Artist’s rendering of a central public space in the Ellinikon Metropolitan Park being built on the site of the former airport in Athens, Greece. (Courtesy of Sasaki)

After 3,400 years, Athens will soon get its first big park.

Athens has been home to a lot of great firsts over the years—democracy, theater, and the Olympics—to name only a few. But the city somehow missed out on one of Western Civilization’s best inventions: the large public park.

That is about to change. When completed in 2030, Ellinikon Metropolitan Park will be 600 acres (243 ha), about three-fourths the size of New York City’s Central Park, an enormous addition of public green space that may prove as important to Athenians as Central Park is to New Yorkers.

But that is where the similarities end. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus might have observed, you cannot build the same park twice. Though like Central Park, Ellinikon Metropolitan Park will have plenty of trees, ponds, and fountains, with every element of the landscape designed to fit a very different circumstance—an unusual site in an unusual Mediterranean city in an era of climate change.

Even financing the park’s development demanded creativity, given that the government spent most of the last decade digging out of a deep financial crisis that at one point had thrown one in four Greeks out of work.

Challenge as Opportunity

Michael Grove of Sasaki Associates, the park’s chief landscape architect, says that the site “presented us with challenges that we really read as opportunities,” including leftover venues from the 2004 Summer Olympics and remnants of the old Athens International Airport, which closed in 2001.

Among the Olympic castoffs was an excavated space where the canoe and kayak races had been held, which could be repurposed into a 3.6-acre (1.4 ha) lake. The old airport terminal was a building with architectural character—one of three in the world designed by the modernist architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed Dulles International Airport in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and what is now the JetBlue terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, according to Grove, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology of the Boston-headquartered firm. That could be used as an event space.

Even the runways could be turned to advantage. When they examined it, Grove and his team realized that the tarmac was not ordinary concrete, but an 18-inch-thick (46 cm) slab poured in the 1930s with marble and quartz aggregate and no rebar. Instead of carting it away, they could use it for the park’s benches, fountains, and retaining walls, as well as for a base layer for the park’s walks, plazas, and roadways.
An added benefit: being able to use the old runway meant that they had reduced need to pour new concrete, which greatly reduced the project’s carbon footprint.

The fact that a major park was even contemplated was in a way another constraint turned to an opportunity. Earlier plans to build a park at Ellinikon had been put on hold during the long decade of fiscal austerity that followed the 2009 Greek debt crisis, but an innovative deal with Lamda Development made it possible to go forward anyway.

Lamda, a major local developer, commissioned a master plan from Foster + Partners, the British architecture firm behind the renovation of the glass-domed Bundestag in Berlin and other marquee projects in Europe. Lamda, which is controlled by the Latsis Group, the holding company of a Greek industrialist family, used Foster’s plan to convince the government to sell the parcel.

In 2021, the company bought the development rights for $1 billion and a promise to invest in a massive $8 billion mixed-use development that will include two hotels, a casino, 10,000 residential units, and a marina, much of it along a beach. One sweetener of the deal was Lamda’s commitment to use roughly half of the parcel to create a public park, which it has promised to maintain for 99 years.

A New Kind of Landscape

Given the 99-year commitment, it is perhaps not surprising that Lamda asked Sasaki to design the park to require minimal maintenance. The firm’s solution was to re-create in 70 percent of the park a natural Greek landscape filled with local plants and trees that require only annual care, landscape with monthly maintenance needs in 15 percent of the park, and another 15 percent that will need to be looked after more regularly.

“We really wanted to have this restoration ecology approach that would both maximize the benefits of carbon sequestration in the living biomass and the soil carbon of the site, but also renew the regional diversity by having an urban forest, a more intact landscape where we could have large areas that are specifically for biodiversity and wildlife, with very little human impact,” Grove says.

The wilder, lower-maintenance sections of the park will look very different from a traditional park landscape. Grove says that these areas have been designed to facilitate accelerated succession—a technique designed to mimic the maturation of a natural landscape at a higher speed.

“Think of it as planting a forest from scratch and allowing it to evolve, rather than bringing in the large-caliper trees and placing them on site,” Grove says. “It may look like a meadow landscape when it’s planted, [but it] will evolve into a woodland where we’ll expect to see larger trees crop up, and eventually a kind of urban forest.”

Although most of the plants and trees will be native, there is one big transplant: the underlying idea of a large recreational park. While the city has some landscaped archeological sites and a botanical garden, Athenians seeking out nature have always had to go out of town to visit relatives or friends in the country or to a national park, according to Grove, who offers several reasons he thinks Athenians will take to the concept.

For decades, the old airport was the way that most of the Greek diaspora got to or from Greece, and many people still have an emotional attachment to the old gateway.

“Every single Greek or Greek American I’ve spoken to . . . [has] strong memories of the site and are all very excited to know that it’s going to be a public park,” Grove says.

All those lives spent abroad have acquainted many people with big parks.

“I think for the diaspora that’s lived abroad that has an experience with a Central Park or a Hyde Park or something like that, they know the value of a park like that to the image of the city,” he says.
In the design, too, Grove says the planners have tried to include plants that people might have some personal association with, such as rosemary or another plant “that maybe their grandmother would have had outside her door.”

