the future hold?
Since 2018, Nikea has regenerated five of its courtyards and lightly transformed another 20 with new paving and maintenance of existing planters. Residents were not engaged in these regeneration programs; in many cases, they were not even informed ahead of their courtyard’s regeneration. The changes, however, have not significantly impacted the way people use, or interact in, the courtyards.
Although social life around the courtyards has changed over the years, it seems that there are still a handful of residents keeping the spark of the courtyards alive. For example, the pandemic’s lockdowns were an opportunity for new activities to arise. Young resident Eleni describes how she taught dance classes in the courtyard for her mom and other students, “We danced in the courtyard because we couldn’t do it anywhere else. You can’t imagine how much fun we had!”
Other residents, like Gianna, have great ideas about how to utilize the spaces. She says, “I would love to have movie screenings on my backyard’s wall. Or morning exercise sessions in the courtyard for women in the neighborhood — some small things; a little walking, some stretching.”
Moving forward, Places of Togetherness aims to support some of these ideas and help them materialize and flourish in a way that is easily replicable for residents and, at the same time, sparks their urban imagination. Additionally, these activities aim to create the conditions for new interactions to take place between neighbors. The big question is: when the urban infrastructure for social interactions is there, but the networks have disintegrated, is there a way — through commoning practices — to create new relationships and connections?