‘Shabby’ Paceville ambience overshadowed by Maltese Dubai

Anthropologist finds St Julian’s communal areas lacking while privatisation gobbles up public space

Portomaso has been described as “a slice of Dubai” and an inward looking gated community that could serve as an “urban laboratory” for the future of Malta, in a study by anthropologist Elise Billiard recently published in international anthropology journal Omertaa.

“Portomaso, with its palm trees and manicured gardens is more akin to a slice of Dubai than anything remotely resembling Malta,” Billiard says in a critique on how the privatisation of public spaces in St Julian’s has accompanied the decline of urban connectivity in Paceville.

The study, which notes the way planning policies have favoured gated communities over public spaces and hamlets, refers to a 1989 government report that proposed a public promenade of luxury hotels extending from St George’s Bay to Spinola Bay. The report stressed the need to “reverse the present trend of resident population decline in the area by improving the ambience of Paceville”.

But the proposals were ignored, and instead just a few years after a permit was granted for the extension and reconstruction of the Sheraton and Hilton hotels to eventually privatise access to the sea.

Moreover, the original contract for the new Portomaso development envisaged the development of a promenade on the rocky coastline extending from the marina to the Paceville hamlet. The contract also stipulated that the marina had to be accessible to cars coming from Spinola road. None of these conditions was implemented.  

While the rest of Paceville remains shabby and lacking basic facilities such as public toilets, the Portomaso area and its ancillary “catwalk of over-priced restaurants, shops and cafes” cater for the select clientele “of young, well-dressed foreign employees of betting companies, upper class Maltese who come for a business lunch, mothers wheeling designer push chairs and Russian women living in the apartments walking their groomed, little dogs.”

Billiard gives voice to the collective memories of Paceville residents who recall passing through the Hilton’s green space to access the beach. They recalled the children’s playground behind Spinola palace, which although run-down was open day and night. Some even recalled children visiting the underground garden built by the Marquis John Scicluna which in the 1940s hosted a lion and two camels.

Billiard also documents the decline of urban connectivity, when the now privatised and closed alley extending from Qaliet Street was a short cut to the garden’s residential area.

The study suggests a link between “the privatisation of public space and the increase in neglect, dirt and lawlessness in the area.”

In contrast to the immaculate lawns in Portomaso, residents’ doorsteps are “repeatedly vandalised and used as public toilets”.

Even the “upgrading” of Paceville in 2012 was limited to the “simple repaving of the small area where bars and clubs are based” and offered nothing to residents.

With its inward-looking gated communities like Pender Place and Portomaso, Paceville may well be a taste of things to come for the rest of Malta, Billiard warns.

In this way Paceville is seen as an urban laboratory for the future of Malta, with other enclaves mushrooming in a variety of localities like Ta’ Monita in Marsaskala, Madliena Village in Swieqi, Fort Chambray and Hal Saghtrija in Gozo and Tigné in Sliema.

The study ends with the question: “Who will take care of public space and who will guarantee a public good?”

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