Surrounded by brown coal mines the city of Kozani in Greece is home to the largest power plant in the country but also to all possible crisis ills. How can a Green mayor – Lefteris Ioannidis – push a progressive and sustainable agenda and how to cooperate beyond the confines of his municipality? Lessons from a small city.
Antonis Galanopoulos and Fotis Gaitanis: You are the first Green mayor in Greece. What can the Green agenda contribute to the city governance?
Lefteris Ioannidis: Local governance has always been a central priority for the Greens. Proximity to the problems makes implementation of Green policies easier. In my opinion, the Green political agenda has the distinct advantage of proposing solutions to the everyday issues citizens face, as well as to European or global problems. This enables us to apply in practice the well-known saying: ‘think globally, act locally’, and to that effect, the most important advantage of Green local governance is the use of more participatory tools in city governance and administration.
Have you implemented some specific Green policies in the city of Kozani so far?
We have launched a series of measures to improve quality of life in the city. The sustainable urban mobility plan, which aims to promote efficient transportation, prioritising pedestrians and cyclists over cars, is already in its final phase. At the same time, through the revision of the master plan of the city and the use of European programmes related to urban planning, we aim to increase the green areas and public spaces available in the city.
Secondly, on waste management we are trying to promote a recycling programme in parallel with the sorting of waste at the source. Our goal is to build a recycling conscience in the local community. We have already implemented a training programme in all city schools to promote recycling and we are also implementing a pilot bio-waste collection programme.
Finally, we consider our actions to promote the cultural heritage of the region and the preservation of the cultural environment as Green policy.
One could say that many of these policies are or can be implemented by various municipalities throughout Europe. But what we are trying to accomplish is a holistic approach, at the core of which lies broader participation in decision-making. Each of our policies is part of a comprehensive strategy and serves a specific objective, while at the same time keeping a balance between the environmental, economic, and social dimension in every matter.
Kozani is surrounded by coal mines and factories. How does a city of 70,000 inhabitants experience the effects of electricity production for the sake of the rest of the country?
Our area is at the centre of a three-fold crisis: social, economic, and environmental. This activity you mention has a lasting negative environmental impact on the population and will continue to for generations to come. It has also an economic impact because of the irrational and short-sighted development of the area that leaves behind many losers with the decline of lignite mining. Moreover, there is a social impact, as the social fabric is weakened.
The unemployment rate in our region is at 30 per cent and youth unemployment is about 70 per cent. Local society for years reaped the reward for the growth of the country with higher incomes. What it didn’t realise was that this model has a limited lifetime. Today we are experiencing the consequences of this model; society is in a state of shock, but it also seeks to find sustainable solutions. Unfortunately, a portion of the local population chooses immigration and is searching for solutions away from Kozani. Of course emigration is a wider problem within the general context of hyper-urbanisation that created the so-called megacities. In that environment we should rethink the role of smaller cities like Kozani. I believe that every city should develop, strengthen, and highlight its identity. At the same time, it has to be a space that is friendly to people and businesses. Job opportunities and quality of life are central features that make a city attractive and sustainable.
You have repeatedly stated the need for a just transition to a post-lignite era for the area. How do you envisage this transition?
As the new administration of the municipality that has a progressive and ecological orientation, we tried to highlight the need for the area to find solutions away from its dependence on lignite. My opinion is that a transition plan should have already started some time ago, leading the region to a model of development away from lignite. In the following years there will be major tectonic changes and it is estimated that thousands of jobs will be lost. So for the past two and a half years, in collaboration with local institutions, universities, and research centres, we are working on a roadmap – to be released shortly – for the transition to the post-lignite era.
We want to initiate a public debate that will lead to the so-called ‘Just Transition Fund’ for our region, Western Macedonia. The goal of the fund – still under negotiation – is to create new jobs and re-train staff that will lose their jobs. Many regions in Europe are facing the same or similar situation as Western Macedonia. The next step is the creation of a network so that our common priorities and common needs can be identified. Recently eight mayors of regions dependent on lignite activity, from three European countries, have signed a joint letter  calling for the creation of the Just Transition Fund at European Level.
