The Malta Independent 22 May 2018, Tuesday

The lower part of Valletta

Simon Mercieca Monday, 15 January 2018, 07:53 Last update: about 5 months ago

With a certain sense of priority, on Sunday, 7th January, The Malta Independent reported an interview given by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to One Radio. It was stated that this was the Prime Minister's first interview this New Year and it highlighted Government's line of action and priorities for 2018. The Prime Minister made it clear that he was going to give special attention to the lower part of Valletta, declaring the area "needs to be improved." The prime minister once again made reference to the regeneration of the lower part of Valletta in his inaugural speech of Triton Fountain on Friday evening.

I don't think that such a statement or choice should be a question of controversy. There should be a consensus that this area desperately needs to be improved. What came as a pleasant surprise to me is the fact that this project departed from an M.Sc. dissertation that had been submitted to the University of Malta in 2014 of which I was the principal supervisor. The title of this dissertation is Valletta: Towards the Strategic Re-Use of its Vacant Properties.

Hence, Government should not only be congratulated for wanting to focus on the lower part but also for giving due attention to good dissertations that are submitted to our Alma Mater. This dissertation focused specifically on that part of Valletta known as the Baviera area. The government seems interested to focus on the whole area of the southern part, and the Baviera is only one part of it. In fact, the Prime Minister mentioned the area of the Government Primary School, which falls outside the Baviera area.

The main idea behind this dissertation, which was brilliantly sustained by architect Duncan Mifsud, was to study Valletta in terms of a node system. The concept of nodes is not new for Malta, even if it has not been put into practical use.

For those who are not conversant with this method, the nodal approach is the a posteriori technique, which enables the creation of an urban framework through the evaluation of the different segments that make up an urban space. It seeks the acquisition or identification of a number of points in an urban fabric. Rehabilitation will focus on these selected areas, which are normally at two distinct and distant points, with the aim that the space in between these two points will then be developed into a serial spread of regeneration that would not need any form of government assistance. Once the nodes have been successfully identified, the centre will be naturally taken over by entrepreneurs and others interested in sharing the success of this project.

The nodal approach was first suggested for Valletta by architect Renzo Piano when he made his first proposal for the redesign of the Valletta Gate, way back in 1989. Unfortunately, Piano's report got engulfed in controversy because of his City Gate design with the result that his most crucial and basic concepts about how a proper regeneration of Valletta had to be undertaken, were completely ignored with disastrous effects.  Mr Mifsud went back to this very basic concept and proposed it for a demographic regeneration of Valletta, starting with the lower end of the city. Through his methodological assessments, he also showed how the node system can be applied to Malta, that is, through the effective creation of a land bank. 

The idea departed from the fact that despite all the regeneration projects launched in the last 25 years, demographically, Valletta has continued to lose its inhabitants. The end result, from a demographic point of view, is that there never was  a regeneration in Valletta. The situation deteriorated so badly that, today, Valletta is the sole European capital city with a shrinking population. All the capital cities in Europe are experiencing population expansion. Valletta is expressing totally different trends. 

Despite the millions invested in the regeneration of Valletta, there was never the will to tackle the demographic challenges. Valletta is a historic city that offers considerable demographic challenges. In part, a demographic deficit has been created due to a lack of a clear direction and valid projects that sought to put the residents at the centre of these projects.

The projects that have been proposed and pushed forward for Valletta were all aimed to accommodate the business community. Let me be clear; there is nothing wrong in having projects aimed at incentivising business but, unlike the past, businessmen or women today no longer reside in Valletta. This means that any proposal has to be accompanied by policies to help our capital city to overcome this serious demographic challenge. Instead, the only demographic policies proposed till now are those related to measures of social housing.

One needs to wait to learn more on what this government really has in mind regarding its policy to focus on the lower part of Valletta. But if the development of the lower end is going to be seen as another business venture, then Valletta is once again going to be the loser. What Valletta needs is to become what is known as the 24-hours city. This means that certain planning policies need to be scrapped. Moreover, I am not so convinced about taking on the lower part as one big whole. Perhaps, developing it in a nodal point method would definitely be more befitting our capital city.

One needs to remember that this lower part of the city, was defined in the Grand Harbour Local Plan as a 'housing improvement area'. This is a very well defined urban quarter, having a superficial area of circa 50,000 square metres. In itself, this area represents a compact urban fabric which can stand on its own, constituted mainly of dense living quarters, where people had been able to live, work and play together. Today, this place qualifies as a derelict space. Such types of environment are, by their very nature, challenging but at the same time academically stimulating which explains why it was identified as a topic for an M.Sc dissertation.

Full of potential, such areas are a stimulus to introduce urban schemes that can sustain  population growth in an ailing city. The most challenging factor is to identify which properties  are officially occupied and which are not, including those occupied by squatters.

Incidentally, Mr Mifsud established the correct methodology in the above-mentioned dissertation. It is only thanks to the adaptation of a correct methodology and formulating the correct ground work that a viable regeneration plan can be formulated based a nodal approach. The ground work has been done. It is sitting there waiting and if government can see its way to capitalizing on this, then undoubtedly it is on the right tracks. If not, it will end up into another debacle as happened with the AUM project.

Furthermore, if  government honestly wants to be effective, it must go to the very basic fact of the nodal vision as originally proposed by Piano in 1989  and not allow itself to be overruled by pique. This needs to be accompanied with the introduction of other innovative concepts, foremost, a land bank, which can be the sole viable  solution for Valletta's demographic decline.

For those interested to learn more about Mifsud's  work, it is available online on the Library website of the University of Malta. This is the link: https://hydi.um.edu.mt/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=OARatUoM123456789/2831&context=L&vid=356MALT_VU1&lang=en_US&search_scope=all&adaptor=Local Search Engine&tab=default_tab&query=any,contains,Duncan mifsud&sortby=rank

 


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