Santorini vineyards and UNESCO

April 25, 2012
Some years ago, a group of architects from Athens Polytechnic went to Mykonos to explain to the local people why it was in their interest to keep the island’s traditional settlements intact.

Having explained to them that the existing buildings were in harmony with the environment and why the town’s built fabric should not be altered, the townspeople asked: “so what would change if we all added another floor?”

We are indeed a strange people. Our remarkable adaptability, which since ancient times has helped us survive as a nation, is at the same time our worst enemy. For it allows us to abandon traditions, ways and customs with incredible ease and has led to “aesthetic devastation” throughout the country. The problem is particularly acute in tourist areas, where the lure of profit gives rise to enormous pressures that no authority seems capable of containing. Santorini, the most beautiful island in the world – according to some (who probably have not travelled extensively) – is one of the worst victims of anarchic and tasteless construction activity and its vineyards have suffered serious collateral damage.

The much talked about issue of the inclusion of Santorini’s vineyards in UNESCO’s world heritage list, along with those of Porto, Saint-Émilion and Burgundy, seems like a bad joke. At first glance, it may appear to be the ideal solution to our problems, but unfortunately the “foreigners” cannot protect us from ourselves. Two basic requirements for inclusion in UNESCO’s prestigious list are that the candidate site must be untouched (which obviously does not apply in the case of Santorini’s vineyards) and there must be an explicit commitment on the part of the local community that nothing will change in the future (at least for the worst!). In modern-day Greece, this second requirement is impossible to fulfil.

So, what can be done? For clearly, something has to be done to save Santorini’s vineyards (and not only), even if the solution is not to be found at UNESCO’s offices. First of all, it must be understood that the conversion of vineyards into building plots is not an exclusively Greek phenomenon. In France, thousands of acres of vineyards have been lost in the name of urbanisation, around all the major cities. Despite this, the French have managed to preserve many historic vineyards, such as those of Pessac-Léognan, which is essentially a suburb of Bordeaux. Even in California, the Americans have succeeded in saving large expanses of agricultural land...

In other words, there are a number of tools – institutional, town planning and scientific – which enable realistic interventions in land use, and it is to these tools that we should be turning, rather than the unrealistic notion of “world” recognition from what is in any case a controversial organisation. 

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