Proposed scenarios for assessing Social Resilience of Urban Open Spaces in the “arrival” cities of Greece

22 min. read

Authors: Eleni Oureilidou1,*, Konstantinos Ioanidis2

1PhD candidate, School of Architecture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
2PhD, Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki


Since 2015, the influx of refugees in the Greek cities – such as Thessaloniki and Ioannina in the mainland, Chios and Mytilene in the Aegean – has resulted in social instability, exacerbating an already tenuous situation accrued by the economic crisis. In the light of the Smart City narrative and the use of digital tools in everyday urban practices, Greek cities have done very little for incorporating digital technologies to fortify their social resilience. Therefore, this research article aims to investigate on digital co-creation platforms and propose various scenarios for the refugees’ spatial integration process. At the beginning, terms such as social resilience and urban informatics are further analyzed, providing a framework of how they catalyze urban planning. Then, the research poses the question to what extend do digital tools enable the transformation of urban open spaces into incubators of collective life. Based on that, the authors present the digital platforms “Safe Night Rest”, which was prototyped by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) with the aim to include migrants and refugees in the process of finding accommodation and “CityScope” designed for similar purposes by the MIT Media Lab. Then, different scenarios are presented as a starting point for co-creation initiatives that would enhance the adaptability of urban open spaces and sparkle incentives for the bottom-up integration of displaced communities. In the end, the proposed scenarios aim to open up a dialogue on how digital platforms could sustain the cultural co-habitation, feeding the discussion about the empowerment of an increasingly diverse social capital in the “arrival” cities.

1. Introduction. Greek cities and the management of refugee crisis

Greece has a total population of 10 million, half of which reside in the big cities of Athens and Thessaloniki. In 2018, a total of 32 million of tourists visited Greece, a number that is constantly rising bringing about issues of sustainability and capacity for the Greek cities[2]. In parallel, in 2015, as a result of conflicts intensifying in West Asia, and mainly in Syria, the number of refugees and migrants arriving at the external border of Europe increased dramatically. The latest data by International Organization of Migration (IOM)[3] shows that 46.4 thousand refugees reside in Greece, from whom 39.9 thousand are asylum seekers. Until today, most of the governmental operations are supported by UNHCR[4] and international NGOs, a fact that proves that Greek cities do not have the capacity to respond adequately to this phenomenon.

By the end of April 2018, non-governmental and international organizations provided almost 25 thousand places in apartments and buildings -both in mainland and in the aegean islands- to serve the most vulnerable populations[5]. In addition, different digital tools have been applied for the management of the migration crisis and the integration of displaced communities. More specifically, in 2016 Impact Hub, Onassis Cultural Centre and the US embassy organized the Hackathon “Hack the Camp” to find sustainable solutions for and with refugees and migrants in Greece. Among others, the “Refergon” is a digital platform, which was developed to provide an easier way for refugees to identify job opportunities through existing social networks and to acquire essential skills. In parallel, this technological shift in crisis management has enhanced also the process of surveillance. For the sake of information management, governments have employed digital technologies to increase their control over borders, migration and access to asylum. Examples are the Eurosur, which refers to drone and satellite surveillance of the Mediterranean sea and the Eurodac, which includes bio-metric information collection at the borders.

Beyond the management of the migration crisis at the level of housing and control at insertion points, the process of “arrival” poses additional challenges such as the multi-cultural appropriation of urban open spaces. More specifically, Greek cities follow the Mediterranean model, in which urban typologies and processes result from a mixture of bottom-up and top-down policies, where the lack of green and public spaces becomes a central problematic. Suburban areas are mainly transformed into “enclaves of poverty”[6] and cities are dominated by the Greek “polykatoikia” (block of apartments). The latter endures a vertical social stratification[7] exacerbated by the migration flows of the last decades, when immigrants occupied the lower, smaller, once abandoned apartments. This form of co-habitation –immigrants at the lowest and basement levels, Greeks at the upper levels – exposes a layer of social inequality and exclusion in the micro-scale of the housing blocks, interrupting the horizontality of precedent culturally and socially homogeneous spaces[8]. In the Greek case, the multi-ethnic city is developed vertically not horizontally due to the lack of urban open spaces and exhibits greater fragmentation and diffusion unlike the “ethnoscapes” of the global cities[9].

