MALTA DIARY: Territorial struggles, town and village cores in decline, urban spread eats countryside away
the regal Porto built by the Knights as Valletta’s entrance, later named Kingsgate by the British.
Even though he loved every single moment of his appointment here, the Palestinian Ambassador to Malta once described Malta to me as “one street in Cairo” because of vast over-population and scarcity of space.
Mind you, that was 30 years ago and since then the Ambassador has passed away to a – hopefully – better life. Were he to come back he would be flabbergasted at the population increase since then and the further decimation of open spaces.
This is one of the smallest countries in the world, the smallest country in the EU and in square area much smaller than Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Cyprus and Crete, yet still one of the most over-populated.
Unsurprisingly therefore, the struggle for land is infinite, strongly affected by commercial interests continually clashing with conservation movements, both sides impinged upon by a further struggle between modernisation, economic profit and the necessity to conserve, preserve and safeguard heritage and breathing spaces. More often than not the political sphere becomes caught up in the helter-skelter by trying to balance the need for economic investment with the often vociferous pleas of alarmed environment and nature lovers.
Even so, the situation is vastly more complicated than that. Over the last 30 years there has not only been urban development, there has also been substantial urban shift of population for various reasons. Inner core town and village localities in places like Hamrun, Floriana, Valletta and Birkirkara has seen the younger generations move out to more spacious new regions to places like San Gwann, Bugibba, Qawra, Marsascala and Mellieha.
Many old time houses, particularly in Hamrun, Floriana and Valletta have been vacated, have remained empty and have fallen into disrepair with former inhabitants either passing away or younger generations having more finance, seeking more open space and particularly seeking parking space.
Simultaneously, the outer fringe areas of a number of towns and villages have expanded and grown with an explosion of new buildings, places like Gudja, Ghaxaq, Safi, Kirkop, Mqabba, Mosta, Mellieha, Mgarr, Dingli and many others.
Construction companies have been kept busy either tearing down the old to rebuild the new or otherwise encroaching on virgin land. Their concern is not with heritage, architecture and history but with making money.
This forced the Government to draw up definitions between Development Zones and Outside Development Zones (ODZ). A Planning Authority was established to ensure conformity and observation of regulations but abuses and shady deals have been rampant – with many fingers pointed at politicians.
Alarmed by the changes and deeply concerned at growing encroachment and loss of valued heritage buildings, ‘Din l-Art Helwa’ (This Sweet Land) was founded some 40 years ago as a volunteer organisation and since then has entered into ongoing wrangles with developers, contractors, the Government and the Planning Authority.
With more and more space being filled with development, a number of other volunteer organisations have come to life to join forces with ‘Din l-Art Helwa’.
Over the last five years the situation has escalated with constant protest marches, Planning Authority reforms and political accusations of abuse and malpractice, usually directed at political opponents.
Construction of the new Valletta parliament building and the renovation of adjacent areas at the city entrance brought controversy and conflict to a head and since then countless protests and counter-protests have escalated sharply.
One such case developed last week. The Planning Authority gave the go-ahead for the demolition of a row of six town houses built in 1920 in Sliema to be replaced by apartments, penthouses and parking spaces.
‘Din l-Art Helwa’, two other organisations, the Sliema Local Council and Sliema citizens expressed their rage claiming the old houses were built art deco style and therefore need to be preserved as architectural heritage. This naturally is of no concern to developers and contractors who see multi-euro profit in the development.
In most cases what is done is done and cannot be undone. Empty spaces and the countryside have been gradually eaten away and there is growing sentiment that what is left must be left while administratively and financially administrators and developers insist that modernisation and employment are of more importance.
Conservationists are pressing to persuade the developers to at least retain the old house fronts as happened at Valletta’s Waterfront where all the facades were renovated but the interiors converted into plush restaurants and offices.
One cannot talk of a balance after the huge imbalance of the last 30 years while Old Malta and New Malta struggle to co-habit – albeit, uneasily.
And to complicate matters Malta has been named as having the world’s most scenic airport landing in the world in a poll conducted by the private jet booking service PrivateFly!
Constructors, developers and the economically-driven will smugly say “there you are – a load of fuss about nothing – we haven’t scarred This Sweet Land!”
Din l-Art Helwa and all other conservationist groups will counter-claim their hard-work has been recognised and acknowledged.
The final word, one voter commented: “Landing on this gem in the Mediterranean Sea is not to be missed! The islands of Malta and Gozo fit into your window…the sea, the blue skies, the landscape, the greenery, the cities, the temples, and all the colours that this beautiful island has to offer. Beats any landing by far!”
More about this scenic landing in a future article.