Times of Malta, 26th September 2008 – Editorial

News confirming that Malta is by far the most crowded country in the European Union adds to the frustration of those prone to feeling claustrophobic living in such restricted land space. This may explain why more and more people are travelling abroad nowadays. One consolation perhaps is that the island is very close to the European mainland as Sicily is only 93 kilometres away.

The finding gives greater weight to the argument in favour of preserving the little open spaces that still exist. Playwright George Bernard Shaw is once reputed to have said that Malta was the nicest heap of stones he had ever seen. It is not a nice compliment, though he sugared it a bit, but, had he been alive today, he would find a jungle of ugly concrete instead of a heap of stones.

Many past idyllic places have given way to a kind of development, often of no architectural value at all, that has stripped them of their former charm. Tower Road, in Sliema is not the Tower Road those over 60 remember so well. The frenetic development of this particular area is often given as one of the best examples of how development has gradually changed the face of Malta. Over the years, houses of character and other structures that blended so well with the environment of particular streets in towns and villages have been pulled down to be replaced by concrete monstrosities.

The country is today looking at development differently and is trying to preserve the little that has remained but this is not proving easy as controversies often arise over permits given, or not given, for specific projects. The latest protest, that over a proposed development – now rejected – in Lija, next to the Belvedere in oleander-lined Transfiguration Avenue, may be given as an example of the new awareness that has been generated over the impact of development on sensitive urban locations. An ugly mechanical excavator now sits in a gaping hole, a reminder of how new development can scar a beautiful location, not just in Lija but in places all over the island.

Of course, the argument is not one against all development. Indeed, building upwards, rather than horizontally, saves land space. The call is therefore for the preservation of what is worth safeguarding in the course of such development.

With hindsight, the island could have been more alert in the past to avoid making glaring mistakes in the rampant development that has taken place, including legal or illegal constructions right on, or far too close to, the foreshore. This has marred many a beautiful site. It was the new awareness over the damage that can be done to the environment by new development that had forced the government to back down from plans to allow the building of a golf course in a site that many felt ought to be left untouched.

Street after street in so many places are gradually losing buildings that once helped give localities their individual identity. If this trend continues, such identity will be lost forever. Again, this is not meant as a requiem for old Malta but as a strong spur to whoever is in charge of preserving all that is worth preserving to keep vigilant and not to give in to pressure, wherever it comes from. Over-crowding should add that extra thrust to the ongoing drive at ensuring careful planning and development.