Professor Alex Torpiano is the new executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa. Considering the environmental pressures in Malta today, this is a challenging role to step into. He has plenty of experience, and was the well-respected president of the Kamra tal-Periti until the end of last year.

When Din l-Art Ħelwa was first founded by a small group led by Judge Maurice Caruana Curran in 1965, half a century ago, Malta was a very different place. It was just after the country attained independence, which triggered a surge of interest in the nation’s identity and heritage. This weekend is the fourth anniversary of Caruana Curran’s death, and an opportune moment to reflect upon the massive changes to Malta’s environment 54 years since the organisation was set up.

New environmental controversies still constantly hit the headlines. In just the last few weeks alone, we’ve had a second tower for the Mercury site near Paceville, the Corinthia and db Group projects at St George’s Bay, a permit for construction on Manoel Island, the proposed Jerma redevelopment at Marsascala, the Gozo tunnel threatening the destruction of the area near l-Imbordin, the widening of roads, and developments around Saqqajja hill in Rabat. And that’s just a few of them.

A traffic deadlock is expected in the near future. The remnants of the countryside are gradually being filled up with small, encroaching development. Policies which could provide some vision, such as those for high-rise buildings or petrol stations, or the Paceville masterplan, are either non-existent or merely pave the way for more blind construction.

How can environmental and heritage NGOs today tackle, or even begin to cope, with all this? Sadly, the state of urban planning is abysmal. We lack inspiring architecture and public spaces. This country may eventually feature in a cautionary tale, as an example of what happens when a greedy construction industry with absolutely no vision for the future is put on such a long and loose leash by the government. I know that this has been said many times before, but that does not make it any less true, or the environmental disaster any less real.

The city in the sea

Malta is now so built up that we should just stop thinking about it as a country with towns, villages and countryside in miniature. It is transformed into an urban island – a city isolated from the mainland by the sea.

Historical studies describe Malta as an island with a distinction between town and countryside. This difference has dissolved and the dynamics have changed. Families are spread out, and everywhere is built up. Towns and villages function like diverse districts of a sprawling suburbia, merging into one another. The whole country including Gozo is within commuting distance to the urban centres, as in a city.

Our so-called villages are now crammed with apartments and garages, and expand steadily each year. Can Attard, Qormi or Mellieħa be called villages anymore? Our buildings have burst out of their confines and joined up to form a continuous, developed area. It all forms one shared, interconnected place, including roads, garbage, noise, construction, the schools, the hospital and the university.

Towns and villages function like diverse districts of a sprawling suburbia, merging into one another

Some areas are still separated by a few fields, but here we are talking of relatively tiny stretches of land. It is impossible to go for a walk anywhere in Malta without spotting a building within minutes.

The Portomaso Tower at St Julian’s can be seen from a wide distance. Once more skyscrapers are built, their occupants will be able to see practically from one end of the island to the other, making it look even smaller. These tall buildings will be visible from everywhere, and like huge watchtowers they will be able survey the entire landscape below.

People resist the idea that they are living in a city, or in one large urban conglomeration. Yet if planned and managed well, cities can be desirable places to live in. Today over half the world’s population lives in cities, and urban life has its attractions. But it must offer healthy and amenable spaces, not heaps of dust, noise and traffic. ‘Malta City’ is polluted and congested. It may be generating wealth and prosperity, but it is also creating problems.

We need creative thinking and a new mindset to continue to make this country work. Besides changing urban realities, the social fabric is also being transformed with an influx of new nationalities and cultures. The solutions of the past will not work in the future. The changes we are experiencing are too fundamental.

Being negative is ok

The Nationalist Party leadership appears to be approaching the criticism of being ‘negative’ by dampening its voice. It largely blends in, quite uninspiringly, with the rest of the political fray. If the PN wants to make some kind of impact it needs to sharpen its swords, as the PL has successfully managed to put a lid on the impact of the Opposition with this tactic.

At this rate, when the nation eventually tires of the current government, it will truly have nowhere to turn as the PN will simply offer more of the same.

The two parties agree on far too many things to be able to distinguish one from the other. Except in the trust ratings of their two leaders, where Joseph Muscat soars ahead of Adrian Delia.

In line with this pattern, the appointment of George Vella as President of Malta has not created much of a stir among the PN upper ranks. They called it a missed opportunity and moved on. The usual low impact response. Having said that, I have nothing either for or against Vella, and he may well do an excellent job.

One positive aspect of the choice of Vella is that, more than the previous two incumbents, due to his age and position he is likely to settle into the post in the expected and time-tested way. On the other hand, both George Abela (appointed by a PN government) and Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca always gave the impression that they had far too much energy for the role. They hurtled about the country, putting their role and influence behind fund-raising for charity like there is no tomorrow. Coleiro Preca was a popular Cabinet minister, and the question remains why she was not left to carry on with her job in government.

The entire Office of the President is now overly associated with fund-raising, which is not the main purpose of the presidency, which has quite a different Constitutional function. The President needs to be fully content in the role of President, and not seem to wish that it was something else.

The beneficiaries of their fund-raising efforts are surely most appreciative, and understandably so. Supporting those in need is always admirable, and who can be negative about that?

If taken too far, the fund-raising activities of the Malta Community Chest Fund can however also put civil society groups at a disadvantage, easily absorbing a major chunk of the available funds from the private sector and then distributing them to their own choice of good causes. This is not a level playing field for civil society.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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