The Malta Independent 22 September 2021, Wednesday

The changing face of Valletta

Noel Grima Monday, 18 April 2016, 14:02 Last update: about 6 years ago

People have all kinds of metrics with which to appreciate or judge Valletta - the built environment, the palaces, the auberges, the museums, the churches, the bastions, the recent efforts of restoration, etc.

But what constitutes the essence of a city is the people who live in it and in this respect Valletta is going from bad to worse.

It had more than 20,000 just before World War II and it had just 6500 two years ago. The average age of its residents is higher than the average age in Malta.

According to its mayor, Alexiei Dingli, 10% of its residents are foreigners. There are 750 commercial outlets and 11 hotels in existence or about to open.

A half day seminar by the Valletta Alive Foundation, last Saturday, enabled participants to analyse, discuss and confront the many faces of the capital city.

A dominant image is that Valletta has been made better, improved, with the restoration projects of the past years. But that was not the perception of the participants of this conference. On the contrary, the common conclusion was that while a lot has been done to improve the city, other important aspects have greatly deteriorated.

What makes a city, said the first speaker, Professor Alex Torpiano, who was born and lives in Valletta, is its people and here Valletta has lost a lot. It has lost not just the residents but also its young - as young families move out, pushed out by problems of access and by the sheer difficulty of bringing up a family in a city with huge parking problems (and also with houses that are difficult to convert to acceptable living spaces).

In recent times, Valletta has also suffered from gentrification, the entry of people with money and most times without children, who buy not just one house but a row of them and who just do not restore the atmosphere that Valletta used to have.

Valletta has lost its hawkers, its cobblers, its small shops.

People today hear a lot about the restoration of Strait Street, I mused, but maybe that is not the restoration that is needed. Indeed, I could not see anyone from the Valletta 18 committee at the conference, even if they were, I was informed, invited.

What needs to be restored is the living environment of that city. Although some open spaces have been pedestrianized, others are still clogged by cars. And now there is a huge increase of tables and chairs on many streets and squares of the capital.

Not all restoration has been successful, Prof. Torpiano said: the Castille square restoration was a lost opportunity while the side of the Auberge d'Italie is still not restored.

In the slides that accompanied his speech, Prof. Torpiano showed a space overlooking Marsamxett, where a family has taken over and installed its washing machine and its cooker outside the main door, thus turning an open public space into a private one.

Prof. Torpiano's recipe for a sustainable future for Valletta included attracting young families and restoring ownership of open spaces. He also suggested that after the heavy capital expenditure for the restoration of the main and historical parts of Valletta, it must be followed by heavy investment in the periphery of Valletta.

Joseph FX Zahra was equally scathing about the latest developments in Valletta. The city is still suffering from the serious scars of World War II and the social neglect it engendered as families left the city in droves.

While Strait Street is being turned into a Valletta version of Paceville, other neighbourhoods are decaying. Property prices have gone up and this is also forcing families out of Valletta.

Have we tackled the restoration of Valletta in the wrong way? The welfare of the people has not been properly considered. While all efforts to cater for the tourist trade are pushed forward, the need for neighbourhoods to be repopulated with young families is not equally addressed.

Valletta may end up like Venice: when its residents have flown away we will realize too late the city has been depopulated.

Mr Zahra pointed at Bologna and its university: the students give the city a youthful atmosphere as they used to do when the University and the Junior College were in Valletta.

Even the financial services sector has left Valletta, as have the banks with their head offices.

Perhaps the most hard-hitting speech was that by Dr Reuben Grima, a Valletta resident too with two young children, on the liveability of a historic city.

Dr Grima divided his speech into three parts:

-                      The shoreline. Valletta is a city where the residents can go and swim just down the road. But the development of the Valletta Waterfront has curtailed this. So too will the plan, if implemented, to create a replica of the Waterfront on the Marsamxett side plus a yacht marina and a breakwater.

-                      The soundscape. Valletta is a multi-sensory experience but this is rapidly changing mainly because of the noise and music generated by so many restaurants spread around the city, even in residential areas. He read from a case officer's reply to residents who objected to a restaurant in their area and told them that catering establishments must take priority. This was special pleading on behalf of the restaurants but fortunately the Planning Commission turned down the application.

-                      The viewscape. Dr Grima pointed out at the view of Smart City from Valletta, over the Cottonera landscape. The coming construction of the St John's Museum extension will change irrevocably the streetscape of Merchants Street ('Enlightened despotism' was how he described it). There is also the plan to raise the roof of MCC by around one metre and this will also affect the views of people who live around it.

While Vince Fabri listed the many festivals that are now taking place in a vibrant cultural city, Dr Ivan Grixti, who organizes and takes part in many religious events mainly in the St Dominic parish and the Good Friday procession from the Ta' Giezu church, described how the religious events form an intrinsic part of the Valletta experience. But even here, numbers are decreasing: six statue bearers, including his own brother Alfred, called it a day and people had to be brought in from Mosta. Nevertheless, the dwindling group still struggles on.

Sandro Debono, the guiding spirit behind the move of the Museum of Fine Arts to the Auberge d'Italie and the new MUZA. Museums must be a living experience and the visitors must not be inanimate objects but engaged in dialogue and participation.

After a speech by Dr John  Ebejer on Regenerating Valletta (Strait Street and the Biccerija area have been designated as 24-hour entertainment venues without reference to the residents), the last speaker was the man who did more than anyone else to regenerate Valletta in the past years - former premier Lawrence Gonzi.

In his speech, Dr Gonzi restated his original plans for Valletta, not all of which have been implemented so far. He focused on Valletta as the focus of pride of what makes us Maltese and Europeans. Himself born and bred in Valletta, he spoke of the way how a Vallettan (Belti) looks at himself, his native city and his fellow citizens.

The profit motive must not become the predominant one: look at Sliema, Dr Gonzi said, with its seafront all taken over by the profit motive.

He allowed himself a criticism of what is happening: he is disappointed that the plans for Valletta have been discontinued, especially as regards the ditch, the presence of sellers of anything including donuts and handbags outside Valletta, the lack of a roof over the carpark outside Valletta.

The plan outlined by his administration for Valletta, from City Gate to St Elmo was holistic but it can still be completed, spending €10 million a year for 10 years.

In conclusion, Mayor Dingli said every day 40,000 persons enter Valletta but the council has a very restricted budget. Nevertheless, Mepa is holding on a fund amounting to €1 million which can be used for the population. 

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