'You can’t just go into a community and impose your project' – Valletta Mayor

During a workshop on the newly-announced Valletta Design Cluster, Valletta Mayor Alexiei Dingli stressed the importance of engaging fully with the community on cultural projects, while reiterating his suggestion to open up the Archbishop’s palace garden. 

Valletta Design Cluster Project Manager Caldon Mercieca with workshop speakers Antoine Zammit and Pawlu Mizzi (centre)
Valletta Design Cluster Project Manager Caldon Mercieca with workshop speakers Antoine Zammit and Pawlu Mizzi (centre)
Valletta mayor Alexiei Dingli
Valletta mayor Alexiei Dingli

"You can't just go into a community and impose your project. Ideally, the project should come from within the community, and then be tweaked accordingly into a larger project," Valletta Mayor Alexiei Dingli said during a workshop discussion on the proposed Valletta Design Cluster - a space which will occupy the former civil abattoir (Biccerija).

He was responding to an intervention by Valletta 2018 Planning Coordinator Margerita Pule, who confessed that the Foundation's efforts to entice the Valletta 2018 community to take part in its project were rarely successful.

The workshop was in fact focused on community engagement in the context of the Valletta Design Cluster, which has just entered its initial stages. An initiative by the Cultural Directorate within the Ministry for Culture, the Cluster will ostensibly serve as a hub for established designers and young start-ups in the field. However, given the economically sensitive 'Djubali' area of Valletta in which the cluster will be positioned, the participants in the workshop were challenged to discuss ways in which the area could even be improved by this new development.

Held at the Fortress Builders in Valletta, the workshop included members of the Valletta Design Cluster team, Design Students, Valletta residents and businesses, Valletta Local Council, University of Malta and the Valletta 2018 Foundation.

Welcoming the project, Dingli added that the Cluster could be a good jumping-off point to fully harness Valletta’s creative potential, citing the ongoing regeneration of Strait Street and the Carnival float-building community. He also suggested that a link be forged with the nearby St Elmo’s Primary School and the Design Cluster, commenting that, “for whatever reason, there’s a stigma against Valletta schools. So I’m going to suggest that the Design Cluster could possibly ‘adopt’ the students of this school who are interested in Art and Design,” Dingli said.

Dingli also reiterated that the nearby Archbishop’s palace garden could be opened up for visitors, so as to give Valletta a much-needed “green lung”, and that the establishment of the Cluster nearby could be an added incentive for this to finally happen.

Pawlu Mizzi of the Valletta Forum – a consultative body within the Valletta 2018 Foundation – spoke about his door-to-door meetings with Djubali residents, during which he asked them what they thought about the project in principle, while also allowing them to expand on their concerns about the area in general.

Most of Mizzi’s interviewees appeared to be happy that something was being done about the area, period. “Their first reaction was that they didn’t care about what would happen inside the actual building – they were excited about it being regenerated in the first place,” Mizzi said, while also recounting how an 82-year-old woman that he spoke to emphasised that the historic fountain in the area was an important meeting place back in the day.

“She told me how the girls would meet and sing ghana near the fountain, while the boys would accompany them with guitars.” Two other interviewees – a pair of brothers Mizzi described as being particularly ‘energetic’ – said the area used to have “a good buzz”.

Mizzi added that the community feeling among the residents of the Djuballi neighbourhood remained very strong, and that this should be taken in consideration as the Design Cluster moves forward. He also said that the fragile wall which faces the area from the St Christopher’s Street side was repeatedly flagged up as a concern among residents.