In the light of the launch of the European Capital of Democracy, we spoke with Kostas Bakoyannis, Mayor of Athens, Greece about the role of cities for democracy, challenges posed by climate change and globalisation, and the importance of involving citizens .

What role do cities take in strengthening democracy?

Democracy was born in cities and has its cradle in the system of city state of ancient Greece. Athens is the most brilliant example.

The number of residents in cities is growing every day, and, for the first time in human history, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas. Today, cities are the most important socio-political unit in the world. They are growing in power by improving the lives of people, while also competing in attracting investment, talent and innovation. There are many new opportunities for territorial non-state actors to become involved as the economic, cultural and political dimensions of globalisation have worn down the state’s responsibilities and functions. That is why there is no longer a clear distinction between the national and international political sphere. Cities can be strongholds of democracy as long as they are participatory and foster an ongoing exchange of ideas, mentalities and traditions. The most important thing is that their work is based on the principle that authority, in Greek kratos, is vested in demos, the people.

Which current developments will have the strongest impact on the development of society?

Technology and efficiency should not be regarded as being the only means to improve our cities. Cities are not only smart because they have developed the ability to integrate technological innovation into everyday systems, but also because they exploit technology to, for example, reduce social inequity, or to enhance the urban population’s resilience by improving the quality of life.

Climate change, or problems of safety in our cities and international migration pose enormous challenges to our cities. We therefore need to enforce new forms of cooperation and collaboration between the city government, different stakeholders, the private sector and academia. At the international level, enhanced cooperation is necessary to attain the Sustainable Development Goals and to meet the agreements of the European Green Deal. We, the European cities, should come together to think creatively about the future responsibilities of cities and about how to mitigate the problems we face. We have to define new ways of living and working in a globalised economy for future generations.

What do you consider to be the biggest threat to democracy in your city?

Threats can vary depending on the geographical, social, economic and cultural context of each individual city. Yet some of the most important threats always carry a global dimension. Increased political polarisation in many parts of the world and growing misinformation, combined with populism, constitute a major threat for democracy and society in general. We observe this in our struggle to combat COVID-19, a phenomenon with presumably tragic consequences, if not handled in time.

Which democratic processes or institutions should be improved to make democracy work better?

I think that our institutions have to become more inclusive and participatory by way of enforcing a bottom-up, multilevel, and multi-stakeholders approach. We are continuously seeking opportunities to create new legal structures for a joint citizens’ engagement. It is our goal to work on finding innovative solutions to be implemented together with the residents of our city. That is democracy by definition. Our municipal councils and budgets are public and we are taking further steps to involve people in the decision-making processes.

At the EU level more coherence among its own policies and other international policies is welcome, as well as better regulations and an improvement of EU funding for local authorities. It is often said that state and city actors do not necessarily take different routes, but rather the same route in a different car. Cars need power in order to be driven. That is why I strongly agree that EU funds should be provided directly to cities in order to enable them to achieve their goals.

From your experience as former mayor of Karpenissi and regional governor of Central Greece, what are the policy areas you consider as being relevant for the democratic development in the City of Athens?

My experience as mayor of Karpenissi and regional governor of Central Greece taught me to react quickly. Our decisions and actions are guided by the need to improve our citizens’ quality of life and to create a sustainable, safer, greener, and inclusive city. This is the future we want for our children. In order to achieve these goals, we need to work with all stakeholders and, most importantly, we need to have the citizens on our side.

COVID-19, for example, has been both a challenge and opportunity to deal with major environmental and social issues that call for a quick response from our side. The confinement in mobility has helped us to lay focus on sidewalk reconstruction with a special emphasis on more accessibility for wheelchairs and strollers. We have also used “cool materials” for road resurfacing to prevent heat retention and improve the quality of air. Athens is further developing a Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan that adopts best practices from around the world which will help us to become more resilient and competitive on a global scale. 

All of this is also part of our long-term city strategy to attract talent, investment, and tourism. Our success will depend on building a more sustainable urban fabric that makes it easier for people to work closer to their homes or favour public transport to their cars. At the end of the day, a key indicator for our efforts will be that more people choose to live in, work in, and visit Athens.