There is an ongoing surge of interest in urban trees, especially trees involved in road works or projects in public spaces, by local councils and government entities.

Overly high-pitched reactions to any discussion about trees could have the longer-term undesirable effect of discouraging some people from planting more trees on their properties- Petra Caruana Dingli

As rightly pointed out by columnist Mark Anthony Falzon in his article, ‘Tree notes from a barren island’ (STOM,The Sunday Times, October 28), Oct 2012), the overall total amount of trees in Malta has increased significantly over the last decades.

This is attested not only by the old photographs mentioned in his article, but also by descriptions of Malta going back further than such photographs.

Looking back in time, Malta’s urban areas did not contain large numbers of trees in public spaces. Trees were mainly planted in walled gardens, orchards, fields and some hunting grounds. It was during the British period that trees began to be planted more widely in urban public spaces and along roads.

Whatever the reality of the past might be, today the importance of trees is widely recognised and promoted - and rightly so. Afforestation projects carried out by both the government and environmental NGOs have planted thousands of trees in recent years. These projects are generally located outside urban areas.

The government’s Government’s position on trees in urban areas is quite clear, as outlined in the National Environment Policy published in last February Februarythis year. The Environment Policy clearly promotes “the use of trees to provide shade, affect micro-climates to lower temperatures, reduce air pollution, act as a buffer between residences and busy roads, and provide havens for wildlife”.

In line with this policy, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa) recommends that mature trees in urban public spaces are retained wherever possible, even when no specific permit is legally required for their uprooting. Ideally, good practice and policy can guide such decisions, without the need for legal tools.

In countless projects both within and outside urban areas, the Authority authority has insisted on landscaping, as well as the transplanting or retention of trees. A recent example is the road project at Kennedy Drive in Salina, where the line of mature trees along the road is to be retained following recommendations by Mepa officers.

Putting aside the importance of trees in general, specific trees do not always mean the same thing to everyone. The outcry about the proposed project in the Paola square is a case in point. To my knowledge, the plan to uproot these trees was presented by the local council after consultation with the residents of Paola.

At a recent meeting, the Paola local council again explained to the Authority authority that the trees should be removed from the square for reasons including alleged damage to underground cisterns and paving, and various forms of inconvenience. In this case, the final decision on whether the Paola trees will be uprooted now rests with the local council.

In another project, the Authority authority has insisted that the palm trees in the centre of the square at Spinola should be retained in the proposed embellishment project, in line with the strong views expressed by the residents of St Julian’s.

In the case of the bus terminus outside Valletta, the Authority authority has pointed out to the project managers that the majority of the trees in this area should be retained within the site. Public sentiment indicates that these trees are considered to be important, and that other replacement trees would be unacceptable in their place.

Public sentiment about such trees is especially relevant, as. besides having ecological value, their position in prominent historic pjazzas and other urban spaces is also perceived as having cultural significance. The trees are appreciated as part of the cultural urban space.

A similar argument evolved in the case of the citrus trees in the Mdina ditch, which were recently transplanted. The cultural heritage experts advising on the project gave priority to enhancing the view of the historic bastions and ditch, which are unique, rather than the citrus trees which are far from unique and can be moved.

On the other hand, other persons gave more importance to the citrus trees growing in the ditch, which have no relevance to the historic bastions but which have been there for some time and which people had become accustomed to enjoying. An outcry ensued. It was a question of perspective.

It is pertinent to note that many of the older urban spaces contain mature Ficus nitida trees, often planted in the last century. These trees provide notable benefits, as they are large trees and provide welcome shade in a hot and dusty climate.

Ficus nitida can however be inconvenient when situated very close to benches and popular recreational spots, due to their small dark fruit which covers the ground in certain seasons, and their attraction to birds which can lead to a considerable amount of bird droppings – as seen, for instance, in the square outside the Gozo Ministry in Rabat. They also have invasive roots and can damage buildings, paving and underground infrastructure.

It is important to find the right balance. Removing trees without giving the matter adequate thought or importance is ill-advised, and the Authority authority is constantly striving to ensure that trees are safeguarded and promoted wherever possible. On the other hand, a blanket objection to the removal or replanting of all trees, wherever they are and of whatever type, would be equally ill-advised.

Overly high-pitched reactions to any discussion about trees could have the longer-term undesirable effect of discouraging some people from planting more trees on their properties, to avoid backlash in future. This is a real concern, as I have unfortunately heard many comments on these lines over the last few months, and the Authority authority has faced such situations in the past.

We all want to live in beautiful urban surroundings, and trees form a very important part of this picture. The government’s Government’s Environment Policy clearly recognises the importance of trees in both urban and rural spaces.

We are steadily working to instil this approach as widely as possible among both governmental and non-governmental entities, as well as local councils, private developers and individuals.

The publication of this valuable and far-reaching policy earlier this year, which touches on a vast amount of issues and measures, may have been a more radical step forward than has hitherto been recognised or appreciated. Its implementation requires no less than a gradual cultural shift, across the board.

Petra Caruana Dingli is Mepa Director for Environment Protection.

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