When it comes to urban design and planning, many tend to assume a negative understanding of density and automatically equate it to overcrowding, perit Antoine Zammit, founder and director of architecture and urban design firm Studjurban, said during a recent conference hosted by Transport Malta.

“Density generates the essential quality of ‘urbanity’, and I am a firm believer in high density, but only when this is planned strategically and spatially,” he added.

The conference’s  theme was ‘Sustainable Transport: Adaptation and Resilience in the Maltese Islands’.

In his presentation, titled ‘Strategic thinking, strategic planning’, Zammit, who is also a senior lecturer in spatial planning and urban design at the University of Malta, spoke about the direct relationship between urban and regional planning and mobility.

He said that Malta currently has a limited view of planning, both in terms of ‘forward planning’ and ‘development control/management’ which is fragmented, occurring on a case-by-case basis.

“Our approach to town planning is largely concerned with land use and development. The change that the future will bring requires us to be resilient in the way we plan for future growth through a strategic, comprehensive planning of land and territory. And this is why we cannot treat mobility in isolation.”

Referring to the issue of density, Zammit explained how density not only allows for economies of scale to flourish but improves the potential interaction of people with others and with their city’s institutions and functions.

It is the right density that creates the right demand

“Whereas the celebrated sustainable ‘compact city model’ is based on high density, high density does not automatically mean high rise. At the same time, high density alone is not enough. A rethink of land-use dynamics requires us to acknowledge the shifting nature of urban centres and to strategically plan new land uses and redevelopments, all while considering the principle of the walking distance radius.”

Referring to Kim Dovey’s principle of the urban DMA – density, mix and access – Zammit noted that only with the correct balance of all three can sustainable development be achieved.

“Some of the most sustainable neighbourhoods and cities are indeed the densest, but they furthermore prioritise sustainable mobility strategies and plan their land uses strategically.

“It is the right density that creates the right demand. In order to justify the expense of any mass transit project for Malta or further investment in any other public transport infrastructure, one will need to know that there is going to be the demand. Only the right density makes such projects viable and sustainable,” he added.

As an urban planning expert, Zammit emphasised the need for more collaboration among stakeholders, including the Planning Authority, transport and infrastructure entities, local and regional councils, residents, NGOs and businesses.

He said that different strategies that are currently being formulated need to be brought together, especially because they inevitably overlap and are largely centred on similar objectives. Moving towards intermodality furthermore implies the need for constant interfacing between entities and their individual projects.

He also stressed the importance that a detailed understanding of the economies of scale and urban density comes from appropriate assessment of the cumulative impact of planning decisions in mobility terms.

“Malta’s realities are unique. Only strategic planning based on data and proper appraisals will ensure that our current and future mobility needs are met in an effective and sustainable manner,” Zammit concluded.

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