Article 3 of the Development Planning Act 2016 states that: “It shall be the duty of the government to enhance the quality of life for the benefit of the present and future generations, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, through a comprehensive sustainable land use planning system, and to that effect… to preserve, use and develop land and sea for this and future generations, whilst having full regard to environmental, social and economic needs.”
Therefore, the government’s primary duty through the Planning Authority is to “enhance the quality of life for the benefit of the present and future generations”. But is this really happening? Let us see what is happening to the current generations living in Gżira.
Ever since the building craze started, Gżira is being torn apart in large chunks. The traditional two-storey streetscapes are fast disappearing, to be replaced by ever higher blocks of characterless flats. The population is under siege by cranes, trucks, barriers, concrete mixers and tower cranes.
According to the mayor of Gżira, there are 150 building sites in a town that covers just one square kilometre. No attention is being paid to the spatial quality of the town. Tall buildings are being built on top of streets that were designed for low buildings. This means less light is reaching the lower levels of the buildings, less and less sunlight is reaching the streets, and more and more shadows and humidity.
The community is being disintegrated and long-term residents are being replaced by an anonymous, transient population with no ties to the town and no time to grow roots. The vast majority of this nomadic population does not start families in Gżira.
Needless to point out that Gżira has no open spaces, and the ever higher buildings give the area a claustrophobic feel with no relief in sight.
As in other parts of Malta, all these developments are being made without a plan. No social impact assessment was ever made on the area before the building frenzy started. No assessment of the damage being wrought to the sense of community and the ties that bind it. Gżira was a very homogenous working-class town. No assessment was ever made on the impact building speculators have on people. Quality of life has been thrown to the dogs.
The only redeeming feature of the town is the seafront facing the picturesque Marsamxett Harbour and the open spaces afforded across the port towards Sliema, Valletta, Floriana, Pietà, Gwardamangia, Ta’ Xbiex and Manoel Island, which gave the town its name.
Imagine our own Central Park in the middle of the city, surrounded by water
But even this is being degraded and taken away from the town. First there was the approval of a lido to serve four hotels and large restaurants on the seaward side of the promenade. This has already severed the connection between the people and the sea, interrupting the view across the harbour from Triq Ix-Xatt (The Strand).
Then, infamous permits were issued for huts to be built on the pavement and street on the building side of Triq ix-Xatt. This formerly pleasing pavement connecting the various parts of the town which people used for their daily interaction has been transformed into a private food court. The precious views are blocked by huts while pavements are taken over by diners and drinkers.
It is no longer pleasant to walk the pavements and for the community to interact. It is not pleasant to be forced to pass through six or seven restaurants and pubs to get from one point to another.
There are hosts of problems caused by these huts. Far from enhancing the quality of life, people are seeing their neighbourhood going down the drain.
Although one is grateful to the Foundation for the Guardianship of Manoel Island for having obtained improvements to the horrendous contract conditions that Parliament had unanimously approved in 2000, in favour of MIDI, the plans for Manoel Island today still foresee that a large part of the remaining open spaces in Gżira will be taken up by buildings.
Alternattiva Demokratika has always been very vociferous in its opposition to this building frenzy. The very limited recreational facilities, such as the slipway facility for the small boat enthusiasts, are also planned for elimination.
Gżira residents are concerned that their quality of life is rapidly deteriorating and want to protect what is left of their city centre, that is, Triq ix-Xatt. It is clear that there is a need for a holistic plan for the whole of Sliema Creek, to seek a balance between the leisure and recreational needs of the citizens and the commercial and tourist requirements.
In addition to this plan for Sliema Creek, the government needs to pay attention to Gżira itself. The famed architectural firm Foster & Partners had lamented in their Project Development Statement on Manoel Island: “It is a well-known reality that the local plans which were approved between 1995 and 2006 (including the North Harbour Local Plan, which, among other things, covers Gżira) are weak with respect to the spatial organisation of residential areas.”
Foster & Partners describe “haphazard development of the inner zones of Gżira” and suggest that “the principal mitigation measure would be the upgrading, by the Government of Malta, of the local area policies for Gżira, which should include effective policies through which high quality urban and landscape design interventions would be realised”.
It is clear that Manoel Island should be a central part of a holistic plan for Sliema Creek, which has not seen any significant public investment for close to 50 years. Ideally, Manoel Island should become a heritage and nature park for the densely populated conurbation surrounding Marsamexett Harbour.
Imagine our own Central Park in the middle of the city, surrounded by water. Imagine a haven for leisure and recreation for residents and tourists alike.
It is not too late to correct the error made 25 years ago when the development brief for Manoel Island was issued. Neither are we to late for Gżira.
I join the call by Foster & Partners to the government of Malta to intervene in the matter to implement the “high quality urban and landscape design interventions” that would protect the wellbeing of the Gżira community, the character of the harbour town, the recreational facilities for residents, the open views across Marsamxett and the whole of Sliema Creek.
Arnold Cassola, a candidate for the MEP elections, is former secretary general of the European Green Party.
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