In that framework, our research poses the following questions:

Could the use of technologies that are introduced in the “smart city” or “knowledge city” narrative, ameliorate urban pathogeneses in Greek cities, such as social disparities and fragmentation of urban spaces? To what extend do digital tools turn urban crisis into an opportunity from the bottom up and create meaningful environments? How could digital co-creation platforms fortify social resilience and make urban open spaces more adaptable in order to correspond to a multi-ethnic users’ profile? After the presentation of the state of art in urban informatics and the Smart City narrative, our research extends to suggest scenarios of media technologies and ICT applications that would re-make urban landscape in order to become more adaptive and include diverse uses and concepts.

2. The Smart City narrative and urban challenges

In most cases, “Smart City” narratives are linked with a variety of physical objects embedded with context awareness and network connectivity, enabling an advanced technological urban infrastructure that enhances city’s operation efficiency and new entrepreneurship[10]. Except for the “smart cities”, other terms such as “intelligent cities” and “creative cities” emerge to describe the new status quo in urban planning and identify related trends where technology plays a dominant role. In addition, recent urban studies deal with cities’ growing patterns, their competitiveness and their residents’ livelihoods and well being [11].

However, the “Smart City” narrative has incited criticism, which is based on the lack of a problem-solving rhetoric, and the fact that it has exacerbated existing social disparities by leading to a new wave of wealth creation[12], through the framework of “IT-based innovation urban ecosystems”[13]. More specifically, companies like CISCO argue that the interrelation of ICT with physical design results in a confusion of engineering and architecture ideas supported by various technologies[14]. In addition, critical urban studies, feminist urbanism, and urban political ecology claim that technology and corresponding urban policies do not serve the inclusiveness of society, causing social divisions.

2.1.Urban informatics, social resilience and new challenges in urban planning

As a term, Social Resilience refers to the ability of human communities to withstand external shocks to their social infrastructure, such as environmental variability or social, economic and political upheaval [15]. Deriving from the perspective of psychology, social resilience extends from the individual level to society as a whole. In order to achieve social resilience, local governments are responsible to develop systems, platforms and mechanisms to monitor community-based activities[16].

Towards that direction, urban informatics refer to the emerging field of urban computing at the intersection of cities and urban data. This interdisciplinary field takes advantage of the diverse data sources raging from sensor networks to mobile devices and social media platforms[17]. Sensor Systems as a type of urban big data detects activities and tracks changes in the city, providing information about the environmental conditions, the transportation flows and the condition and management of “smart” buildings. This technological intrusion affects the way urban landscapes are shaped and how they catalyze urban progress and resilience. However, in many cases, technology imposes larger inequalities and social divisions[18] for the sake of the global market and tourist attraction, “a far cry from what would be labelled as “smart””[19].

Except for sensor systems, the user-generated systems enable a holistic approach to urban research, promoting agile urban models, which detect disparities and social injustice in various sectors. Some of these are the transportation, housing, land-use, environment, health, education, economic prosperity and social break-down[20]. This condition stimulates bottom-up efforts and self-sustaining models of growth for the less favored places, opening up a dialogue for a less authoritarian smart city.

Furthermore, the big data applications in the urban context enables an improvement of urban strategies.  Within a dynamic urban resource management, big data offers deeper insights into urban patterns and processes, urban engagement and civic participation[21]. In addition, the visualization of urban big data challenges the way we understand and organize society and urban space, making it possible to delve into the complexities of the diverse social body and yield information about users’ activities. In the end, this process of visualization could enact policy changes, synthesizing new methodologies of urban-making for the public benefit from the bottom-up[22].

