From ‘more green spaces’… to ‘war on green spaces’

The same Labour government that promised us a ‘green reclamation’ of ‘high-population, high traffic zones’, is now proposing to “develop a section of open public space on the Ta’ Xbiex promenade into offices and a restaurant”

Environmental NGO Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar said Transport Malta’s project would be depriving the public of around 585sq.m or half a tumolo of public land
Environmental NGO Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar said Transport Malta’s project would be depriving the public of around 585sq.m or half a tumolo of public land

And in just seven months, too! That’s how long it took, for Prime Minister Robert Abela to not only ‘forget’ about the many promises he himself once made, to “increase urban public spaces” by “turning parking zones into green parks”…

… but to deliver the clean opposite instead: by transforming ‘green parks’ – including at least one in my own neighbourhood (more of which in a sec) – into ‘zones for increased urban development’: even in areas which are already among the most severely overdeveloped, and ultra-congested, on the entire planet…

But still: to be fair, seven months is indeed a long time. So just in case you, too, have forgotten all about those tantalising, mesmerising, pre-electoral ‘green promises’ – and who can blame you? It’s not a though we’ve given many reminders, recently – let’s jog our collective memory a little, shall we?

On February 21 of this year, Robert Abela addressed a press conference flanked by Miriam Dalli – who was Sustainability Minister, at the time – and Aaron Farrugia, who was still minister for the environment.

Together, they unveiled a ‘seven-year plan to increase green spaces in several localities’; and the Prime Minister, in particular, told us that:

“Cars are dominating spaces that people used to meet in, and children used to play around. Our government wants to give these spaces back to the people”; and “the Labour Party would embark on several urban greening projects, including a scheme to buy up private properties in urban spaces to be used as open areas – a process called urban ‘green reclamation’.”

The same chorus-line would be taken up by Miriam Dalli less than a week later: when she wrote an article, in this newspaper, under the headline: ‘The green space next door’.

Here are a couple of choice quotes: “There was a time when children could safely play in the village square. With the amount of cars and parking which has taken over much of the space, this is hardly possible, if at all”;

“It is abundantly clear that our citizens seek green spaces, even more so in the aftermath of the pandemic months. […] Creating green spaces in urban areas is essential for the wellbeing of residents, not only because green spaces absorb greenhouse gases and improve air quality, but also because they have a positive impact on our mental health…”

And of course, all of that got itself included in the Labour Party’s 2022 electoral manifesto… which specified (among countless other ‘green-tinted’ pledges) that: “Residents who live in high-population, high-traffic zones deserve better. We want to transform our most urbanised localities into ‘Green Cities’, through the creation of open spaces, pocket parks, green walls, roof gardens, and permanent pedestrian zones, with the possibility of underground parking lots…”, etc. etc.

Right: let’s stop our little ‘trip down memory lane’ here, for now. Because as I’m sure you can already see for yourselves… we may as well be reading a fantasy novel, at this stage. (And I have a very specific one in mind, too: Frank L. Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’… where cities DO actually appear ‘green’; but only because they’re viewed through ‘green-tinted’ lenses…)

No sooner do you tear your gaze away from that enticing ‘green vision’, however… well, it’s like that moment when Toto finally pulls the curtain away, to reveal the ‘Humbug’ at work behind the scenes.

Because that’s what It all boils down to, you know. Humbug. And like Toto, I can prove it, too… just by looking at this week’s headlines.

For now, I’ll focus only on the one that represents the most glaring (and quite frankly, alarming) departure, from that February 2022 press conference: ‘Transport Malta applies to build restaurant and offices on Ta’ Xbiex seafront’.

Now: I stand to be corrected, of course… but last I looked, ‘Transport Malta’ was (and still is, according to its own website) “a government body overseeing transport in Malta”, which “[falls] under the authority of the Maltese Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure.”

And, well, what do you know? Today’s Transport Minister just happens to be none other than Aaron Farrugia himself… that’s right, folks! The same Aaron Farrugia who had flanked the Prime Minister, as ‘Environment Minister’, during that same press conference seven months ago…

But in any case: unlike so many other recent development applications – which, despite all those ‘green promises’, still threaten to take even more ‘open space’ away from the people; and simply hand it over to a consortium of private, commercial interests – this application was actually submitted BY THE GOVERNMENT ITSELF.

(And, just to add a little extra insult to injury: by the self-same minister who so recently assured us his government would be doing the very opposite…  ‘if given a fresh mandate in the coming general election’.…)

Either way, however: the same Labour government that promised us a ‘green reclamation’ of ‘high-population, high traffic zones’, is now proposing to [and here I quote]: “develop a section of open public space on the Ta’ Xbiex promenade into offices and a restaurant. […] If approved by the PA, the plans will see almost 600 square metres of space between Gżira Gardens and the yacht marina quay transformed into office space with meeting rooms, a shop, a restaurant and toilet.” 

What these quotes do not tell us, however – presumably, because it is common knowledge anyway – is that the Ta’ Xbiex seafront (and especially, the adjacent public garden) happens to represent the last remaining morsel of ‘open space’, in what is effectively one of the most densely populated part of THE ENTIRE PLANET.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. This, for instance, is from the latest population and housing census (2021): “Looking at population growth at the regional level, the northern harbour district [which includes Sliema, Gzira, Ta’ Xbiex and Msida] registered the biggest increase since 2011, with the region’s population growing by a massive 47%, equivalent to an additional 30,000 people…”

In Sliema alone, we are told, the population density stands at “1,649 persons per square kilometre”: having grown by almost exactly a quarter, over the last 10 years… which makes it the highest-density town, of the eighth most densely-populated country in the entire world.

All of which should, by this point, be ‘reminding’ our Prime Minister of a certain little ‘something’ he has clearly forgotten, since last February.

What was it, again, that Robert Abela promised about ‘residents who live in high-population, high-traffic zones’? Didn’t he tell us that “Cars are dominating spaces that people used to meet in, and children used to play around”; and that his government “wanted to give these spaces back to the people”?

Well, it’s hard to imagine a more complete and utter reversal of that policy, than what Robert Abela’s government is actually doing right now. Because as far as I can see, this Ta’ Xbiex development application will not just reduce what is arguably the only available ‘public space’ left, in the entire north harbour region, by at least 600 square-metres; it will also eat further into a public garden, which is around the only ‘open space’ available – quite literally, in a radius of almost five miles – where ‘children can still play in relative safety’.

And for what purpose? Why, to accommodate the government agency responsible for… TRANSPORT, of all goddamn things!  I mean: how much more ‘symbolic’ can you even get? Far from ‘giving those spaces back to the people’… what Robert Abela is actually doing (or trying to do, anyway) is ‘taking those spaces AWAYS from the people’…

… and giving them to…


Honestly, though: what does that actually tell us, about Robert Abela’s ‘green credentials’? And what does it tell us, about all those claims made by Miriam Dalli – who is now Environment Minister, if you please – about how ‘essential’ green spaces are, ‘for the wellbeing of residents […] because they have a positive impact on our mental health…”?

Well, to be fair, it does at least tell us that she was perfectly right, at the time. For as a long-term resident of Malta’s most severely ‘high-population, high-density’ locality, myself… I can easily attest to the truth of that statement: and again, just by taking a cursory look at the reality unfolding all around us, at any given moment.

Yes, ‘green spaces’ do undeniably ‘have a positive impact on our mental health’ – because let’s face it. We never had very much of them, to begin with; we are losing what little remains, with each passing week... and, well, just look at us, as a result.

We are all, very clearly, ‘losing our marbles’…