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Activists Dream to Turn a Ghost Town into an Eco-Town

Varosha as it was in its heyday
Varosha as it was in its heyday.

Varosha is a ghost town that could be reborn into an eco-town if a bunch of activists led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology architecture professor Jan Wampler get their way.

It is part of Famagusta in Cyprus, abandoned back in 1974 when Turkey invaded the Greek island. At that time thousands of people fled the area and it became fenced off.

In its heyday it was a glamorous resort frequented by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other stars. Now it is a site of of crumbling, war-battered beachfront shops and hotels.

Varosha now

But in the future, Wampler, along with sixteen of his architecture graduate students from the University of South Florida, foresee an InterCity tram system, coastal piers run on seaweed and other renewable energy sources and even a brand new canal.

Following a brainstorming session by scores of activists in January, these student architects and designers working on the Famagusta Ecocity Project presented their ideas in the Pasha Mosque in old Famagusta a few days ago.

The project, established by a group of private citizens and academics has been discussing large-scale modern planning, functional building and site development for the once thriving port town. Project leaders have been keen to consult with community groups as well as stakeholders from both sides of the Green Line that separates the Turkish part from the Greek part.

They brainstormed around on nine objectives which aim to provide the foundation for addressing issues, including: coastal and environmental engineering; urban planning for sustainable cities and architecture.

Markides  at the presentation in Famagusta

Vasia Markides at the presentation in Famagusta.

Wampler said opportunities for the re-birth of the resort town were immense. One idea is to build a visionary new shallow canal within the town. Another is a national network transport hub and an offshore memorial pier.

 plan for canal in FamagustaWhat they all have in common is that smarter equals greener. They believe fervently that Varosha could be re-born as a beacon of creativity, reconciliation and optimism.

One of the five teams presenting outlined a clean energy train system and a rapid bus transit system linking Famagusta to the entire island, while residents could take a network of electric public trams around the town and a greenway corridor would connect the entire resort for cyclists and pedestrians.

Rubble from demolished buildings would be recycled in the new constructions as well as "reused to preserve Varosha's memory" and used to build a barrier to help defend against coastal erosion.

Others, continuing the theme of reconciliation, proposed a mosque and church "embracing each other through close proximity", with a theatre, library and civic centre being located in the same area.

"My main hope is that we have sown the seeds of an idea about how to do things differently," says economist Fiona Mullen, a member of the ecocity project.

"If we wake up one day and find that Varosha is open, the first question developers will ask themselves is "how can we do this in a smarter way?" rather than "where did I stash that cement?"

Vasia MarkidesVasia Markides (right), one of the spearheads for the project, is aiming to make a film about it with money raised from a Kickstarter campaign.

She said she has been trying to address the reservations expressed by some Famagustians who asked that the city stays as it is.

"Probably what a lot of the Famagustians are longing for, when they talk about moving back to our city the way it was, is to go back to a time when people sat on their balconies, when there weren't air conditioning units closing us off and people engaged one another, kids riding their bikes and people walking by," she said.

"That's what we are aiming for. A people-friendly, sustainable, modern city." 

"Long before we talk about buildings and streets we are thinking about people and the process of civil society engaging and deciding which is the road to follow to get to something they all want – which is the revival of their city, the rebirth if you like," says Cyprus-based project director George Lordos. Varosha old town

"The buildings being forty years out of repair, probably a lot of them cannot be used, repaired or maintained, therefore the matter is urgent," Iacovou added.

The ecocity project is gathering a lot of support, especially after the BBC ran an extensive coverage of the case on a story titled "Varosha: The abandoned tourist resort".

George Lordos, an energy specialist who is also part of the project, said a woman from Kyrenia stood up during one of the public discussions and admitted she was jealous of Famagustians who "are strides ahead from us Kyrenians". He said that the ecocity initiative was a massive challenge that would help bring Famagusta and Varosha back to life.

Varosha ghost town

"The principles of synergy, cooperation, coexistence and partnership will guide our hands and lead us to our goal," he had said.

However, politics may get in the way of any of these dreams. The town has often been the subject of calls for its return to its inhabitants. And these former inhabitants have claims over the property.

As such, completing negotiations about ownership become part of the complexity of all negotiations between the Greek Cypriot south and the Turkish Cypriot north, which nobody has been able to broker in the last 40 years.

These issues must be resolved to get the project off the drawing board, said Alexis Galanos, the Greek Cypriot mayor of Famagusta that incorporates Varosha. 

"As the Turkish mayor of Famagusta said, the town is like a bird with one wing – and a bird with one wing cannot fly," observed George Lordos.

"I hope they can build on it, it's a novel idea," former Presidential Commissioner George Iacovou has said. "It brings a new dimension to the future of the resort, which is attractive to both communities." 

Varosha old town

But since these talks are currently on hold as both sides continue to squabble over how a federated Cyprus should be defined, the project remains, sadly, an academic exercise.

Markides remains optimistic, however. She even says that if Cyprus is reunited, owners of existing properties would have the option to not have their homes demolished if they chose.

She believes that if the project succeeds it could become a blueprint not only for Famagusta but for any community in the world.