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urban gardening

Guerrilla gardeners fight hopelessness in Greece

As Greece flounders under debt and austerity, green-fingered activists are overtaking unused spaces to feed those in need - and build a more sustainable future.

Elliniko community garden on the outskirts of Athens is an oasis of calm just a stone's throw from the noisy urban sprawl.

Neat lines of rutted earth have been prepared to grow potatoes and tomatoes. Pots of tender seedlings wait to be planted out. And there is already a luxuriant tangle of runner beans.

This is just one of the "guerrilla gardens" that have been popping up all over Greece, as people struggle to feed themselves under difficult economic conditions.

Desperate times

Since the Greek debt crisis, and harsh austerity measures imposed on the country in response, youth unemployment has risen to around 50 percent, and homelessness is a major problem.

Hunger and desperation have driven some Greeks to come up with creative ways to feed themselves and their communities.

This is one urban agriculture project that has sprung up in response.

Hand holding pea pod at lleniko Community Gardens Athens (Heidi Fuller-love)

Produce grown here will help some of the Athenians struggling to feed their families

The Elliniko community garden is located on the 2,500-square-meter (27,000-square-foot) expanse of an old airport that was abandoned in 2001. When grassroots activist group Agros took over the plot, it was buried under mounds of detritus from the neighboring American base. 

After clearing the land, volunteers at planted a variety of fruit and vegetables to help the growing number of Athenians who are struggling to feed their families.

Around 11,000 families are now registered with Athens' food banks - compared to 6,000 in 2014. The organization that runs them says 5,000 of the newly registered are children.

In addition to feeding the community, the green-fingered Agros activists are trying to influence the way their city manages its land.

Fighting for a greener city

By occupying the former airport, they want to force the government to reconsider developement of one of the city's last large plots of vacant land.

Kate Horti at Elleniko Community Gardens outside of Athens (Heidi Fuller-love)

Founding Agros member Kate Horti is among activists fighting commercial development at the community garden

As part of its obligation to privatize state assets in exchange for bailouts, the Greek government has been in talks to sell the land since 2014. 

"The troika suggests this place be sold," said Kate Horti, one of Agros' founding members. "And we said 'no, do not sell this land!'"

The sale is being finalized regardless, and foreign investors are expected to start developing it later this year into hotels and casinos.

Along with other grassroots organizations, Agros is now urging the government to ensure large green areas and gardens are included in the new development.

The city's lungs

"In Athens, the old airport at Elliniko is the last place where we could have a park," Horti said. 

Air pollution and lack of ventilation have been exacerbating the "urban heat island" effect in Athens, meaning temperatures rise in the city compared to rural areas - with potential impacts on human health.

This is only expected to get worse with climate change - major world cities could see temperature increases of 8 degrees Celsius (14.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, a recent study warned.

Areas of trees, plants and parkland can counter that. But Athens is short on such green spaces - the former Elleniko Airport is one of the few that remain.

Elleniko Community Gardens Athens (Heidi Fuller-love)

A former dump for debris from the neighboring US air base has become a blooming oasis

"Half of Greeks live in Athens," says Rita, another of Argos' original members. "This is really an opportunity for Athens to develop in another direction and to have better air."

Hope for the next generation

Rita says the garden also plays an educational role for the children of Athens, who are lacking contact with the land.

"Children need to see how long you need to cultivate vegetables - how tiring it is to cultivate - and is this way they can understand what the soil can give us," she says.

The Elliniko community garden is a relatively small project. But with dozens of similar initiatives emerging over recent years, it's part of a groundswell of people fighting hopelessness and taking matters into their own hands.

Beyond coping with the immediate impacts of the depression, they aim to and promote sustainable, local food production - and change the way people think about their cities.

"I hope that in doing all this work, many people will learn what is lost in a big city - so many people have become detached from agriculture," Rita says.

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