At the same time, we are trying to launch initiatives to promote entrepreneurship at the local level, such as the ‘Kozani Open Innovation’ programme. We are aiming to change the profile of the city by creating new enclaves of entrepreneurial development through a holistic sustainable urban development plan.
Do you believe that cities and municipalities in Greece have at their disposal the necessary tools in order to act as local governments?
We can’t say that municipalities in Greece are local governments. Greece is a very centralised state. The level of resources managed by local administrations is the lowest compared to other EU countries. We manage about 3 per cent of GDP, while the European average is about 11 per cent.
There is a need for a profound and radical change in the country’s administration system, of which decentralisation is an essential part. I consider particularly important the field of the primary sector, in which local government could do a great many things. But as essential are the long overdue financial autonomy, tax decentralisation and electoral system reforms for municipalities to take their future into their own hands.
Are cities spaces of social and political innovation? Can they for example foster greater participation of citizens?
Municipalities can, in fact, create participatory structures. These, however, should not be imposed by the top. I cannot as a mayor impose participatory structures. What I can do is to use the momentum in society and contribute to the gradual creation of such structures. We have tried to strengthen citizens’ participation in decision-making. Initially, we upgraded the Municipal Consultation Committee, which now works more effectively. All major changes we are planning are being discussed with citizens and the local stakeholders. If a project doesn’t gain the consent of society – if society doesn’t become a participant – it will never succeed. We are trying to achieve that by organising open discussions and public consultations; we even use crowdsourcing platforms.
The most important political action we took, which puts the citizens at the heart of political life, is to organise popular assemblies. It is a difficult process, but the signs are very encouraging. Citizens participate, discuss, share their problems, criticise us, or praise us. As I said before, it’s not an easy process, but it helps people to understand that they are not simply recipients of political decisions, but they can shape them. In Greece we don’t have this culture and it can’t be acquired within a day. Each city has to find its own way in its own rhythm.
Mayors like Ada Colau in Barcelona and Luigi de Magistris in Naples are arguing for the creation of a transnational network of cities promoting a progressive agenda for the future of Europe. Can such synergies of cities influence the political agenda?
Creating a network of cities that will tackle problems by promoting progressive solutions is very important. Cities have shown that they can do that. For example, the network against TTIP, in which the municipality of Kozani participated and which was set up by the municipality of Barcelona, proved that cities can influence these dynamics. Of course, there are no established networks currently. There are only some common actions, usually at the level of major cities.
But municipalities are not just managers, they are political actors. Therefore networks of cities with common features should be created to promote common European solutions; whether about tackling poverty, climate change, or wider transnational issues. An idea is the creation of an institutionalised forum of cities with the ability to intervene at European level. We are facing common problems that cannot be solved separately by each city. I imagine that the level of municipalities’ networks in the future will be much deeper and wider.
Many people are disappointed by the nation-state and by the EU, and are turning their attention to the local level. What is and can be the role of cities?
It is true that the relationship between nation-state, cities, local regions, and supra-national organisations such as the EU is constantly changing. It is also clear that cities are growing and therefore their role is strengthened.
For example, models of direct democracy can be implemented easier at the city level because there is more proximity and a feeling of community. But I don’t believe that the nation-state will disappear in the future. It is true that in a globalised and intensely interdependent global environment, the power of the state has been reduced. I think that the relations between the levels of administration will be redefined. Citizens feel that the state can’t respond to major problems such as unemployment, the decline of the welfare state, etc. The role of the cities in dealing with such problems, and of course with the challenge of climate change, will be even more important in the future.
Last but not least, politics is another form of education. I think that in Greece we need a new model of political relations and this change can start from the local level. Local authorities should contribute to the formation of a more participatory, more reliable, and more meritocratic model of doing politics.
The letter was signed from Mayors of Megalopolis, Kozani, Eordea, Aminteo, Frolina from Greece, Rovinari from Romania, and Horní Jiřetín and Trojanovice from Czech Republic.