Housing a large and diverse population whose needs and realities are ever changing is never easy for policymakers. In general, households tend to change over time. It is best to liken the household to a living organism. 

They adapt in creative and sometimes unpredictable ways especially to meet the demands of market forces. So how can policymakers attend to the ‘household in flux’ and ensure that citizens have good homes that meet their needs? 

A good place to start is for Malta to move away from a scheme-based housing provision, and instead, implement an urban system that takes a broad, contextual and longitudinal approach to housing. 

Such a system should take into consideration the relationship between housing and other categories such as ageing, care, disability, gender, sexuality, well-being, infrastructure, planning, climate change, migration, transport and civic participation. 

The concept of sustainable communities is apt as it seeks to move towards communities that are planned in order to achieve a standard of sustainable living. Here, sustainability does not solely refer to the environment but also to social, economic, urban infrastructure, social equity and good governance. 

As the chairperson of the Specialised Housing Programmes Board, and as a trained urban anthropologist, I am aware that this very issue of household and urban fluidity, as understood by social scientists, can be discordant with the approaches of policymakers that tend to be more prescriptive. In what follows, I demonstrate how the board was able to put above concept in practice.

An integrated system: Specialised Housing Programmes (SHPs) are seeking to promote a new approach to housing provision in the third sector, namely through the combination of inclusive domestic design and specialised service provision provided by NGOs. The aim of this housing typology is to offer a soft landing for vulnerable groups at the risk of institutional poverty and homelessness.

Social thinking from the start: SHPs will be designed differently because they will include the social dimension from the start, which is often a lower priority in urban development. 

The idea is to include the needs of the user-group at the planning, design and implementation phase. This will ensure that the needs of specific user-groups are at the core of the design and its service provision. 

This approach can generate significant economic benefits as it will act as a cost-saving measure

This approach is innovative in the sense that design choice, no matter how small-scale it is, will from the very beginning incorporate the social dimension, as this can greatly influence individuals’ interactions with one another, and facilitate a positive sense of well-being. 

Collaboration as method: participatory democracy with various stakeholders, besides NGOs, the community and user-groups, is key in implementing inclusive infrastructure. 

In order to ensure the highest standards of design, the board is collaborating with the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers through a design competition.  

Economic benefits: additionally, this approach can generate significant economic benefits as it will act as a cost-saving measure and release burden from other services by ensuring optimal quality and best value of resources. 

Research-based policy: research is at the core of these programmes. Quantitative and qualitative data will be collected systematically through these programmes, and it will be possible to demonstrate a more responsive way of delivering better services and implement solution-oriented policies. 

What is important is that the methods used ensure that people remain central in defining the ideal urban and domestic space for maintaining a good quality of life. A top-down approach fails to recognise the heterogeneity of needs and the ongoing changes in urban environments. 

Finally, I hope that SHPs can serve as best practice guidelines for future housing and urban development.

Rachael Scicluna is an anthropologist and chairperson of the Specialised Housing Programmes Board.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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