by Petra Caruana Dingli
One thing which has not let up in the summer heat is resident protests against development. In an unusual twist to the usual story, the Environment Minister himself has protested in the streets. One snag for him is that he will now be expected to support other protests too.
I don’t know whether this has happened before. On Żonqor, the previous minister had done the opposite, going on site with camera crews to justify the plans. A new broom sweeps clean, as they say (and hopefully not under the carpet).
Protests happen for different reasons. Some are prompted by concerns for quality of life and health, others by a yearning for the past, a lost way of life. Recovering an idyllic ‘golden age’ is a universal dream. The Bible itself begins with the story of the loss of paradise.
Human nature is torn between a hungry push for innovation and a conservative resistance to change. Somewhere, hopefully, the right balance is struck. This is far from easy.
Busy towns and cities are innovative, creative places, striving for change, while village life is more quiet and conservative, resisting change. People are attracted to cities. This is where the majority live, all over the world. The problem here is not change, or new buildings, or even aesthetics, but lack of vision.
Overcrowding and bad infrastructure is uncomfortable and unpleasant. This existed in Valletta in the past. Valletta is now marketed as entering a new golden age, but many residents had left the city because it was crowded, dirty, and the drains stank, provoking 19th-century remarks about the ‘bouquet de Malte’.
Today the worst aspect of Maltese urban life is traffic; the congestion, noise and pollution of roads packed with cars running on fossil fuels. Living outside the centre and driving in to work, shop or play now clocks up hours of wasted time stuck in frustrating traffic jams.
But burgeoning office and apartment blocks are not being matched with adequate public transport and green, recreational spaces. And nothing is being done to wean people off cars. Before the election, we heard about monorails and underground trains, but now the direction seems to have switched to more traditional roads, with additional cars on the streets every day.
I recently had a coffee with Jim Wightman and his colleagues from the Bicycle Advocacy Group. The difficulty with cycling in Maltese streets starts with the reality that bikes are promoted in theory but in practice are generally ignored. Nobody is promoting walking either. Countless building sites leave behind broken pavements for pedestrians to stumble over, and road diversions thoughtlessly oblige cyclists to struggle up steep, impossible hills.
It is not aesthetics or quantity of buildings which are to blame, but a lack of planning. For example, a block of flats was built last year in a busy, narrow Birkirkara Road in St Julian’s, but was it set back in line with the existing buildings next to it, to widen the public space? No, of course not. Instead it seems to have edged forward. The street is choked with cars and pollution.
Concerns about traffic, health and quality of life are not driven by nostalgia. People want wholesome spaces to live in. But our planners and many architects take a short-sighted, opportunistic view. They approach the world in small modules, site by site, disinterested in the wider picture or context, or the effect their projects are having together as a whole.
But if architects and planners do not create liveable urban spaces and sort out the traffic, then who will? You can’t even entirely blame politicians, as we tend to do. They are not the experts. It is not up to a government minister to take decisions on individual projects, although he should take action if he sees things generally heading the wrong way.
There is no point building more and higher, trying to attract more people to Malta, if the transport system cannot cope. Cities and towns all over the world compete constantly to attract residents and businesses. Providing decent transport is crucial. Nobody will want to move to Malta to be stuck for hours in daily hot traffic jams.
Several Mediterranean towns and cities that I visited in recent years have a similar type of development to us in Sliema, and in Malta overall, with many buildings caring more about interior spaces rather than their exterior. Athens, Catania, Granada, Naples, Tel Aviv and Jaffa have all gone in this direction. One smaller example is Bagheria near Palermo, evoked so beautifully by the writer Dacia Maraini. A seaside town once dotted with dreamy summer villas, today it is swamped by apartments and cars. The so-called ‘heritage industry’ is based on such nostalgia. It is not all fake, but it is not quite real either. It is a construct of the imagination.
The writer about cities, Lewis Mumford, quoted the philosopher Aristotle, explaining that men come together in cities to live, but remain there in order to live a good life. But to be successful, cities must be innovative and devise ways to create order from chaos.