2.2. Examples of the use of digital tools in urban processes

In our research, digital tools such as co-creation and online participation platforms are examined to the extend that they reflect various facets of the smart city narrative. Main objective is to highlight the idea of “citizen-centricity” in innovation systems, social enterprises and co-creation platforms, as well as the notion of equal participation and inclusion. Therefore, a sample of digital tools and platforms are presented here and are structured according to the “ladder of public participation”, as proposed by Arnstein[23]. These digital typologies integrate research and innovation processes in actual communities and settings based on the co-creation of users. The aim is to make new city models emerge, which propose digital solutions for the mitigation of various problematics such as social exclusion and accessibility in public spaces[24].

Table 1. A sample of digital tools covering a spectrum of digital typologies, organized according to the “ladder of participation”

3. Bridging local and refugees through the use of digital platforms:“CityScope” and “Safe Night Rest”

Refugees rely on digital infrastructure to establish their migration routes, engaging with social media platforms to acquire valuable information on borders, routes, weather conditions, and safe places to stay, as well as to communicate with family members[25]. Most of the displaced populations cross the EU borders through the “WhatsApp way[26],which is enriched by user-generated, networked and real-time updates. Sanchez-Querubin and Rogers[27], examined the dynamics of data mining through digital platforms in re-conceptualizing the migration “route-work” as “platform-work”. In this approach, routes and destinations are “reviewed” through the number of “likes” and “shares”, uncovering the reputation and the potential danger of smugglers. This approach establishes a new framework of migration metrics interconnected with the space of border and redefining the role of social media in times of crisis, accelerating the information retrieved through user participation and ranking.

Beyond the use of data mining to establish a bottom-up analysis of migration routes based on their safety and reputation, other technological implementations have been adopted to solve the problem of integration and mainly, accommodation. The two different examples that are presented here are: the “CityScope” platform that was created by MIT Media Lab and the “Safe Night Rest”, which was prototyped by Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The author has been engaged in the implementation of “Safe Night Rest” in Thessaloniki, assisting in the organization of Focus Group Discussions with owners, real estate agents and migrants.

“CityScope” was a platform created to integrate locals in the decision-making process of the accommodation of “arrival” communities in Hamburg. More specifically, the project was called “Finding Place” and offered technical solutions for the urban planning of different “arrival neighborhoods”, facilitating in parallel the effective interaction of multiple participants and stakeholder groups. The goal was to enable citizens to take responsibility for common solutions, as well as to “demystify spatial design and analysis using tangible-computational platforms”[28].

Towards that direction, UNHCR has established goals of community-based approaches, reinforcing the dignity and self-esteem of refugees and the mutual collaboration with local communities[29]. Based on that, “Safe Night Rest” has been an attempt to strengthen the independence of “communities of concern” by expanding communities’ capability of finding accommodation in the urban setting. To achieve that, the prototype proposed a design to make the direct communication between beneficiaries and stakeholders possible through a digital platform. More specifically, the platform envisioned the gradual integration of displaced people from the camps to the city without the support of organizations or institutions. However, during the prototyping process, different concerns were raised, such as the lack of trust for the timely payment of rents from the side of agents and owners, as well as the issue of overexposure of the location of their accommodation and potential dangers linked with racist attacks from the side of the beneficiaries. Eventually, the digital platform was not adopted and the inventory of units of accommodation was developed from top-down and handed over to national operators.

Figure 1. “Thessaloniki Urban Project”, the units of accommodation provided by NRC to beneficiaries  during 2017-2018

3.2. Proposed scenarios of assessing social inclusivity of open spaces in Greek “arrival” cities

The spectrum of digital tools applications presented above aspires to develop more inclusive processes in the urban development. In the framework of “Resiliency humanitarianism”, the perception of refugee is no longer that of “an undifferentiated victim, voiceless and without political agency”[30]. Instead, it is a subjectivity that contributes to change the society rather than just adapting to it. In this context, it becomes crucial to integrate refugees in the creation of a multi-cultural urban context that would reverse the dominant narratives of poverty and misery linked with the arrival of displaced communities. The participation of multiple participants and stakeholder groups is envisioned as a cornerstone in refugees’ integration process, stimulating the social capital of Greek cities and fortifying the social resilience of urban open spaces, where multicultural communities are able to bounce forward and progress. 

