Where are all the Porsches? Creative and Community-Oriented Energy Pulses in Larissa

In early November of last year, The Telegraph picked up on a quote by a former head of the Greek prime minister’s economic department, reported in an Athens News article, claiming that Larissa “tops the list, world-wide, for the per-capita ownership of Porsche Cayennes.”

I visited Larissa in August last summer. I did not see any Porsches.  Perhaps I was just distracted by all the artists and community activists I met. Perhaps they just did not invite me to ride around in their Porsches.

Art installation by Christos Papanikolaou, under the Alkazar bridge in Larissa.

The quote is from an article Professor Herakles Polemarchakis published in the Spring 2011 issues of the Bulletin of the Economics Research Institute of the University of Warwick, where he wrote about the “rather faceless locale” of Larissa and used the Porsche statement as an example of Greek tax evasion. This statement then circulated on other media outlets and social media.  A few days later, a Business Insider article reported that Professor Polemarchakis could not verify the information, saying that it was something he heard a few years back, and that the per capita ownership number was from “someone else who researched the matter recently.”

My verdict on this Porsche issue: the example is moot.  Professor Polemarchakis did not cite evidence for the information, the Telegraph article (and the headline) was more a cheap shot than an informative report, and the other media outlets waving the story around certainly did not add any substantive information or context of their own.

It is frustrating to see a factoid used as a shocking illustrative example of a serious issue when the ‘fact’ portion of the ‘factoid’ is not actually cited – particularly when it refers to a whole city that is not well-known outside of Greece for any of its actual attributes.

Luckily, months before this article, I heard that Larissa was a growing hub for graphic designers and other creative types, and I had an opportunity to visit in August.  Less than 24 hours in Larissa was enough to show me that it was not at all a faceless locale. Everything I observed, heard and experienced in the city pointed to this being true.

Originally, I set out for Larissa to spend time with a friend and learn more about her work with the Synergy of Music Theatre (SMouTh), a non profit organization helping youth and adults learn and reinvent artistic expression through music theater. After meeting her over two years ago at an event in Washington, D.C., organized by an organization focusing on Greek diaspora communities, we had only exchanged a few emails and Facebook comments. Over a year ago, I was on a work trip in a location much closer to Greece’s timezone, and had an opportunity to listen live online to a radio show she was co-hosting. That was the extent of our interactions.

But this is Greece, where people welcome you to their town and mobilize their friends to give you the warmest welcome and most authentic introduction to their community and rhythm of life that they can possibly squeeze into whatever short timeframe you have.  To put it another way: a Greek host does not just invite you to meet up for a coffee somewhere. A Greek host will meet you for coffee, bring you into the kitchen to sample all the local specialties, and convince the place to stay open late and host a party, to allow you, the guest, to experience Greek kefi (no direct translation, something like spirit and fun and joy) – even if you are a Greek from abroad and know a little about kefi.

I met my friend for coffee, we caught up on each other’s lives and work, and when she heard about the Reinventing Greece project, she mobilized several individuals working to reinvent their community through art, entrepreneurship, digital storytelling, and community action. On only a couple hours notice, these people took the time to share how they are trying to contribute to their communities in a positive way through their work. These interviews will be featured in an upcoming series focusing on Larissa.

View of the First Ancient Theater of Larissa from the pedestrian street.

In between nearly seven hours of interviewing, everyone I met in Larissa still found time to make sure we could enjoy a few meals, some local wine and the beautiful summer evening together. They also helped me get in a little tourism, including a walk around the Frourio (the fortress) and the First Ancient Theater of Larissa (excavated recently, and dating to 3rd century BC), and a quick visit to the Municipal Art Gallery of Larissa/Georgios Katsigras Museum, with the second largest contemporary art collection in the country after the National Art Gallery. The tour was particularly enjoyable because of all the pedestrian paths in Larissa – an outcome of a direct effort to improve the urban plan of the city and enhance public spaces and cultural history. Read the case study at Eltis, The Urban Mobility Portal.

Consider this an introduction and please stay tuned for the interviews from Larissa.

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Eco Film Competition This Weekend

In 2009, the 48 Hour Film Project inspired Executive Producer Francesco Vitali and Producer Christos Siametis to start 48 Go Green in Athens:  The Athens films.

This year, the 48 Hour Film Project, in association with the creators of 48 Go Green in Athens, are making 48 GO GREEN global.

The winning film will be screened at the Cannes International Film Festival and the creators will receive a $5,000 cash prize. Registered teams have 48 hours, from February 18-20, to create a film – including writing the script, filming and editing.  You may bump into the teams in action in the cities with in-person competitions:  Atlanta, Boston, DC, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Portland and San Francisco.  The 48 Hour Film Project began in 2001, inspiring thousands of films from participating teams.  Check out past films on the 48HFP site, and vote online in this year’s competition from February 22 – March 3.

