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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Athens is only getting hotter. It’s new ‘chief heat officer’ hopes to cool it down

As heat waves have been scorching Athens, the continent’s most sweltering capital, new wildfires broke out this past week in the city, adding to the more than 200,000 acres of forest consumed by wildfires around the country.

By: New York Times | Athens |
Updated: August 22, 2021 9:21:00 am
A view of Athens, Greece, Aug. 18, 2021. As heat waves have been scorching Athens, Europe’s most sweltering capital, new wildfires broke out this past week in the city, adding to the more than 200,000 acres of forest consumed by wildfires around the country. (Eirini Vourloumis/The New York Times)

Written by Jason Horowitz

On the hottest day of Greece’s record-breaking heat wave, when temperatures in Athens rose to 111 degrees Fahrenheit and wildfires choked the air, Eleni Myrivili stopped hanging laundry on her rooftop behind the Acropolis because she could hardly breathe from the heat.

“I could only take short, kind of burning breaths,” she said, recalling that ash from the fires also turned her black clothes white. “It was scary.”

The heat’s intensity (as high as 44 degrees on the Celsius scale) only increased the urgency that Myrivili brings to her new job as Athens’ — and Europe’s — first “chief heat officer,” tasked with giving one of the world’s most ancient cities an inhabitable future.

As heat waves have been scorching Athens, the continent’s most sweltering capital, new wildfires broke out this past week in the city, adding to the more than 200,000 acres of forest consumed by wildfires around the country.

It is not just Greece. In recent days, a heat wave on the Italian island of Sicily appears to have resulted in the hottest recorded temperature in European history, and fires have broken out across the Italian south. Europe’s summer of natural disasters has included increasingly frequent extreme weather events that have caused fatal flooding in Germany and Belgium, as well as in Turkey. Every week there is a new nightmare.

Myrivili’s appointment is a recognition of that new reality. But it is also a foreboding sign that having someone to grapple with suffocating temperatures may be a mainstay of the municipal cityscape, as necessary and unremarkable as a transportation, sanitation or police commissioner.

Eleni Myrivili, chief heat officer for Athens, Greece, near her home in the city, Aug. 18, 2021. Myrivili has been tasked with finding ways to help the Greek capital cope with ever-hotter heat waves that are expected to be part of life for years to come. (Eirini Vourloumis/The New York Times)

“Heat is an invisible and insidious killer,” Myrivili said. “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 cars flooded. It is really important to get people to understand why it is dangerous.”

She predicted that without action, the future for Athens would be bleak and airless. The capital would become more of an “urban heat island,” she said, with empty squares and cafes, fewer tourists and an exodus of residents who have the means and opportunities to live elsewhere.

Athens, a vibrant, chaotic place, would wilt in the sun.

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

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

Apartment buildings known as polykatoikies were erected in the capital in an anarchic explosion of garden-swallowing development after Greece’s civil war to accommodate a great migration from the countryside. But the buildings’ cement and tar-blackened rooftops absorb the heat. And as Athens sprawled into the surrounding mountains, and the car became king, the city added miles of asphalt that reach searing temperatures. The lack of green spaces in Athens deprives residents of respite, and even when temperatures fall at night, streets and buildings ooze heat.

“At night, the city gets very hot and you can’t cope, and the baby wakes up in the middle of the night from the heat,” Carene Kengne, 25, said as she pushed a stroller, shading herself and her baby boy under a kiosk. She said she did not have air-conditioning in her apartment, and that the surrounding fires and intense heat, much higher than in her native Cameroon, scared her.

Even the school where she learns Greek canceled her language lessons because it was too hot. “They told us to stay at home,” she said.

Without a chance to cool down, Athens residents risked serious health issues. As did those who had to toil in the sun.

“It’s very difficult,” said Panagiotis Nasos, 48, as he took a break at 1 p.m. from putting up signs and scaffolding in Syntagma Square, in central Athens. He sat in a sliver of shade, his blue shirt stained with sweat. “The temperature gets hotter and hotter every year,” he said, adding that his shifts had started increasingly earlier to avoid the heat. Work, he said, “used to be easier.”

Converting Athens into a city that can mitigate the heat has been Myrivili’s obsession since 2007, when she watched TV footage of Greek wildfires from her mother’s Athens apartment.

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

So Myrivili, the granddaughter of Stratis Myrivilis, a novelist regarded as one of Greece’s most important 20th-century writers, decided to get into politics.

Tourists cool off in Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece, Aug. 18, 2021. As heat waves have been scorching Athens, EuropeÕs most sweltering capital, new wildfires broke out this past week in the city, adding to the more than 200,000 acres of forest consumed by wildfires around the country. (Eirini Vourloumis/The New York Times)

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

Out of government, she eventually became a leader on heat and urban resilience issues for the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. The group has engineered placing heat officers 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 appointment soon.

The mayor of Athens, Kostas Bakoyannis, appointed Myrivili in July and gave her instructions to carve out a role with real influence for herself and her successors, and to help advise other baking European cities.

As soon as she started, fires started burning again. This time, Myrivili hoped they would at least spread awareness about the threat the city faced.

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

But warning bells are not enough. Myrivili said she also had to outfit more homes with air-conditioning, persuade electric companies to reroute energy from industrial to residential areas during heat waves, and make air-conditioned centers — where people can cool down — more reachable and desirable. Asphalt needs to be more reflective, and the tops of buildings need to be covered in solar panels and roof gardens. In the next five to 10 years, Athens also needs thousands of new trees to cool the air and to provide shade.

Without green spaces, many Athenians have found the city unlivable.

“I’m happy I’m not here,” Maria Tsani, 30, originally from Athens but now a doctoral candidate in biophysics in the Netherlands, said on a recent visit home. “There are no trees and parks, and it can be difficult to walk around with no shade.”

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