Figure 2. A “Theory of Change”for long-term social integration of displaced communities

Towards that direction, the private tech sector could leverage the tracking technologies to benefit refugees more directly, extending away from commercial purposes alone. Social media platforms could propose e-participation processes that would include refugees, bringing forward issues of concern for both, such as housing and job seeking. In addition, urban studies could identify different resilient factors that would benefit locals and refugees alike.

In this context, the issues of resilience as key in the equal participation process are: Direct communication, space sharing, activities in public spaces at the scale of the neighborhood, cultural exchange and awareness, story-telling, problem identification and solving, legal and medical support. The issue of accessibility to digital co-creation platforms becomes crucial for both communities of practice[31] and communities of concern [29], in order to enact policy changes as equal political subjectivity.

Figure 3. Scenario 1: Urban Resources (Input)

Figure 4. Scenario 2: Social Capital (Input)

Figure 5. Scenario 3: Urban morphology (Input)

3.3. Indicators of cultural symbiosis

To achieve that, new media technologies could be used to collect data from public space in order to formulate specific indicators of cultural symbiosis. Potential indicators in the context of this article are as follows:

Table 2. Metrics indicators of multi-cultural appropriation of urban spaces based on the proposed scenarios

In the end, the metrics indicators that are based on data retrieved from different users, could show how digital tools are incorporated in testing different ideas and concepts in urban landscape. Through focus group discussions and the organization of non-dominant cultural events and activities, local communities and displaced people could share stories, identify problems and propose solutions. In addition, they could implement ideas for the economic and social advancement of backstage open spaces such as pop-up markets for refugees’ products, open markets, collective kitchens, fashion shows, workshops for knowledge sharing, debates, talks and other cultural events informing different geographical limits and ethnic origins. At the end, unattended spaces in under-developed areas, where refugees are more likely to reside due to lower living costs, could be transformed into hubs for cultural interaction and could gain visibility through social media platforms and story-sharing.

4. Conclusion

Our research highlights the dynamic interplay between technology, society and the city, proposing interdisciplinary perspectives and planning scenarios that would turn the uncontrolled migration influx into an opportunity for cities. The use of Information and Communication Technologies, such as wireless connectivity, co-creation and social media platforms, become powerful tools in favor of urban progress and social resilience. While in their infancy, co-creation digital platforms could facilitate the homogeneous distribution of information, helping social groups to build their capacity, capability and bounce forward. In the end, what this research envisions, is the long-term, sustainable partnerships between communities that are socially marginalized in order to build their social resilience and progress together through active participation.


The research work is supported by the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (HFRI) under the HFRI PhD fellowship grant (Fellowship Number: 99332)


Part of this research was completed in the framework of “Short Term Scientific Mission” of COST Action TU1306, European Cooperation of Science and Technology that took place in Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, under the supervision of Prof. Montserrat Pallares-Barbera.

About the authors:

Eleni Oureilidou* is an Architect, Landscape Architect and a PhD Candidate at School of Architecture, Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. Her research is oriented towards the mediated narratives of the “arrival” landscapes, and their implementations for landscape democracy and it is supported by the Hellenic Foundation for Research Innovation (HFRI).

Konstantinos Ioannidis is currently an assistant professor at the School of Architecture, Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, Greece. He is a graduate (Dipl. Engineering) from AUTH, he received a MSc. in Cultural Management from the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens and his Doctoral Degree from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden.


* Author to whom correspondence should be addressed; Tel.: +44-787-371-9240*

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