The pressure of density and overdevelopment in Malta has been increasingly felt in recent years. The pandemic has only intensified the weight of its consequences, pull­ing our priorities for improved quality of space into sharper focus.

Over the summer months we have experienced an alternative urban reality, with a dramatic decrease in tourism suspending the islands’ typical population swell. As a result, we’ve been reminded how more space (on beaches, roads, village squares and beyond) can bring alleviation to a built environment as compact as ours.

Amid this reset to a quieter way of life, the future of Malta’s urban development has remained a concern for many – especially in light of current travel difficulties. With circumstances decreasing our mobility, the rediscovery of Malta’s natural landscape has become an antidote to feelings of restlessness and enclosure. Our urbanscape has been less comforting – construction still looms ubiquitously and the presence of open, green space within built-up regions remains sparse.

Despite updates on rural design guidance and newly-emerging financial schemes for urban greening, national policy is generally still intent on overlooking the need for integrated place-making, consistently enforcing rigid division between urban and rural land. In so doing, it has systematically eliminated the opportunity to create pockets of respite within urbanised zones, effectively choking the island’s most populated and utilised areas and stunting the well-being of its urban ecology.

Guidelines have steadily entrenched a dichotomy between green and built space on the islands. Consequently, the distinction between Malta’s ‘development’ and ‘outside development zones’ (ODZ) has given rise to a  ‘construction free-for-all’ in urban centres – a case of anything goes, as long as it sits within the urban boundary line.

The result is a demonstrable case of missing the wood for the trees – a set-up that fundamentally counters healthy, sustainable place-making as a model for future development. Many modern cities are embracing this very model, placing priority on pedestrianisation and the reacquisition of disused or low-value space for improved public use. Instead, here in Malta we face the growing reality of biodiversity depletion, noise and air pollution, and unhealthy densification in the areas where we actually live.

Imagine a proposal where ODZ areas are proactively introduced within urban zones – a policy that promotes visual pleasure and biodiverse richness within the vast regions of Malta that directly support our urbanity.

Malta is quickly becoming one large city. This doesn’t have to be a scary thing – density needn’t be a dirty word, nor automatically synonymous with unhealthy overcrowding. Some of the world’s greatest cities – London, New York, Budapest – are thickly urbanised, but offer enough green space to support a healthy and balanced city life.

By and large, we need policy guidelines and – above anything – a shift in mindset towards a culture that integrates green and built-up spaces. If policy were to dictate a form of ‘green quota’ for urban zones, healthy public space could achieve ease of accessibility, in turn requiring less infrastructure to take people to the countryside. Less infrastructure would mean less traffic, less air pollution and an overall improvement to our health (both physical and mental).

Policy should also extend to the private sector. The health of Malta’s biodiversity is being threatened not just by a lack of proactive engagement with large urban zones but by the incremental depletion of private gardens, lost to development of apartments with minimal backyards that are often tiled over in hard surfaces. As it stands, planning policy offers little to no incentive to include green spaces in apartment developments.

If Malta must support a larger population for economic survival, then it needs to be designed to do so. Our urban policy must accommodate this reality, creating a framework where the relationship between urban life and nature becomes more equitable.

Visionary transitions are not an unattainable fantasy. New York’s High Line was opened only 10 years ago, converting a disused viaduct rail section into a vital green artery that has completely revitalised its environment. Just this summer, calls for a similar vision for Camden in London were announced, encouraging a comparable emphasis on space, air and greenery within an urban centre known for hyper-saturated activity.

An alternative to Malta’s current urban reality is equally achievable if we move away from the concept of strict zoning – an approach that is just not working. We need to embrace a more action-oriented culture, with a policy that stipulates not just what should be avoided but what should be encouraged.

We have spent too long trying to protect ourselves from an urban future that doesn’t represent our needs and values. Instead, we should be building the one we actually want to live in.

Peter Valentino, Architect and partner at Valentino Architects

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