Overdevelopment: the elephant in the room

It is hard to shake off the notion that a public garden in Mosta, much needed though it is, is at the end of the day a bit of eye-candy in a village that is facing a massive development onslaught

Earlier this week, the urban greening agency Greenserv announced it will convert an abandoned field, by one of the Mosta windmills, into a new public garden.

Derelict, overgrown and full of trees, the area is known simply as Ċikku Fenech’s field, having been once tended to by the once notorious fugitive-murderer. It is roughly the size of a football pitch, and although uncultivated and abandoned, serves as a green lung, with various olive and cypress trees, in an already densely-developed part of Malta.

The €4.5 million project – which will “complement the current field with trees, natural passageways, and limestone” – is financed by the National Development and Social Fund (NDSF), the national passport sale fund, and administered by GreenServ.

So far, so good. On paper, this announcement does indeed seem a welcome departure, from the script that we have all become more accustomed to in recent years. 

At a time when the news cycle is so often dominated by the very opposite scenario – i.e., green spaces being earmarked for development, instead of the other way around – one can only hope that the Maltese government has finally understood that there is a limit to how much over-development this island can actually sustain.

Separately, the importance of green spaces was also given prominence in the conclusions reached by Malta’s National Post-Pandemic Strategy Steering Committee, when presenting its post-COVID roadmap at the end of June.

The committee, led by Prof. Simone Borg, said the pandemic had brought the importance of health and wellbeing “into sharp relief” and recognised the vital role of pleasant urban and natural settings.

“Recognising the vital role a pleasant urban and natural environment plays in health, happiness and the quality of our tourism offering, we will adopt a more cohesive, sustainable and forward-looking approach to planning and development – enhancing our towns and cultural heritage, preserving and creating public green spaces, and enhancing infrastructure to make cycling and walking safe and enjoyable,” the committee concluded.

From this perspective, the Mosta garden is certainly one of many attempts to make good on that promise. If so, however, the same project may also have inadvertently exposed the utmost limits of the same government’s national ‘greening’ strategy.

For there is a very unwelcome flipside to all this, from the point of view of the residents of surrounding Mosta neighbourhoods.  Although they will be undeniably gaining a new, public ‘green space’ – or at least, a refurbishment of a ‘garden’ that technically already exists – this will come at the expense of two massive urban development projects in the close vicinity.

A sprawling piece of agricultural land of 40,000sq.m that separates Mosta from the Durumblat Road in Attard, known as tad-Dib, is targeted for a massive development project by a group of landholders in the area. Another adjacent area, known as Ta’ Mellu, is also being zoned for 17.5m-high development across 36,000sq.m of agricultural land. 

Both these areas had been included in development boundaries back in 2006, when the Nationalist administration of the time extended the building zones by 16.6%, in one of the most controversial actions ever taken by the Gonzi administration.

Admittedly, all three of these projects are unrelated to each other; and in any case, by its own admission, government is powerless to reverse the mistakes made in 2006.

Yet – when viewed as a correlative for overdevelopment as a whole – the fate of this small corner of Malta may also be indicative of a wider, more insidious problem. It appears to be yet another case where residents are being ‘short-changed’ – in this case, gaining a deserved token of compensation, for the loss of a much larger tract of land.

Mosta residents – like all Maltese citizens, everywhere – will surely notice that the ‘status quo’ retained by the Labour administration on development zones (even enabling further development in rural areas) happens to be very convenient: both for the development lobby itself, and also for political parties that depend on it for their own financing.

Applied to this particular scenario, that may even seem like an unfair conclusion to reach. But when you consider that the present administration has presided over the single largest development drive this country has ever seen, whilst also dragging its feet on its own promises of planning reform… it is hard to shake off the notion that a public garden in Mosta, much needed though it is, is at the end of the day a bit of eye-candy in a village that is facing a massive development onslaught.

This is not a criticism of the government’s drive for urban greening. Indeed, it should be earmarking more private tracts of land that can become gigantic urban parks, allowing for greater mobility from distant points in villages without the need for cars. But it would be remiss of this newspaper not to point out the elephant in the room… our national failure to ever properly address public concerns about rampant overdevelopment.