Athens Is Just Warming Up. New ‘Chief Heat Officer’ Hopes


ATHENS — On the hottest day of Greece’s record-breaking heatwave, when temperatures rose to 111 degrees Fahrenheit in Athens and bushfires choked the air, Eleni Myrivili stopped hanging laundry on her roof behind the Acropolis because she couldn’t breathe from the heat.

“I could only take short, burning breaths,” he said, remembering that the ash from the fires had turned his black clothes white as well. “It was terrible.”

The intensity of the heat (as high as 44 degrees Celsius on the Celsius scale) only increased the urgency Ms. Myrivili brought to her new job as Athens – and Europe’s first “heat chief” tasked with giving one of the world’s oldest. Cities a livable future

As heatwaves scorched the continent’s most sweltering capital, Athens, new wildfires broke out in the city last week, adding to more than 200,000 acres. forest depleted by forest fires around the country.

It’s not just Greece. The heat wave in the Italian island of Sicily in the last days, highest temperature ever recorded Fires broke out in the history of Europe and in the south of Italy. Europe’s post of natural disasters features increasingly frequent extreme weather events that have caused deadly flooding in Germany and Belgium as well as in Germany. Turkey. Every week is a new nightmare.

The appointment of Ms. Myrivili is a recognition of this new reality. But it’s also a harbinger of how having someone to grapple with the stifling temperatures can be a mainstay of the municipal cityscape, as it is just as necessary and trivial as a transport, housekeeping, or police officer.

“Heat is an invisible and insidious killer,” said Ms. Myrivili. “Heat is one of those climate hazards that you don’t really see. It’s hard for people to talk about it. You don’t see flying roofs and flooded cars. It’s really important to get people to understand why it’s dangerous.”

He predicted that without action the future of Athens would be bleak and stuffy. The capital would become more of an “urban heat island”, with empty squares and cafes, fewer tourists, and the migration of residents with opportunities and opportunities to live elsewhere.

A lively, chaotic place, Athens basks in the sun.

But Myrivili said the conditions that make the city so difficult also make it an “interesting pilot program” for the region. Athens brings together the cultures of Europe and the Middle East, East and West, and is neither overly rich nor poor. “It’s a good city to try things out and see what works,” he said.

The second most densely populated city in Europe after Paris, Athens often heats up like an oven.

After Greece’s civil war, apartment buildings known as polykatoikis were erected in the capital to accommodate a large exodus from the countryside, in an anarchic boom of garden-swallowing development. But the cement and tar-blackened roofs of buildings absorb heat. As Athens sprawled over the surrounding mountains and the car became king, the city added miles of asphalt reaching scorching temperatures. The lack of green spaces in Athens deprives residents of respite, and streets and buildings radiate heat even at night when temperatures drop.

“The city gets so hot at night and you can’t deal with it and the baby wakes up in the middle of the night,” said Carene Kengne, 25, pushing her stroller and shadowing herself and her baby boy. under the kiosk. He said there was no air conditioning in his apartment and that the surrounding fires and the intense heat, which was much higher than in his hometown of Cameroon, frightened him.

Even the school where he learned Greek canceled his language lessons because the weather was too hot. “They told us to stay home,” he said.

The inhabitants of Athens, who had no chance to calm down, faced serious health problems. So do those who have to work in the sun.

“This is very difficult,” said 48-year-old Panagiotis Nasos, as he paused at 1 p.m. to set up the signs and scaffolding in Syntagma Square in central Athens. He sat in a shade, his blue shirt stained with sweat. “The temperature is getting warmer every year,” he said, adding that his shifts start gradually earlier to avoid the heat. It used to be easier, he said, to study.

Turning Athens into a city capable of reducing the heat has been Ms. Myrivili’s obsession since 2007 when she watched TV footage of the Greek fires in her mother’s Athens flat.

“It really upset me that we watched the fires,” he said. “This utter powerlessness of sitting there watching the fires day after day.”

Thus, Miss Myrivili, the granddaughter of Stratis Myrivilis, a novelist who is considered one of the most important 20th century writers in Greece, decided to enter politics.

Professor of social anthropology, Ms. Myrivili was elected to the Athens City Council in 2014 and served as deputy mayor from 2017 to 2019, focusing on the city’s resilience to climate change.

Outside of government, he eventually became a leader in heat and urban resilience. Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Center for Resilience. The group conceived of placing heat workers on every continent. This year Miami-Dade County in Florida appointed North America’s first heat officer, and Freetown in Sierra Leone is expected to make Africa’s first such designation soon.

The mayor of Athens, Costas Bakoyannis, appointed Ms. Myrivili in July and instructed her to make a real impact for herself and her successors, and to help her advise other baking European cities.

As soon as it started, the fires started burning again. This time, Ms. Myrivili hoped they would at least raise awareness of the threat the city was facing.

He said scientists and officials are discussing ways to make threats clearer, such as giving human names to heat waves, as with hurricanes. Others argue that it would be better to brand them with the names of cities. In any case, the goal is to develop standard categories to make it easier for policymakers to take emergency measures and TV meteorologists to raise the alarm.

But warning bells are not enough. Ms. Myrivili also said she needed to equip more homes with air conditioning, persuade power companies to divert energy from industrial areas to residential areas during heat waves, and make air-conditioned centers where people can cool off more accessible and desirable. Asphalt needs to be more reflective and buildings need to be covered with solar panels and roof gardens. In the next five to 10 years, Athens will need thousands of new trees to cool the air and provide shade.

Without green spaces, many Athenians found the city uninhabitable.

“I’m glad I’m not here”, 30-year-old Maria Tsani, originally from Athens but now holds a PhD. The candidate for biophysics in the Netherlands said during a recent visit home. “There are no trees and no parks and it can be difficult to get around without shade.”

She brought her scientific researcher boyfriend Selim Sami to Athens for the first time. The couple and a friend descended from the Acropolis, where Ms. Myrivili said the surface of the stones had reached 60 degrees Celsius. “It’s quite painful,” said Mr. Sami.

Dimitra Gasparis, 83, agreed while leaning on her walking stick in the shadow of a local church. “It’s very hot,” he said, adding that he did not remember such constant heat as a child. “I don’t like it.”

Neither were the people in the far western parts of the city, which glow red on the map of Athens’ hottest neighborhoods. One recent afternoon, in a mix of industrial and residential areas, workers loaded trucks with energy drinks and families drove around with the backs of their cars open for ventilation.

Dimitra Founta, 49, said she had to sprint from her office at an importing company to her air-conditioned car to escape her wrath during the recent heat wave.

“We are not protecting our environment,” he said. “It will get worse.”

It’s Ms. Myrivili’s job to prevent that from happening, but the fires ravaging Greece will likely lower her chances as they destroy trees that bring temperatures down.

And even when temperatures drop, the absence of trees means there will be fewer roots to absorb water when the rains eventually come. Athens filled its rivers with cement decades ago and the water had nowhere to go, said Ms. Myrivili: “We’re going to have an incredible flood.”


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