By Tara Cassar FAA Environment Officer & Architect
Land has recently been the topic of much debate in Malta. Be it controversial deals over land expropriation, speculative gains being sought through high-rise development, or the development of educational institutions on pristine ODZ land. It seems that on an island with limited terrain, the only real limitations that exist for developers are those they choose to believe in, as for some, opportunities can be found around every corner.
In recent years the government has introduced an array of policies and legislation, with the supposed intent of either decreasing bureaucracy, introducing efficiency and transparency within the planning authority, protecting the environment through the MEPA demerger, or by a grand harmonisation of our fragmented built environment through the Design and Policy Guidelines of 2015 (DC15). However in spite of these seemingly flawless concepts aimed to revamp the urban environment and protect our shared property and quality of life, reality is a far cry from what policies set out.
A case in point is the revision of the Rural Policy and Design Guidelines introduced in 2014. These policies which claimed to safeguard ODZ somehow resulted in rampant construction across previously no-go-areas, with ruins being transformed into villas almost at the flick of a wand. This was made possible due to the various loopholes throughout the document that give those with short-sighted egoistic motives the opportunity to exploit the land this very document is meant to protect. The media has highlighted a multitude of cases where development in ODZ has been approved by the PA board on the claim that some pile of rubble lying in the middle of agricultural land was once inhabited – and all this proven through some smudge on an aerial photo dug up for this timely opportunity.
Urban cores or more characteristic towns and cities such as Lija, which despite all odds have managed to retain a strong holistic identity, are now also under threat. Despite the outcry of residents living in other localities which have been ripped of their character due to the unbridled approval of crass and alienating multi-storey apartment blocks, Lija is now facing the same fate.
A five-storey apartment building has just been approved where to date only two-storey buildings exist. This project has paved the way for the same degradation experienced all over the island, to obliterate the serenity and picturesque streetscapes of this village that the Planning Authority’s new polices had vowed to protect. During the hearing, PA Commission Chairperson Ms Elizabeth Ellul unreservedly admitted that she was solely justifying her decision to approve this development on the basis of one local plan map, clearly indicating that she was ignoring all other policies.These included the DC15 which emphasises the importance of improving quality of life, promoting sustainable development and taking a conscientious approach to design, and therefore approving the project despite the harsh criticism it received – all this being done by the very representative who is supposedly appointed to uphold such policies.
These actions clearly display that despite the overarching positive approach outlined in the planning policies, their selective implementation leaves the built environment open to a continuation of poorly designed urban fabric and to widespread speculation by all those taking advantage of the loopholes.
A final year project exhibition being held by the 2016 Masters of Architecture and Masters of Engineering depicts the students’ visions for Marsa 2050 through a multitude of diverse proposals aimedat regenerating this neglected locality. The student’s exhibition is a clear and factual example of what bold visions could achieve, through conscientious and thought-provoking design. The projects not only recognize the nation’s present and future needs but set out sustainable, feasible and holistic design solutions to attain them.
Planning can no longer be seen as a piecemeal approval or rejection of projects without any authority taking responsibility for the overall effect these individual cases will have on the whole island. The Planning Authority must recognise the advantages and opportunities that come from well thought-out development, as has been portrayed by these young graduates, who have shown the positive influence that urban planning and design can have, not only on the built environment but even more so, on its inhabitants and their quality of life.