Last year, just before the 2010 municipal elections, a group of local associations led by the Friends of Paros (FoP) and the local committee of the Hellenic Society organised a public debate with all the mayoral candidates. It was considered a breakthrough for Paros politics as the candidates were asked to respond to a wide range of questions about the future. It also became clear that isolated and short-term actions won’t take us anywhere and, above all, that there is no shared vision for the future of Paros.
This realisation made the FoP start the initiative ‘Paros 2020’ in the winter of 2011, aiming to reach a vision and strategic plan for the longer-term development of the island, through a participative and inclusive process that will help answer some fundamental questions:
• What Paros are we going to have, as things are developing?
• What Paros do we want?
• How can we achieve it?
The work on ‘Paros 2020’ so far built on many contributions from members of FoP and used data from various sources (National Statistics, Paros Urban Plan, DEYAP, etc). An initial framework was developed and was presented for consultation to the Mayor of Paros, deputy mayors and representatives of local organisations on 22 August 2011 and (in English) to members of the international community of Paros on 28 August at the Apothiki Center in Paroikia. These meetings presented an opportunity for discussing the challenges currently facing Paros and likely scenarios for the future in four inter-linked groups of issues – population and urban development, community and services, economy (tourism and other sectors) and the environment.
The summer population of Paros has already exceeded 75,000 – the level that the Urban Plan forecast for 2021! The largest group are ‘semi-permanent’ residents who own or use holiday homes on the island. Their number is estimated at 35,000, double the number of the permanent (winter) residents (17,000), while the number of tourists remains more or less stable at 25,000.
The frenetic and largely uncontrolled building activity of the last 20 years has considerably altered the character of Paros. The traditional agricultural landscapes have been replaced by groups of houses on slopes and hilltops. The traditional towns and villages have expanded with large numbers of run-of-the-mill typical buildings often forming whole new neighbourhoods which are ghost towns in winter, and shops, cafes and restaurants surrounded by acres of unattractive and illegal ‘semi-open’ spaces. When earlier this summer the photovoltaic parks appeared even inside traditional villages like Angeria, it was the last straw that broke the camel’s back and brought the same local people – who until recently cherished the relentless ‘development’ of Paros – out into the streets protesting for the environment. The pressure on the environment and local infrastructure is keenly felt by all sections of the population, through traffic congestion, parking problems and noise. Water resources are stretched with 99% of the supply coming from artesian wells and no scope for further drilling, and the authorities turning to energy-thirsty desalination for a quick fix to the problem. The Urban Plan delineates ten categories of sensitive areas (Natura 2000, etc) which are called ‘Special Protection Areas’ but, with the exception of the archaeological sites, are actually largely unprotected. And we shouldn’t forget the impact of the intensified development of Paros on the maritime environment, the flora and the fauna of the island.
The department of the Cyclades is the second richest part of Greece with a GDP of 27,210 euros per capita. And Paros is the third most developed island in the Cyclades, after Mykonos and Santorini; its prosperity on a par with Northern Europe! Nevertheless, not all is well on the economic front. There are concerns about the future of tourism as there has been a drop in demand for the lower end hotels, rooms, restaurants, etc, mainly attributed to the severe recession that has hit the Greek economy. However, the better quality establishments are thriving – a reminder that the era of mass tourism in Paros is coming to an end. Concerns about the future of tourism are compounded by the fall in building activity to about one-third of its peak, due to the recession. As a knee-jerk reaction there are those who argue about the need to attract more tourists and not to restrict building activity even in special interest areas, in order to return to the rates of ‘development’ enjoyed in recent decades.
Shopping and other private service provision has undoubtedly expanded fast in line with the growth of population and income levels, but such improvements haven’t extended to public services, the plight of which was amply illustrated by the mass local protests at the state of the Paroikia Health Centre earlier this year. Also, quite often, public concerns about the care for the elderly and other groups rise to the surface.
Not all is gloom and doom. The cultural scene of Paros is becoming busier and little by little more sophisticated. Demand for quality tourist establishments and service is strong. In the Environmental and Cultural Park of Ai Yannis Detis we have a new management model. And there are many examples of volunteering (AMEAI, Alkyoni, PAWS, etc). Overall, there is a growing realisation that physical development cannot go on and on unchecked, and this is increasingly expressed by the municipal council, albeit coupled with the realisation of the severe limitations of the powers of the municipality (e.g. permits for photovoltaic parks and wind turbine parks are issued by Athens without local consultation).
