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In-depth visit to West Attica, October 2023

This post refers to the visit to the plain of Thriasio, part of West Attica, undertaken by five members of commonspace – Eleni Mougiakou, Giouli Athousaki, Anastasia Christaki, Giorgos Velegrakis, Sylvain Adam – together with Dimitris Podiotis, from the West Attica Environment Department, all involved in the Fairville project and the West Attica Fairville Lab.

It takes the form of a photo album with pictures from this visit (by Anastasia, Eleni and Sylvain; N.B.: to scroll through the photos, just click on the arrows in the slider), accompanied by a few comments. The short narrations that follow are deliberately subjective. This field visit, necessarily partial, is one stage in a series of initiatives undertaken for and by the West Attica Fairville lab.

Although the area is a crossing point for hundreds of Greek commuters and travellers that move from the capital to Peloponnese and western Greece via Attiki Odos, it remains mostly unknown to those who don’t live or work there. Leaving away from the urban centres of the region: Elefsina – which this year is the European Capital of Culture –, Magoula, Mandra and Aspropyrgos, it is unlikely to meet someone sauntering.

Following the provincial roads, with the guidance of Dimitris, we came across numerous trucks, a few cars, and people either on foot or moving with light vehicles, engaging in waste collection or apparently living nearby. Within the sparsely populated settlements, lying at the end of a dirt road, we felt as standing out among the locals, and we were easily noticed by them. If you don't "belong" there in one way or another – in other words, if you have nothing to do with factories, logistic centres or landfills – then you've probably taken the wrong road.

1/ A car tour guided by Dimitris P.

On Friday 13 October 2023, we – Eleni, Giouli, Anastasia, Giorgos and Sylvain – have a morning appointment with Dimitris Podiotis at his office in Elefsina. Dimitris is at the head of the West Attica Environment Department, which is in charge of handling complaints concerning environmental degradation and has to some extent the power to conduct relevant investigations and issue fines, if necessary. However, Dimitris explains that the department is understaffed and struggles to respond effectively to environmental violations, and he highlights the gap between regulatory frameworks and their implementation.

Dimitris is our guide today in a territory he knows very well. We depart from Elefsina with two cars. Here is the route we take both on asphalt and dirt roads, marked in red on the map.

2/ The landscapes encountered

Here we take notice of the landscape features as we cross the plain of Thriasio. The different elements are either adjacent to each other or sometimes seem to overlap: a warehouse next to a wasteland strewn with rubbish, the site of various legal or illegal activities with dwellings nearby. In all cases, these landscapes are inhabited, shaped – even tormented – by humans, and entail a multitude of contrasts.

2.a/ Green zones and agriculture

On our route, we come across a few "green" areas: some with grass and small plants – sometimes littered with rubbish – some with trees and a few cultivated fields... These reminiscences are a rare reminder that the plain of Thriasio used to be a fertile ground for the development of agricultural activities for centuries, before the establishment of heavy industries during the 20th century.

2.b/ Industries

The zone close to the port of Piraeus is a major industrial hub of national importance. The heavy industry is located along the coast: refineries, metallurgy, cement works and shipyards, complemented by a multitude of small industries, crafts and warehouses. We pass through the Municipality of Aspropyrgos, one of the largest hubs of production and wholesale trade units in Attica, specialised in the sectors of petroleum processing, building materials, metals and recycling products, with particular growth potential after 2000.

2.c/ Logistic services

Afterwards we head north, away from the coastline and across the highway, Attiki Odos. The number of warehouses and logistic centres we come across on this route is impressive. Some of them look old, but others are brand new, indicating a recent installation. The Region of West Attica, maligned for the difficulties it faces and characterised as inhospitable, in some perspectives remains attractive today, perhaps more than ever.

2.d/ Infrastructures

What the backyards of big cities have in common is that they host elements, invisible in the city centre and mostly unwanted. The old NATO base, which gives its name to the road we are taking next, NATO Avenue, is such a case. Along NATO Avenue we are overflown by planes on their way to Elefsina Military Airport. A large plot of land nearby is occupied by the Thriasio General Hospital of Elefsina. Further facilities we meet on our way are transport infrastructures, such as the motorway and the railway line. Their scale contrasts with the dirt and stone roads, that we have sometimes used during our visit.

2.e/ Landfill and open dumps

We are close to one of the largest landfills for household waste in Europe: Fyli, located in West Attica, a few kilometres from the centre of Athens. Waste is present throughout the area, beyond authorised sites, in numerous illegal dumps. These sites support a wide range of economic activities.

2.f/ Formal and informal activities

There is a wide range of activities – both formal and informal – in the area. It would be interesting to trace the several economic circuits according to their type and the stakeholders involved: they would undoubtedly reveal complementarities, specialisations, contradictions and so on.

2.g/ Informal housing

In the small settlements we pass through – some of which appear to be small Roma villages – we come across a few inhabitants. But we don't take any photos of them, which is why the following pictures show dwellings with no inhabitants. Sometimes a large, comfortable house stands next to small constructions looking like a slum or a shack, made of odds and ends. The contrast is striking.

2.h/ Residential zones

The city centres, such as Elefsina, feature a much denser urban fabric with another type of housing, well known in Athens, called polykatoikies (multi-storey buildings).

2.i/ Fences

Another contrast in the landscapes we pass through is the alternation of enclosed areas and vast open landscapes. Sometimes we find ourselves surrounded by fences and barbed wire, as in the following photos. We assume that behind these defensive walls, often guarded by private security, are hidden logistic activities. One of the security guards comes out to meet us when we stop on the road, to find out what we're looking for.

2.j/ No limit

On the contrary, we sometimes find ourselves in the middle of open, almost unlimited landscapes. Only the mountains – gnawed away by stone quarries – create a barrier to the view.

3/ Focus on: Toxic waste and fire with barrels underground

One of the places we passed by and was particularly impressive for us is located close to the land of a former cattle breeder. Many people used to dispose of barrels with toxic waste on this land in exchange for money. The landowner made profit without knowing what to do with the barrels. They can be traced all around the property and a bit further away, buried in the ground. A large quantity was deposited, burnt and covered with soil. On this artificial hill, smoke emerges from underground and the fire has been going on for over two years now...

4/ Panorama

We end our visit in a café aptly named Panorama, with view on the entire Gulf of Elefsina. In the distance, we can see the oil-laden supertankers and the mountain ridges that surround the plain. Closer up, the General Hospital of Elefsina. It reminds me of a statistic I’ve just read. The elected Member of the European Parliament Lefteris Nikolaou-Alavanos, stated about the pollution in the Region (in view of the creation of a new landfill in Fyli in 2021*) : « Publicly available data show that deaths caused by cancer have gone up 22% in Western Attica compared with the rest of the region. » The link between heavy industries, waste, pollution, and serious illness is also stressed in the film “Athenian Material” (presented in this post) during a debate between local residents. This is a stark reminder of one of the major inequalities that the inhabitants of West Attica face.