The challenges of livability in a nightlife mecca

Seminar on Paceville deems its urban livability problematic, condemns ‘rapacious and mean-minded’ development of area

Have we paid too high a price for turning Paceville into Malta’s key nightlife hub? Photo by David Pisani
Have we paid too high a price for turning Paceville into Malta’s key nightlife hub? Photo by David Pisani

In the first edition of a two-part symposium, the socio-cultural dynamics of Paceville were discussed by professionals and academics in various fields, who gathered at Europe House in Valletta last Wednesday for ‘The Future of Paceville’, organised by University of Malta’s Work in Progress in Social Studies initiative and chaired by anthropologist Elise Billiard. 

Taking an overall cue from Billiard’s anthropological research into Paceville – culminating in the paper ‘When the Dark Night Rises’ and the photographic essay Night and Day – the assembled speakers plumbed both Paceville’s past and future to address perennial problems related to the livability and sustainability of Malta’s prime nightlife hub. 

Opening his talk with the truism that “true quality [in urban spaces] occurs when places are allowed to form”, architect Antoine Zammit said that Paceville has been severely compromised as a communal and urban space because of a lack of long-term planning. 

In his talk, entitled ‘Good streets form the backbone of the places we love’, Zammit acknowledges that when looked at solely as an entertainment and nightlife district, Paceville is an unmitigated success. He also said that, barring the inconvenient proximity of the nightclubs to the residential area, Paceville is a place that “on paper” should function comfortably as a residential district, since all amenities are within a five-minute walking distance at any given point. 

However, Zammit said that, “Paceville has failed as a thriving urban community,” adding that an endemic “lack of foresight” has “failed daytime Paceville”, leading to superficial and knee-jerk “design fixes” such as new paving and street furniture, which give the impression of an improving and cleaner urban space while doing nothing to address the more significant and deep-rooted problems. 

Zammit added that the emergence of affluent gated communities like Pendergardens will only contribute to the increasing fragmentation of Paceville, as they exist to be exclusionary by their very nature, and so will fail to “knit themselves into the rest of the community”. 

Putting the situation down to the “fragmented nature of land ownership, as well as the inadequacy of the forward-looking planning system”, Zammit said that Paceville is now at a crucial point, as more of its sites are ripe for redevelopment. Zammit observed that this should make those responsible mindful of the tensions between “individual ownership and flexible planning”, calling for a re-think of the buzzword ‘sustainability’ in favour of ‘responsible design’. 

Zammit also commented on the ‘Portomaso garden’. Previously a traditional public garden colonized by inebriated youths at night, it is now a “sanitized – that is, dead,” space, according to Zammit, and which fails to serve its function as a community-friendly public park at night. 

The garden proved to be a rich prompt for discussion, as the younger members in the audience commented how the garden – previously a key element of the Paceville experience, offering space for youths to consume alcohol at lower prices before hitting the clubs – has now been effectively erased for the benefit of the affluent tenants of Portomaso. 

In fact, architect Jacques Borg Barthet explicitly stated that the Portomaso park was “designed to be useless”, insisting that he does not mean this as a flippant comment but as a true reflection of its ultimate purpose: to keep people away as much as possible, which ensures that it remains pristine for the sake of Portomaso tenants and apartment owners who overlook it. 

Borg Barthet bemoaned how economic interests have ridden roughshod over the public interest in Paceville, with tourism and entertainment “placed at the forefront at the expense of the local community”. 

Borg Barthet put this down to a “neoliberal drive evident in cities everywhere – a model that we aspire to”, and as being endemic to “governments which have no money, and so celebrate and encourage private initiatives”. He claimed that the only palpable step forward is to lobby for a governmental infrastructure that matters, since, according to Borg Barthet, “MEPA [the Malta Environment and Planning Authority] has very little powers of intervention – it is actually designed as such,” and that even local councils are limited in the kind of tangible change that they can bring about. 

Archaeologist Reuben Grima said that an earlier statement by Elise Billiard – in which she claimed that Paceville is an “urban laboratory for the future of Malta” – was what spurred him to start thinking about Paceville, an area he doesn’t often consider in his capacity as an archaeologist, for reasons that are perhaps obvious. 

“When I first heard that statement by Elise, I found it a bit odd to think about, to be honest, but things have happened since which have been sobering in this regard,” Grima said. Some of these ‘things’ include a “very limited discussion on carrying capacity and height limits for development”, along with ideas which seek to emulate the Paceville model in other parts of Malta, such as the oft-flagged “Paceville in the South” idea, as well as developments like cruise liner terminals at Marsamxett Harbour. 

Grima also cited a telling example of how the Paceville model pushes out access to even our historical heritage, supposedly the epitome of what should be ‘public’. Reminding those present that a Lascaris-era tower is still standing in Paceville, Grima revealed a tragi-comic twist: the tower, originally built to be very visible indeed, is now hidden by the surrounding hotel complex of Corinthia San Gorg. 

“Here you even see the commodification of the parking spots – I was forced to pay for parking just to be able to see the tower – which by its very definition should be visible by all,” Grima said, adding that no progress has been made in terms of responsible design for Paceville “since the 1960s”, describing its ongoing development as “rapacious and mean-minded”. 

The next and final session, ‘The Future of Paceville’, will take place at Europe House, Valletta on April 22 at 5.30pm, and will include among its speakers journalist James Debono and anthropologists John Micallef and Margerite Pace-Bonello.