Times of Malta 15 March 2010, by Fiona Galea Debono –

The newly-appointed executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa has no intention of resisting change at all costs, following in the footsteps of her predecessors.

“Heritage management is about change management, which means adapting and finding uses for restored properties,” Petra Bianchi insists.

DLĦ, one of the country’s main heritage NGOs, around since the 1960s, may be considered moderate by some. And Dr Bianchi adds that it does not come across as extremist to maintain credibility, defending its stance by saying “we try not to get stuck hard and fast into a negative view of change.

“It is never a question of two opposing poles: preserve exactly as is or totally destroy. You need to find ways to conserve, change and continue to use”.

In fact, DLĦ is now focusing on the use of the properties it has restored and how to integrate them into the economy. Losing heritage does not only mean losing identity but is also a loss in terms of tourism, for example, she points out.

Restored properties cannot remain static or they would just be a constant drain on resources. So, over the coming years, DLĦ is considering various options, including simple refurbishment for an improved visitors’ experience and more commercial uses, including catering and weekend breaks to generate revenue.

Dr Bianchi is not new to the scene, having been actively involved in DLĦ since 2004. But she is the first woman in a line of four male presidents and, while she does not give this too much weight, she considers it a “sign of the times”.

Among the changes she is experiencing is the widening of the notions of heritage and the evolution of priorities from the built to natural environment.

Heritage is going more mainstream in terms of political thinking and also in the public’s appreciation of it, Dr Bianchi says.

Speaking a day after a national rally by environment NGOs only attracted a couple of hundreds, she preferred not to comment on the numbers, blaming the turnout on the inclement weather and, possibly, the broad agenda it tackled.

DLĦ had declined an invitation to participate in the rally as organisers due to the other NGOs’ stand against the Valletta entrance project, which it has pronounced itself in favour of.

“As many came as could; they walked and showed their concerns,” she said. “We were unable to participate on these grounds, which were strongly promoted during the rally. We have never emphasised any rifts with any NGOs and, in fact, we work well with several, including BirdLife, Nature Trust and Gaia Foundation. Of course, you cannot agree on every issue and I think it is important to accept that.”

DLĦ has never changed its views on having Parliament in Freedom Square, she said. “We were in favour of it from the start from an aesthetic and heritage point of view,” she says.

As to the roofless theatre on the old opera house ruins, another sticking point, DLĦ is convinced that, aesthetically, it will be an interesting space, even though it would not meet all demands, having space and weather limitations.

The proposal to turn the Mediterranean Conference Centre, in Valletta, into a multifunctional theatre “seems like another solution” to have both an outdoor and indoor space, Dr Bianchi believes.

“The point is that we are open to ideas… We have always stated our views on what we thought was bad and even what we thought was good. Valletta is a good project and we promote it.”

DLĦ welcomes the “sorely needed” national environment strategy, launched recently and expected to be complete in 18 months.

“We need to bring everything together, including tourism and heritage. It is not easy to do and even harder to get everyone to buy into and implement it but the situation is getting more critical and we cannot wait any longer. The damage is already enormous.”

One of the biggest and most irreparable mistakes in Dr Bianchi’s view is the critical extent of urban sprawl. “The amount of development is not reversible, so the line has to be drawn.”

It is not so much DLĦ’s high-profile battles that are its major ones, according to Dr Bianchi. The real fight is against the “ongoing, piecemeal changes in village cores, inappropriate restoration and uses, without a proper strategy and vision.

“Brick by brick, everything is being eroded.”