Limited space calls for limited development

The organisers of ‘Kamp Emergenza Ambjent’ were perfectly justified in describing the ongoing destruction of the natural environment as an emergency

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The recent occupation of Castille Square by activists and environmentalists is a timely reminder the clock is ticking, and ticking fast.

Land use might not top the national agenda, at least among politicians and the media. But that may be more a reflection of the standards of national debate, than an indication that all is well on the environmental front.

On the contrary, there is a canker eating away at the system, and it largely takes the form of an inability to distinguish between the short-term benefits of economic progress, and the irreplaceability of the limited land we offer up for unbridled development each year.

Even if popular concern may not be at its highest today, the pressures exerted by a growing population and economic growth, as well as the unchecked urban sprawl caused by the lopsided planning policies of successive governments, will possibly make it the most important issue for future generations.

The organisers of last week’s ‘Kamp Emergenza Ambjent’ were perfectly justified in describing the ongoing destruction of the natural environment as an emergency. Emulating similar movements spawned by ‘Occupy Wall Street’ in the USA, the protest caught the attention of many, and also made the point that citizens can and will take a stand in favour of the environment and against its exploitation for purely commercial reasons.

This is at it should be, because if there’s one thing that in theory belongs to each and every citizen, it is the land under our collective feet. Naturally this doesn’t imply physical ownership… but it is nonetheless a sense of belonging that unites us as a nation, and also serves to remind the powers that be that ‘land use’ can only be considered a matter for national concern.

Of particularly critical importance at this stage is the need to prevent further loss of land outside the development zones. This is crucial, because when more and more parcels of supposedly ‘protected’ landscape are sacrificed for development, it is not just the land itself that is lost forever: it is also the notion of laws which supposedly safeguard and protect the unbuilt environment.

On this score, the present government has a lot to answer for. In its drive to justify its controversial ‘American University’ project, it has tampered with the Structure Plan to facilitate such projects… making the possible development of more ODZ land almost a matter of government policy.

All the same, the loss of land and open spaces is not restricted to ODZ. This week, independent MP Marlene Farrugia said she would table a motion in parliament calling to suspend divestment of public land to private investors and a moratorium on new large-scale developments. 

Farrugia’s announcement comes in the wake of controversy over plans to build a 36-storey tower on the Villa Rosa area at St George’s Bay, as well as plans to develop two towers on the former ITS site in St Julian’s. 

None of the proposed developments is ODZ, but this does not mean there is no cause for concern. People are rightly worried at an unstoppable construction drive that is fast turning the entire island into a building site. There is such a thing as a need to prevent overdevelopment in urban areas, and to give communities some breathing space from all the noise, traffic and air pollution.

Has a social impact assessment been carried out on turning Tigne or St Julians into a highrise zone? Will any be conducted for other areas? 

The size of the individual projects is also a concern. High rise is not intrinsically wrong or right. It would make sense to build up instead of sideways. The problem is that instead of replacing other buildings, tower blocks are complementing existing buildings, adding to the cementification of areas such as Sliema, Gzira and St Julian’s… with Mriehel, Qawra, Bugibba, Marsa, Marsaskala and elsewhere likely to follow suit. 

So far, Malta’s approach to such sensitive issues has been too amateur and haphazard. In order to devise effective and judicious land use policies, three very important considerations have to be taken into account: the environmental, social and economic aspects. 

Each facet is equally important, however, in specific situations, any one aspect can assume more importance than the others. And that is where our legislators and policy makers come in; as it is they who have the responsibility to give strategic direction to the planning sector.

A moratorium is commendable. It should not be restricted to ODZ, but also to planned developments within development zones as these could be equally damaging in environmental and economic terms. 

There are social considerations also. While everybody recognises land as the country’s most precious asset, irrational decisions by our policy makers have increased in step with property prices.

Instead of looking into the needs of residents and striking a balance between social, environmental and economic needs, it seems that politicians are hellbent on accommodating a few developers who look at high rise and mega projects as a way to maximise their profits. 

Balance is not easy to reach. It needs courageous politicians. But Malta’s limited space clearly calls for limitations on development, before it is too late. 

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