Pardon me while I nerd out for a moment. I love being a landscape architect, and I love encountering places around the world where people are truly using and enjoying outdoor space.
And I love learning.
That would be me – loving the oh-so-comfy benches on Thessaloniki’s First Pier
Ahead of our one-day visit to Thessaloniki, Greece, I didn’t read up or investigate. I peeked at a map of the city when booking accommodations and otherwise walked in blind, so perhaps it was the absence of expectation or perhaps the atmosphere of pre-sunset light?
Whatever the case, when Ted and I walked down to the waterfront after dinner, I was absolutely enchanted by the First Pier of the Thessaloniki Port. It’s a little slice of urban paradise projecting out into the harbor, and I joyfully sat in the sunshine, people-watching and observing a successful night in the life of public open space.
Greeks and foreigners from all walks, pausing to enjoy the scene and evening air. Legs dangling above the water or crossed atop benches.
Old and young. Families and friends. Soloers and groups.
Voices in conversation and observers in silence.
Comfortable benches (um, did you see the picture at the top of the post?!).
Grated metal. Rough wood. Concrete pavers. Subtle change upon change upon change.
You wouldn’t perhaps notice or care as a visitor, but somewhere, someone along the line made those choices and specifications…and the results are lovely.
Clean and orderly space. A place of calm, just far enough removed from the gritty city blocks and just close enough to the cool, blue water to drop the heart rate, slow the breath, and put the human frame more consciously in the context of the greater land and seascape.
Views back to the long stretch of stacked stories, cafes, and the waterfront walk to the iconic White Tower at the other end of town…
See what I mean about nerding out? The beauty of seeing the world from a comfortable space…
Well, my nerdy-ness only gets worse from here, so if you’ve seen enough of the pictures, feel free to move on to other browsing. But for a little longer trip into the crazy mind of this particular landscape architect, read on…To grasp at an understanding of the history and future of the Thessaloniki waterfront, I dug up an assortment of details from around the web:
A few words about the New Seaside…
Thessaloniki’s seaside has quite a long story to tell. The Old Seaside (Palia Paralia) covered the part from the city’s port to the White Tower, and was constructed when the Suez Canal Company demolished the city’s sea wall in 1866-1870. That specific 1.5 km long part later merged with the what today constitutes the New Seaside (Nea Paralia). With a total of 4.5 km, the seaside of Thessaloniki has provided citizens and tourists alike pedestrian access to a number of points of interest starting with the First Pier of the city’s port, the Aristotelous Square, the renown city’s symbol the White Tower, the Royal Theater, the statue of Alexander the Great, the “Umbrellas” exhibit, and finally the city’s Concert Hall….
– Born a Dancer
It seems that in 2010 the government initiated a large-scale redevelopment program to address the city’s current environmental and spatial problems as a part of the 100th anniversary of their 1912 incorporation into the country of Greece. The goals are ambitious; the project timeline estimated at 15 years.
Part of the plan has been implemented with the revitalization of half the eastern urban waterfront/promenade, Nea Paralia (Greek: Νέα Παραλία, literally new beach), with a modern and vibrant design… Once complete, the entire city’s Nea Paralia (waterfront) will feature a total of 12 thematic gardens/parks and an uninterrupted promenade, spanning for 3 km (2 mi) along the coast.
Then I found the beginnings of this fascinating* academic paper... Perhaps such light reading isn’t your cup of freddo, but humor me and read part of the abstract:
URBAN WATERFRONT. THE LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PROJECT OF THE EASTERN COASTAL ZONE OF THESSALONIKI
Vasilis Chatzis, Saradis Zafiropoulos
Nowadays, cities look for alternatives, cause to high density and intensive use of their urban fabric. Water, in any form like sea, lakes, rivers, is a valuable natural source, which can be exploited by seaside cities, in order to improve their public image, to redefine nature and enhance new urban models, and all of them according to the principles of sustainable development.
Specifically for the city of Thessaloniki, the necessity for configuration conditions in order to redefine the relationship between built environment and water, landscape and nature, the sustainable functions of the city, is more obvious than ever. Motivation to accomplish this goal is the protection, restoration and the regeneration of urban coastal zones. The importance of landscape lies not only in its form of boundary between artificial and natural landscape, but to its form of the intermediate space that is created and is required to incorporate the natural characteristics of an open field, the water element, with the artificial features of an urban waterfront, the apparent line where the city begins and ends, forming one of the key elements that characterize the structure of a seaside city.
…Sustainable design is the key feature of this proposal, guided by the principles of landscape design, aiming to a spatial reversal. Instead of forming a hard waterfront with building infrastructures, the green-open spaces complement the unstructured areas, forming a living organic plant system in the city that dominates covers and sustains the urban fabric. City and landscape are sewn in continuous flows by uses and terrain.
The existing waterfront between the First Pier and the White Tower exhibits a harsh division between land and sea: concrete city meets jammed swath of one-way-road meets wide stretch of promenade sidewalk meets thick concrete waterwalls that drop many feet before eventually reaching the sea below.
I was encouraged by learning about future plans for integrating Thessaloniki’s land and water in a useful, beautiful way: the “Water Cube” proposal advocates for a series of public water-transport stations to be located along the congested, concrete stretch of urban waterfront.
I loved seeing this idea of walkways piercing out into the blue, leading to transit stations surrounded by curtains of liquid drops, bringing pedestrians into contact with the touch and sound of water, softening the rigid division between city and sea.
“A water curtain…sea extension…hugs the stop and makes it part of the natural environment. The water cube created is there to remind the passengers that they are leaving the city and the man made to move in a natural environment for a while.”
–National competition “designing the upcoming public water-transport stations / Thessaloniki”
I often read two dimensional stories of development projects around the world, but the switch flips when I’m gifted with the opportunity to experience places in three dimensions: walking, sitting, seeing space and place.
I’ve only scratched the surface learning about Thessaloniki’s urban development plans, and I’m so curious now. I wonder about the health of the city and the planners and designers and builders behind the visions of the future. I have all sorts of unanswered questions about project funding in light of the current Greek economy. I wonder about the orange tape and construction materials we walked by at the other end of the waterfront; what will that area look like, feel like when the project is finished? Who will use the space? Will visitors be comfortable? Will locals love it like their own? Will it be just as much of a joy to discover as First Pier was for me?
When this year around the world is over and I’m again reading two dimensional stories about far off places, I hope to catch a glimpse of something about urban renewal projects in Thessaloniki. I’ll smile to myself, glad to hear an update, and glad to be a nerdy landscape architect with countless impressions and memories of well used, well loved spaces all over this big, gorgeous planet.
And if I’m lucky, I’ll somewhere, someday have an excuse to specify that gorgeous bench in plans for a park in my own neighborhood…
Oregon Notes: Our second favorite waterfront spot at home is the East Bank Esplanade dock on the Willamette River, just near the foot of the Hawthorne Bridge. It sits below SE Portland Fire Station 21 and is generally the best place ever to watch summer sunsets over the city with mini coconut dream cupcakes and fresh brewed coffee in hand… Serious. Try it out.
Our favorite waterfront spot is…a secret involving a little town named Butteville and a good friend named Tom. If you know, you know.
How about you? Got a favorite waterfront space? Or a favorite nerdy landscape architect? ; )