Heat unleashed Dante’s Inferno in southern Europe in July for the third consecutive year.
For more than a week, the temperatures in the Mediterranean climbed past 40 degrees. The Cerberus and Charon heatwaves – two daunting characters from Greek mythology and the Divine Comedy – now dominate the news cycle, drawing a red circle around the devastating consequences of climate change.
Heatwaves sow destruction in their wake, causing heat illness and deaths, and sparking wildfires across Greece that have claimed tens of thousands of hectares of forest.
In the Greek capital, the unbearable weather forced authorities to close its crown jewel – the Acropolis heritage site – where temperatures reached 48 degrees for several days during the afternoon hours.
Athens is on the frontlines of the movement to prepare for the dangers of heat. Two years after the City of Athens appointed Eleni Myrivili as Europe’s first Chief Heat Officer, there is greater awareness of heatwaves as “silent killers.” Residents of densely-built Mediterranean cities like Athens are most likely to experience the climate crisis in terms of steadily rising annual temperatures rather than flooding or other extreme events.
Myrivili is now the Global Chief Heat Officer for UN-HABITAT where she is helping to make Athens a paradigm for urban heat preparedness, awareness, and resilience. Meanwhile, the City of Athens continues to invest in new infrastructure and personnel to lead the local response to heatwaves, including the appointment of a new Chief Heat Officer, Elissavet Bargianni.
Eurocities spoke with Vasilis Axiotis, Deputy Mayor of Athens for Urban & Building Infrastructure and City Planning, about his mandate to respond to heat by developing new tools and infrastructure for the city.
How did Athens cope with this summer’s record-high temperatures? What measures did you implement to make Athens more resilient?
We have a series of actions in place. For example, the Hellenic Red Cross holds training seminars for our municipality’s employees to help residents tackle the heatwave effects. The city also runs a 24/7 helpline to provide information and support to locals. In addition, we have the “Help at Home+” programme for anyone who feels sick and doesn’t know what to do. So, if an 85-year-old doesn’t feel well, we can immediately send someone to that person’s home; this is something we’re really proud of.
During a heatwave, people can cool down in the so-called ‘Friendship Clubs.’ These are community buildings with air conditioning for those who don’t have a cooling system at home. People come here to escape the heat and spend time together. These ‘Friendship Clubs’ have been around for years, but were few. Kostas Bakoyannis, Mayor of Athens, has opened more, and we now have about ten across the city.
And we went even further: we have cooling stations in parks and we give out water. For example, in the central Syntagma Square we distributed water bottles to visitors and locals passing by. We also strongly suggest tourists check out the Coolathens website, which provides specific information on what to do during a heatwave in Athens. In addition, visitors and locals can download the Extrema Global app, which displays the coolest routes for sightseeing in the city, with the best paths for walking around during a heatwave. Athens itself is a cool city.
Are you also taking action to prevent the consequences of heatwaves even before they strike?
The first measure you can take is to inform the population and raise public awareness by classifying heatwaves. It is something that Myrivili started some three years ago and that we do in cooperation with the National Observatory of Athens and the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. We spread the information via social media, tv, radio stations, our website, and phone messages. The classification also helps us in the Athens municipality to plan and decide what to do before an incoming heatwave. We have four categories going from zero to three, with zero being the weakest and three the harshest.
In the case of category two or three, we notify the local population and offer them tips. For example, we advise locals to take simple measures that make a big difference, like avoiding exercise, closing all windows and re-opening them only when temperatures go down a bit. Of course, it’s important not to cry wolf and to know precisely when to alert the public and when not.
We are one of six cities to adopt this classification, together with Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Larissa, Patras and Heraklion. Classifying heatwaves is something that all Mediterranean cities like Rome or Barcelona should do, along with appointing a Chief Heat Officer.
Based on this year’s experience, do you think these measures helped make heatwaves more tolerable?
We have suffered three heatwaves this summer, but we were resilient. Hospitals are open and we are protecting our hills and the city from wildfires. We didn’t have any big incidents, which is something we are proud of, though we are still on high alert. There is always room for improvement and new measures that we can take.
We need to focus on making our cities more resilient to tackle climate change. That means more green spaces, planting more trees and tapping into the potential of nature-based solutions and materials. It’s simple yet complicated, and we must do it for every square metre of our public space. This effort is bound to drive local governments’ policies for the next ten years.
Are you worried that heatwaves may scare away tourists and prevent them from coming to Athens?
I’m not worried because we already have the tools to respond to heat in our work with the municipality and also as individuals. It’s a matter of planning for the heat and doing our jobs effectively. In 2023, we had three major heatwaves in July and we made a huge proactive effort to raise awareness with residents and visitors in Athens. There are also tourists choosing to visit Athens in January, February, March, April, etcetera because it makes more sense for them. People are coming to Greece for its warm climate and sunny days during the whole year. I am confident that we will learn to live with the heatwaves because we are taking measures to tackle them. We’ll continue developing green corridors and routes throughout the city so visitors can continue to explore all the cool places in Athens.