The islands and the city. What about “islandising” Greek cities

An 1940s GTO poster
An 1940s GTO poster Greek Tourism Organisation

The Greek islands look more and more like cities. Could it be that the secret for stopping the islands from urbanizing is to “islandise” the cities?






Since the 1930s and Nobel laureate’s Odysseas Elytis’ poesy, the islands of the Aegean feature prominently in the Greek national imaginary. The development of tourism and of vacation housing, especially during the last two decades, has brought dramatic changes in most of the Greek islands. There is a huge gap between the islands of an imaginary past and the islands of today. Only in Santorini, 2 million people passed this summer, and the numbers keep increasing. My summer visits to favourite islands are nowadays accompanied by a ritual exchange of nostalgic memories with other regulars. “Do you remember when…”. “This old coffee-house closed, too..”. “The visitors these days do not appreciate the island for what it really is..”. Our Athenian narrative about the islands is one of “paradises in peril”, paradises destroyed since we ourselves discovered them.    


This narrative of paradises “before development”, is far from the dominant narrative among most locals who time and time again have been asking for more “development”: roads paved with asphalt, better ports and faster connections to Athens, airports, hospitals, electricity. While islanders want their islands to become more like a city, that is they desire to eliminate both differences and distances from Athens, some of us urbanites want exactly the opposite, namely to keep the islands as different as possible from the city. If it were possible, we would like the small islands of the Aegean to remain remote and hard to reach, keep their dirt roads, have no electric lights so that we can see the stars and islanders should continue living off the land, offering genuine hospitality free of charge.

Not only is revolution commodified, but any latent desire for social change in the city is diffused into a temporary, elusive escape that acts to reinforce the status quo


Of course the above juxtaposition of locals and Athenians is a caricature, more so since the boundaries of islanders and outsiders are increasingly blurred. Island natives spend more and more of their free time, especially during winter, in Athens (if they are not on holidays in Thailand or the Caribbean). On the other side, many foreigners and Athenians, especially pensioners, but also more and more young people led out of the city by the crisis, spend most time of the year in islands. In the hybrid island societies that are taking shape, opinions vary about what genuine development is. I have met many young people in the islands desperately fighting against the forces of globalization in order to maintain and improve what they love most about their territories, from traditional music instruments and popular feasts to food orchards and the Aegean architecture. Even those that benefit the most from tourism lament the changes in the social fabric of the islands and the loss of the “old ways”, though they may be unable to express or even imagine what and how could go different.


I won' t deal here with what could change in the islands. I have some ideas on this, but I am only an occasional visitor. Changes in the islands are to be imagined and enacted by the people who live and produce there. What concerns me here instead is what the islands may mean for “the city”, meaning the city or cities where I live in and produce. My idea is this: if some islanders dream of their islands becoming more like a city, why don’t we, island-loving urbanites, dare to think that our cities could become more like the islands of our fantasy? In a world that is increasingly urban, it may be that only by “islandizing” the cities, the islands may not totally urbanize.


Many fellow island-lovers will find all this too theoretical and maybe unnecessary. They will argue that the beauty of a summer experience in the islands lies in its temporal character: they never wished to live the whole year as if it were summer. They want a temporary escape, not to change their everyday life in the city. They want holidays, not politics.


Unfortunately, this escapist desire is self-annulling. Many young people experience a Summer in an island as a temporary revolution, a taste of non-alienated life: walking naked on the beach, sleeping under the stars, forgetting what time it is, not using money, fishing their food in the sea. This of course ends as soon as they come back to the city in September, put back their suits, set the alarm, charge their credit cards and go to the supermarket. Capitalism, has found a grand opportunity for profit in this intense desire to escape from capitalism itself. As the numbers of temporary escapists increase, so do profit opportunities. Free camping unavoidably becomes rooms to let, hospitality turns into tourism, and the barren land of the islands prime spot for real estate speculation. Not only is revolution commodified, but any latent desire for social change in the city is diffused into a temporary, elusive escape that acts to reinforce the status quo.


If escapism leads nowhere, how could then one bring the islands to the city? It is worth asking this question. What is that animates our fantasies in the islands and how could everyone have it in the city? Is it the different biorhythm? Is it our right to be lazy? Is it the fact that in the islands we could once eat natural, organic products from the earth and the sea? Or is it maybe that in an island everyone knows and says good morning to one another? Is it the convivial town squares and the cobblestone alleys? Is it that we can live simply without luxuries? If so, why not imagine systemic transformations that would make all this possible in our cities and not only “out there” in the countryside?


Let me conclude in a more optimistic way. Maybe we do not even have to imagine, only to look around and see what is already happening in the cities. Islands already shape the city because, we Athenians, bring something from the islands back with us every autumn. For many friends it was a summer in an island that made them realize the superfluous in their urban lives and the value of simplicity. It was after a summer in an island that many decided to throw away their TV. I have seen friends leaving their corporate jobs, downscaling to a simpler life, with all the sacrifices this takes. True, a few became permanent escapists, getting by in the Winter, and waiting for the summer, each summer travelling farther and farther away, to discover a new paradise whose destruction they themselves will set in motion. Others, though, no longer wait for the summer for their personal revolution. They bring the islands to their art. They bring the values and rhythm of the islands to their work. They work with others to turn garage lots into public squares, to cultivate unused land into food orchards in the centre of the city. They initiate networks of gifts and barter, set up food or housing cooperatives, provide for the health or the care of their kids and the elders in common. They occupy squares and claim their right to the city.


As the Paris 68 saying goes “under the asphalt, lies the sand”.       

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