An optimistic future?
Measured against these challenges things could develop in different ways. ‘More of the same’ will certainly represent a pessimistic scenario. By contrast, a broad consensus built on an overarching goal of protecting the environment and maintaining the special character of the island could be the linchpin of an optimistic scenario for 2020. Key to this would be a shared appreciation by the local stakeholders that ‘development’ – i.e. higher incomes and better services – are fully compatible with this environmental goal and can be achieved, broadly, within the current levels of population and capacity of housing stock.
One can already start identifying some key and highly inter-linked elements of such an optimistic scenario for 2020.
The Cycladic character is maintained. In practical terms, at least, there will be no large housing development or hotel complexes, and no construction on every hillside/hilltop or sensitive areas. The main strategic action in this respect will be the implementation of the Urban Plan whose provisions aim to rein in building activity, but its approval adoption process is a long and slow one. Anyway, the Urban Plan by itself will not be enough. The local associations can help the local authorities by operating an ‘Environment Observatory’, publicising good and bad practice examples, publishing design guidelines, etc. Joining with other small islands to lobby national decision-makers together would also be crucial in preventing inappropriate national legislation for the Cyclades, such as the recently passed law that allows whole tourist villages to be built anywhere in Greece via a fast-track procedure.
By protecting its character and improving local services (see below) Paros retains its attractiveness. The semi-permanent residents spend more time in Paros. The permanent population grows to 20-25,000, the increase mainly coming from people with holiday homes living / tele-working or retiring in Paros. The result is higher local incomes.
Thriving alternative tourism and a longer tourist season means that the quality of visitors improves (with a larger proportion of them being ‘discerning visitors’ coming to Paros not only for ‘holidays in the sun’, but because they appreciate what the island’s culture and environment can offer). Higher spending per capita combined with a longer tourist period will result in higher local incomes. Such a development depends on creating and marketing successful new tourist ‘products’, linked to the local environment, culture and history: archaeological sites; monasteries; footpaths; local products; arts & crafts; medium-size conference facilities; etc. A suitable promotion agency (possibly a public/private partnership) will be needed to bring this to fruition.
Other sectors play a bigger role. Production and marketing of quality products connected with the environment, resources and traditions of the island: organic farming, food and drinks; handicrafts (e.g. ceramics, marble); art (painters, sculptors, photographers, etc). Local branding and systematic promotion, including supply and value chains to local and other markets, will be key to success and will have to rely on the joint efforts of different stakeholders.
A total population stabilised at broadly current levels will mean that only smaller public works are required (e.g. water supply, pedestrian facilities) and a greater reliance can be placed on managerial solutions (e.g. recycling, creation of new natural/cultural parks). This is greatly preferable to large public works from both an environmental and a public expenditure (in times of severe restraint) point of view.
The higher spending power supports better services year-round. Although this can be expected to come about in the commercial sector, it’s doubtful that it will happen in the state sector without a substantial voluntary effort, for instance to secure a motivated and committed hospital team and a network of health and social care units throughout the island for all age and social groups. And special attention is needed to motivate and engage the younger people, who, in the final analysis, are going to be a major factor in the longer-term success of any strategic plan.
The next steps in the process of Paros 2020 will be to engage as many as possible of the local stakeholders from the public, private and voluntary sectors in the process of ‘Paros 2020’– to arrive at a shared understanding of problems and trends and a broad acceptance of what should be done – the vision and strategic plan for the future of Paros.
At the same time it will be important to go into more depth in appropriate strategic actions that can turn such a vision into reality. We should be able to convincingly answer questions such as how we can protect the sensitive areas of Paros, what would be the potential benefits and other implications of the planned new airport, and what are the new tourism ‘products’ of Paros and how will they be promoted. By next Easter, we should have arrived at a relatively small number of inter-linked strategic actions, with defined implementation mechanisms and resources mostly in the hands of local people and institutions. Other complementary actions will flow from the prioritised strategic actions.
There is an optimistic scenario at the end of the road which requires a clear strategic direction and a concerted effort by local authorities and civil society organisations over many years to bear fruit, but success will mean that we’ll also have in the future a “Cycladic, Hospitable and Prosperous Paros”. It’s a vision worth striving for.