Parks are needed where people live

No amount of distant public parks can compensate for the lack of any breathing space from fumes and construction in one's own locality

The decision to create a national park in Birzebbugia, instead of an extension to the Freeport – and also to enlarge the existing Ta Qali national park – is good news, in the sense that it creates much-needed recreational space. 

But it should not be seen as a sort of compensation for inevitable overdevelopment in urban areas, and for the urban sprawl in the countryside.

At the risk of criticising an otherwise commendable project, both the Birzebbugia and Ta’ Qali sites – as well as the Majjistral park before them – lie ‘off the beaten path’, and for most people must be reached by car, which in a certain sense undermines part of their purpose: i.e., to maximise clean, fresh air.

But apart from this ‘technical’ digression: the planting of more trees is welcome anywhere… yet it is clearly needed most in the densely populated areas where a concentration of people live and breathe. No amount of distant public parks can compensate for the lack of any breathing space from fumes and construction in one’s own locality.

One must acknowledge the difficulty in providing such spaces in heavily built-up areas. In the Birzebbugia case, the demolition of a factory and its transformation in a public park required welcome government intervention. This underscores that the State has a role to play in reclaiming land for the community, even at the cost of compensating owners of derelict buildings. It also illustrates that the State can and sometimes does resort to this… raising inevitable questions as to why it is selective when it comes to expropriating land for public/social purposes.

Given the amount of vacant properties in heavily built-up urban areas, the measure should be contemplated more often: always, it must be insisted, on the basis of adequate compensation at current market prices. Ideally a national fund should be created for this purpose and committee appointed to give priority to sites/ buildings/gardens which can be expropriated and restored to public use – well, what’s the use of the National Development and Social Fund, anyway?

The gain in this case is that Maltese families have more recreational space for them to enjoy their weekends in peace and tranquillity.

But this should not be framed as a balancing act which absolves the government of its duty to protect the very neighbourhoods in which these people live. The scale of construction in urban areas has been unprecedented in the past years, thanks to the 2006 local plan policies and extension to the building zones, and their revision in favour of even more development under Labour after 2013.

Nor does it absolve government from protecting the countryside, which is increasingly under pressure by the multitude of small scale developments permitted under existing policies.

Unfortunately, the Labour government has only further tinkered with policies in favour of developers. This has turned Maltese neighbourhoods into veritable construction sites. Elderly people are practically spending the last years of their lives at the mercy of contractors.  After decades of bias for development, it is no longer the time for balancing acts – reminiscent of the decision by the Gonzi administration to declare Xaghra l-Hamra a natural park a year after extending development zones by an area the size of Siggiewi.

The balance must now shift in favour of the environment and local communities.

Politically, this has to be reflected in a shift from pro-business policies to pro-community policies.

On their part, businesses must also start perceiving themselves as being members of the community.

One also hopes that the government extends the same principle to other sites, especially those already earmarked for major development. The White Rocks site and Manoel Island are both cases in point. Moreover, in view of the government surplus, dishing more public land to accommodate more development is not on. Jerma is another case where government can intervene to reclaim back land to prevent high-rise development which would overshadow the local community, or the Trade Fair grounds in Naxxar, amongst others.

Ideally landowners may also show a sense of civic pride, relinquishing some of their development rights to leave a lasting legacy: something done by many landowning families in other countries who bestowed areas of public space to the community.

The timing of the launch of this public park was also unfortunate. Coming right in the middle of an electoral campaign, and in the face of criticism over the government’s environmental track record, it does come across as greenwash, simply for the reason that this positive step is not being accompanied by a radical revision of planning policies; and by giving the ERA a real say on the determination of planning applications. 

Consider that the Labour government is hell bent on proceeding with destructive projects like land reclamation and the Gozo tunnel; even changes to controversial policies such as the fuel stations rules seem will only take shape after the approval of even more fuel stations under the 2015 policy.

Meanwhile, people are being suffocated by development in their immediate environment. 

This problem needs an effective solution, which can only be brought about by reducing the scale of permissible development, intervening to create more public space to communities, and revising planning policies which make this onslaught possible.

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