Sunday Times of Malta, 2nd November 2008 –
An article in the architecture magazine A10 focuses on the changing development priorities within European cities and argues that ecological and demographic changes will alter the way in which we intervene in urban environment.
As birth rates across Europe fall and migration into major cities drops, a growing number of European cities are starting to experience a growth slowdown or even a population decline. Since cities have reached their upper population limit, urban development emphasis must shift from the need to provide more housing space for urban populations and roads for their cars, to the consolidation of the city within its established boundaries through an investment in the quality of environment.
The approach to development will also need to change in the light of other factors, such as new energy performance criteria underscored by increased fuel prices, the need to conserve resources by reusing rather than demolishing old buildings and the need to cater for aging populations.
The article highlights the need for a more sustainable, quality-based approach to urban development; it recognises that this requires a cultural change beyond building for building’s sake and towards a better quality built environment and says, “Less construction might be the most logical conclusion of ecological and demographic trends seems obvious but it is still denied by property developers and authorities who are unable or unwilling to extricate themselves from the automatic reflex of growth and expansion, and who will continue to build as long as the money is there or can be borrowed, on the assumption that supply can create demand.”
Malta’s situation is similar. Post-war migration from the historic inner harbour towns to the expanding suburban settlements around outlying towns and villages has largely occupied the defined urban development zones.
The limits to the horizontal extension of our towns have prompted an interest in tall building development that has spawned tall building developments outside a formal planning policy.
NSO figures published last July show that Malta’s population is expected to peak to 424,028 by 2025 and decrease to just over 400,000 by 2050. It is therefore plausible to assume that the large proportion of vacant property should be sufficient to accommodate the medium-term population increase. The slowdown of certain sectors in the housing market raises questions about the type and quality of development that Malta requires.
The quality of the urban environment was the focus of ‘The urban challenge: Our quality of life and the built environment’, a document published last year by the Malta Chamber of Architects. The document argues that lasting sustainable development can only be achieved by defining an appropriate vision for Malta where the social, economic and environmental objectives work together harmoniously. It expresses concern at the often controversial approach to debate on urban issues and highlights the need for a more informed debate on key urban issues.
The document makes specific reference to tall buildings and asks questions about their development: What are the benefits, other than the financial ones for developers through the provision of properties with stunning views? Do tall buildings have a positive impact on the built environment and how do we ensure that tall buildings are of the highest quality and construction?
What are the costs involved in building good quality towers? Given the high proportion of vacant property, should we not be encouraging available investment to be directed elsewhere? What will be the impact of vacant or uncompleted towers which, designed to meet specific briefs, are difficult to convert to other uses? Is the nation gaining if it adopts a policy favouring the construction of tall buildings?
Malta has a draft tall building policy, based on the application of a floor area ratio mechanism. The policy has never been formally adopted, suggesting a certain reluctance to take forward a document that may not be the most suited.
It is difficult to deal with tall building development in a strategic manner. Strategic forward planning, coupled with innovative thinking, is however essential if tall buildings are to add value to the country socially and economically.
The ongoing construction of a number of tall projects and the submission of several applications for planning permission for the construction of towers, some reaching up to heights of over 30 storeys, bears testimony to a dizzying aspiration for height. There is, however, little knowledge of the specific urban planning, design, construction and environmental aspects of tall buildings, giving rise to questions on their suitability.
The Chamber is organising a public conference on tall buildings – The Urban Challenge: Small=Tall – on November 21 at Le Meridien Hotel, Balluta. Speakers will include Faridah Shafii, director of the Centre for Sustainable Construction and Tall Buildings, Institute Sultan Iskandar of Urban Habitat and Highrise, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia; Riccardo Bedrone, associate professor of urban planning and technique in the Architecture Faculty at the Turin Polytechnic; and Lora Nicolaou, director for urban strategies at the London office of global consultancy firm DEGW, who directed a number of tall building strategies for Rotterdam, Dublin and London.