The opening of Malta’s new parliament represents a historic milestone which should make us proud. This is because Malta’s capital city finally has an entrance which befits its history and status, and also because the project itself can be seen as a beacon for everyday democracy.

Aesthetics are always subject to antagonistic view points and perspectives, and Renzo Piano’s project is not an exception.

In my view Piano managed to create a unique project which adds to the beautification of Valletta. City Gate is exceptional in its simplicity, and gives a sense of openness which was denied through the previous gate, which, if anything, blocked the view.

The accompanying stairs are reclamations of space that give a sense of breath. The open theatre is a postmodern reconstruction of the old theatre ruins, celebrating the possibilities they create rather than copying a previous structure. And the Parliament building, while being splendid in itself, gives a new lease of life to the pedestrian area without usurping open space. Hopefully the Monti relocation will not spoil this spectacle.

Ideally, the relocation of Parliament can symbolise a breath of fresh air in politics, where public participation is further enhanced, and where civil society engagement increasingly forms part of a renewed political culture.

Here, one can note that while civic engagement in certain fields has flourished, the same cannot be said for others, also due to a lack of proper consultation processes. Yet, recent civil society initiatives, from creation of an LGBTI constituency to the hunting referendum have shown that civil society is increasingly engaging in the democratic process.

In my opinion the Renzo Piano project and the accompanying beautification of Valletta were among the best achievements of the previous Nationalist Government. One needn’t go back many years to remember how Valletta was choked by cars, and how open spaces were used as ugly car parks.

The progressive pedestrianisation of an increased number of streets and squares in Valletta gave something back to the public after so many open spaces were lost elsewhere. Indeed, the capital city can serve as a development model to follow in other parts of Malta which are characterised by a lack of holistic planning, uglification and primacy of cars over pedestrians.

Valletta’s designation as European Cultural Capital designation for 2018 augurs well for further improvements in the city.

Smart City is the saddest, ugliest development project of the past 25 years or so

The proliferation of restaurants, places to hang out and similar investments are adding life to existing sites representing different cultural spheres. Government’s talk of boutique hotels and the bringing back to life of the market building are positive steps compared to other not-so-positive initiatives by the same government with respect to development in other parts of Malta.

Indeed, the organic type of investment in Valletta helps to revitalise the social fabric rather than imposing itself as is the case with Smart City.

The latter is the saddest, ugliest development project I have seen in the past 25 years or so. It is a lifeless development project which seems to have been dumped on the area with no concern of the surroundings. Furthermore, social interaction is near inexistent and the dancing fountains seem to celebrate nothingness.

Smart City resembles a failed theme park of a theme park, a desert of the real. It is a far cry from the pomp and bombastic way it was presented by the previous administration some years back. Will the present government keep supporting such speculative development?

Going back to Valletta, I hope that the ditch under City Gate will not be usurped by cars, and I also hope that the open theatre is made more accessible for smaller cultural, artistic and musical projects.

Valletta has also been in the news for the Cafè Premier issue. Political and administrative controversies aside, this property can serve as an opportunity for the government to give a social scope to the usage of public land and facilities.

The Valletta local council has proposed that the property serves as new council premises. I think that this would be a good idea, especially since local councils have a vital role of investing in social capital in localities, thus increasing trust, social interaction and public participation. Local council facilities should be at the centre of localities and should be accessible to all.

It would also be great if government considers relocating Malta’s national library to Valletta. This would raise the profile of reading and would also further strengthen the concept of a people’s capital city. Modern libraries are hubs of learning and social interaction, and have different interactive facilities and educational services and items, including books, music and reviews.

In a country characterised by haphazard development and choked by cars, Valletta represents another story. The new and the old interact in a vibrant way, and sites for public participation are being created in the process. The opening of the new Parliament building represents much, much more than formalities, plaques and speeches.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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