April 2011 Update:

The winners of the 2011 48 GO GREEN have been selected and can be viewed here.  The film Homeless by demode production in Greece was one of the 16 finalists, watch it after the jump.

Green Design Around Athens

If I were in Greece right now, this is where I’d be (well, a couple days from now): Green Design Festival 2010, September 23 to October 10.  Designers from various design fields will share their work to help ignite discussions on living in socially and environmentally sustainable ways.  Syntagma Square will be the site of an Ecomuseum with exhibition spaces, an amphitheater and a solar panel stage.  The graphics of how it will appear are pretty fun.  There will be architectural installations in several other locations throughout the city’s center as well.

The Festival is a project of Brainlab, a Greek NGO promoting cultural and artistic innovation, and is held under the auspices of the City of Athens and the Hellenic Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Climate Change.  This is the festival’s second year, after it debuted in 2008.

For those of us who are not in Greece and cannot physically attend, there’s a way to be a part of the project from afar:  upload photos or videos to the website on the “I See Green” page.  We can also get to know the Ecoheroes that will be honored at the festival.  Ten Greek graphic designers were invited to create a poster representing the story of each of these individuals or groups, recognized as Ecoheroes for promoting green living by living it.   The posters are available on the festival site, along with the bio of each Ecohero and designer, and the images are open for public use.  The festival and the designers invite you to download some of the graphics and print them on t-shirts and reusable bags, or to use them in creating your own green messages.

Check it out, post some pictures.

And just for fun, here’s the official video from Green Design Festival 2008:

Green Greece

For my first blog entry, I am posting an op-ed I submitted to a Greek-American publication ahead of Earth Day this year.  For whatever reason, it was not published, and in fact, no article about environmental issues was published in that week’s edition of this publication.  There are some interesting things happening in Greece at the local and national level in an effort to live in a more environmentally sustainable way.  This is worth sharing and discussing, whether it is Earth Day or any other day of the year.  After all, Earth Day should not be the only day of the year we discuss environmental issues, but it gives us a good reason to have a collective conversation and exchange notes on what we are doing and how it is working.

So here is my belated-yet-ever-pertinent attempt to encourage more ‘green’ dialogue between Greek-America and Greece:

This Earth Day, Act!  But Also Talk.

I recently told a friend in Greece that I was in the process of replacing the light bulbs around my house with energy efficient CFL light bulbs. My friend, who lives in a small town in the mountains of Epirus, responded, “That’s great, almost all of ours are already energy efficient.”  Looks like she could have taught me a thing or two! This was great to hear, especially after another conversation with a Greek-American friend that involved a tone of disbelief and the words “they recycle in Greece?”  As a matter of fact, some do.

So with Earth Day coming up on April 22, I plan to do some more talking.  As a Greek-American, I am talking to friends and family in Greece and sharing stories of what I am doing, what others around me are doing and what my community is doing to live in a healthy and sustainable manner, and asking them to share what they are doing or seeing in their communities. As the news on Greece is preoccupied with the economic crisis, Earth Day gives us a reason to talk about positive experiences with our friends, relatives and peers in Greece.

It is no mystery that there is a growing movement towards sustainable living and renewable energy in the U.S, but we do not hear as much about the organizations, groups, businesses and agencies promoting these issues in Greece, from the community to the policy level. There are increasing initiatives and programs in Greece that we can learn about and support.  In one initiative, Greek and international non-government organizations are inviting students to form cross-sector teams to design sustainable proposals for the re-design of Antonis Tritsis Park, a wildlife reserve in Athens that conducts environmental awareness programs for visitors. Various municipalities are launching new programs and promoting environmentally-friendly ways of living.  For example, Amfikleia began a recycling program, with which people are really getting involved, and Trikala approved plans to put solar panels on the roof of a high school.

Dialogue and action on sustainability in Greece is increasing at the national level as well. The Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change, formed last year, has been in the news regularly and has maintained a spotlight on environmental issues through its promising efforts at both the community and national level under the leadership of Tina Birbili.  At the community level, the Ministry will revitalize public squares and create parks in Athens. At the national level it is revising and drafting legislation and has posted four draft laws on opengov.gr for public input.  The Minister also welcomed the input of Greek NGOs that collaborated and submitted a proposal for a comprehensive institutional framework for protecting biodiversity.

As Greek-Americans, we have relationships and connections to people in Greece that serve as a foundation for exchanging ideas, solutions and encouragement on issues such as the environment. This exchange will allow us to increase our impact in both countries and inspire more people to live in an earth-friendly and healthy way. We should certainly act and invite others to act, but let’s make a concerted effort to talk about it so that we can adopt and spread ideas that work and continue coming up with creative solutions to environmental challenges, because, in the words of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is known as the Green Patriarch for his efforts to work with religious leaders around the world to protect the environment, “If life is sacred, so is the entire web that sustains it.”