Finally, Athenians will like the park because a lot of their grandmothers do not live out in the country anymore. The city’s population now tops 3.8 million—about 40 percent of the country’s population—and fewer people leave for the country during the summer, Grove says, creating an even greater need
for green space.

In tree coverage, Athens ranks near the bottom in Europe, with about 11 percent of the land shaded, compared with 24 percent in Rome and 39 percent in Madrid, according to European Environment Agency statistics. As for green space generally, Athens does not score well either: it has about 26.9 square feet (2.5 sq m) of green space per person, making it one of the least-green major cities in the world. (By comparison, Rome has about 300 square feet [28 sq m] of green space per person and London has 753.5 square feet [70 sq m], according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Forestry Science.)

However, the park will be a major improvement. After it opens—the first phase is slated for completion in 2026, with the second phase expected to be completed in 2030—Athenians will have 44 percent more green space per capita than they did previously.

Europe’s largest redevelopment project is rising in Athens. In addition to the park, Lamda Development’s plans include a casino, a marina, and up to 10,000 residential units. (Courtesy of Sasaki)

Going with the Flow

A low-maintenance park has many advantages, but not in the design phase. The Ellinikon’s design alone has involved a team of about 15 at Sasaki, as well as 50 consultants, according to Grove.

Among those outside consultants was Jim Garland, president, founder, and design director of Fluidity Design Consultants of Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, a consultancy that specializes in water design.
Sasaki tapped Fluidity to design two fountains, an engagement that took the firm a year and a half to complete. The most ambitious plan involved the design of a 197-foot (60 m) water wall of megalith-sized chunks of runway tarmac, each measuring roughly 6.6 by 13.1 feet (2 by 4 m).

“The plan is kind of crescent shaped and very theatrical, like a stage set,” Garland explains.

Fountains are more complex than people realize, according to Garland. “Everybody likes fountains, but in truth, people don’t know much about them. And when they ask about them, they generally ask, how big is the pump? Which is an interesting question, but to me, it’s interesting to look at the fountain like, why does it look like that? . . . the actual design and the water action.”

For the Ellinikon crescent, one of the biggest creative challenges was to find ways to treat the recycled tarmac so that it “doesn’t look dutiful, but instead looks lively and free and exciting,” according to Garland.

One of his team’s ideas to add liveliness was to hammer some texture on the tarmac chunks, “so where the water went over them, the water would not just be a glassy sheet, it would go really lively, to whitewater, and at slow flow rates, it would be a glistening, streaming thing, and we would pulse the water, to have a whitewater wave that would flow over.”

Over the year and a half that Fluidity worked on the Ellinikon fountains, the idea for the crescent evolved in other ways, too. Originally, islands for people to sit on were planned for the pond in front of the wall, “but that was traded away, when the simple beauty of the open reflection pool was appreciated,” he says.

People, though, will still be integrated into the design, but now on terraces in and around the tarmac sections.

Sasaki architects are designing the park with sustainability in mind: all 600 acres (243 ha) will feature local plants and trees, irrigated with reclaimed water. Paths and benches will be cut from the tarmac of the old airport. (Courtesy of Sasaki)

“It’s kind of cool, because you become a part of the display—all those people are part of the scene,” Garland says.

A Time to Plant

If you have a millennium to spare, a natural landscape is no problem. Building one in the span of a few years, however, is a logistical challenge. Yannis Nikolopoulos, project director of Lamda Development, is working to arrange the growth and delivery of 3.3 million native plants and 31,287 trees.

To hear Nikolopoulos tell it, the job sounds straightforward enough: make deals with five or six large nurseries, then get them to execute the plan. “It is a process, okay?” he says.

But here, too, there are complexities. For example, the designers decided to preserve 3,000 trees already growing on the parcel. To do that, however, they must dig the trees up and replant them in a nursery, where they will grow for a year or two until they can be replanted after the park is built. So far, 2,500 trees have been moved to the nursery, with 500 left to go.

All that transplanting is worth the trouble, Nikolopoulos insists, because some of the trees are varieties that are expensive to buy, while others will cost about the same to move and then replant.

“We don’t want to cut these trees and then just bring in others. I think that it’s a better strategy and at the end we’ll have a profit also,” he says.

Just in Time

If all goes well, the Ellinikon may bring a number of benefits to Athens and beyond.

Urban Land Institute experts believe the park will be a great thing for Athens, a city that without the park could see the number of days when the temperature reaches 119.3 degrees Fahrenheit (48.5 Celsius) rise from 10 to 27 by 2050, according to a Rockefeller Foundation estimate.

“Green spaces like Ellinikon Metropolitan Park are essential in preparing for—and adapting to—the effects of climate change,” says Matthew Norris, senior director of ULI’s Building Healthy Places program. “By repurposing already developed land to preserve open space and create shade, the park should play a significant role in combating extreme heat.”

The project also gave Sasaki new insights into how to take a low-carbon approach to landscape architecture.

“I think the biggest thing that we’ve discovered as we were working on the park and developing Carbon Conscience [Sasaki’s carbon calculator application] was just how much of the carbon impact comes from early planning and design decisions,” says Grove, who estimates that as much as 80 percent of carbon use in landscape design is baked into initial land use decisions.

BENNETT VOYLES is a Berlin-based business writer.