by Stanley Farrugia Randon
Political decisions indirectly affect our environment.
We environmentalists are usually used to reacting to projects proposed by government or private entities which we think will negatively effect our environment. Such projects include building in Outside Development Zones, demolishing old and historical buildings to replace them with modern apartments, proposals to construct high-rise buildings, developing coastal areas to accommodate holiday resorts etc. There are, however, a number of other decisions which, although not directly related to the environment, affect it and are many times the root of the problem.
Governments may be relying too much on the construction industry for the well being of our economy. At least this is what we are told when we environmentalists complain that there is too much building going on in our little country. Contractors threaten they will be unable to pay their employees if the industry is not kept going. Could it be that political parties benefit directly from this industry? Din l-Art Ħelwa has been restoring places for more than 50 years and we know that many times it is more expensive to restore a building rather than demolish it and rebuild it. So the restoration industry is also economically productive! Why shouldn’t we shift from a construction mentality to a restoration and rehabilitation one?
Population growth is inevitably leading to a boost in the construction industry. Many homes are demolished in order to construct apartments of poor architectural value and rented to many foreigners who are living and working in our islands. Could this be the root of the problem? Are we growing too fast for our limited islands? Many of these foreigners are being absorbed by the construction and catering industry which put more pressure on the island for even more apartments which are only built purely for commercial reasons and not homes we Maltese are used to build and live in with pride.
The tourism sector is also on the increase with a record of visitors surpassed every year. Does our country afford so many tourists every year? This puts more pressure on our infrastructure and leads to more building of hotels, restaurants and holiday apartments. Likewise building on the foreshore is interfering with nature and will lead to problems.
There is no such buzz word as foreshore sustainable development. Development close to the shores can never be sustainable. A rising population together with the growth in economic development and increasing number of tourists (quantity and not necessarily quality) has caused an increase in activities on the foreshore and a demand for further development. But why do we have to build so close to the shores? Developments so close to sandy beaches such as in Marsalforn Bay, Xlendi Bay and Buġibba Bay have led to the loss of sand dunes which were the natural source of sand. Sandy beaches are so popular with Maltese and tourists alike and yet we have depleted so many beaches of their natural sand. Even roads close to the seashore are development – the coast road widening for no obvious reason, while so many other roads are crying for an upgrade, lead to more loss of coastal surface area. An ever increase in tourists puts more pressure on our public services. Our Police force, our Armed Forces, our law courts, schools and ancillary educational services and our Health services are already overstretched with many tourists, legal and illegal immigrants flooding these services. Water services, electricity, drainage systems and refuse amenities are also stretched to the limit. Should we be looking at tourists of quality rather than quantity?
A political decision to increase the heights of buildings in a village inevitably transforms it overnight into a construction site. Owners of apartments take the opportunity to add a floor and owners of houses pull them down to convert them into apartments. It is a pity that so many aesthetically pleasing houses were destroyed in such a way and the ones remaining end up sandwiched in between tall apartments, struggling for air, sunlight and parking space. The new apartments are usually of little or no aesthetic value and the street ends up looking as a hotchpotch of colours and shapes. One way how to overcome this, although it could take a generation or two to complete, is to define an architectural uniformity at least for the facade of these apartments. These architectural features could be designed to eventually end up with a street which is architecturally pleasing to walk in. The architectural style of the buildings in that particular area may be determined by the geographical position of the village or simply by an older building (which could be an old house, a church or a number of houses which over the years were built on a similar plan) which gives the character of the place a different architectural value when compared to other places. The height at which the buildings should be erected should also be a priority in the planning decisions.
What is sure is that the two major parties are not much interested in our natural and built environment and proof of this is the fact that they are always giving it less importance in their electoral campaigns.