Athens hatches ambitious plan to uncover fabled river, once the haunt of Socrates, and turn it into a park
It is one of the least green cities in Europe, but Athens hopes to change that by opening up a long-hidden river that flows through the historic heart of the capital.
In ancient times, the Ilissos River was an idyllic, winding watercourse shaded by plane trees where Socrates once taught.
“Let us turn aside here and go along the Ilissus; then we can sit down quietly wherever we please,” Socrates told his followers, according to an account by Plato, his student.
But in the 1930s, during the rapid urban development of Athens, it was covered over and a tram line was built on top it.
Poor maintenance and the rumble of thousands of trams have caused structural damage to the tunnel beneath the track, and in October the tram line was closed down.
Urban planners have suggested that rather than spending millions of euros on reinforcing the tunnel and repairing the track, the tram line should be diverted along a different route and the river opened up.
They are proposing the creation of a park along a one mile stretch of the formerly forgotten river.
Athens could do with a bit more green space – the city centre has few parks and gardens and the city was ranked 22nd out of 30 cities in a European Green City Index drawn up by the Economist Intelligence Unit, with Copenhagen coming in at number one and London at number 11.
“Reconstructing that part of the tram line would be very expensive,” Katerina Christoforaki, an urban planner who is behind the proposed scheme, told The Telegraph.
“We are suggesting that the tunnel should not be repaired. Instead, we would uncover the river and create a pathway that would lead from the Acropolis to the Museum of Modern Art, right through the heart of the city.”
The proposed river walk has been likened in concept to New York’s celebrated High Line – the hugely successful linear park that was built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side.
The rail line was saved from demolition and opened as a green pathway in 2009.
Athens is unusual among European cities in not having a river that flows through the city – at least not one that is visible.
“Actually we have two rivers, the Ilissos and the Kifissos, but they are covered up and almost invisible,” said Prof Christoforaki, from Athens Anaplasis, an urban renewal firm.
Given Greece’s dry, hot climate, neither is huge – they are nothing like the Thames in London or the Tiber in Rome.
During winter, when Athens receives most of its rain, the Ilissos flows to a depth of around six feet.
It originates in the mountains on the edge of the city and eventually flows into the Saronic Gulf, after passing almost unseen beneath the streets of the capital.
It does emerge briefly, in reed beds behind the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which was built over several centuries starting in the second century BC.
Completed by the Roman emperor Hadrian, it was one of the largest temples in the ancient world.
The project has the support of the Greek government and locals agencies but will not happen overnight.
Feasibility studies are just getting underway. “We’ve just opened up the dialogue,” said Prof Christoforaki. “But we think it will be completed within a decade. It’s something that we believe most Athenians would like to see.”