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.

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.

March 2019