The Malta Independent 4 October 2023, Wednesday
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Reclaiming space

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 14 May 2020, 07:09 Last update: about 4 years ago

Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, a few days ago, Maltese society witnessed two opposing claims regarding public spaces.

Ministers Ian Borg and Jose Herrera and Local Councils Association President Mario Fava announced an open spaces scheme for the temporary pedestrianisation of town and village cores. Local Councils will be asked to propose streets and squares that they would like to be included in this scheme, wherein the selected roads and squares will be car-free for established timeframes, with vehicles diverted elsewhere during the days in question.


Ian Borg said that the idea was influenced by the sight of empty open spaces in the current Coronavirus context. He argued that such spaces can be appreciated by people and businesses within an environment of improved air quality, adding that his Ministry will be embellishing areas in localities which sign up to the scheme.

In this regard, I believe that Local Councils could be proactive by carrying out consultations with stakeholders in their respective locality, thus presenting democratic, informed, and evidence-based recommendations of sites for selection.

It would also help if the Government’s concept of open spaces, which also includes the erstwhile commendable opening of family parks, were to be made broader than what is currently being proposed. For example, public land could be devolved to local councils for their management. An example of this would be public car parks, many of which are characterised by parkers charging money for the service - despite Transport Malta signs saying otherwise. Private profit is being made on public property.

At the same time Malta remains under siege by development projects which promise everything but an increase in open spaces. Two current additions are the proposal to build on ODZ agricultural land at l-Għadir which connects Ħal-Safi, Ħal-Kirkop, and Żurrieq, and the proposed Fort Cambridge development of a 31-storey tower in Sliema, obliterating most of the historical barracks and suffocating the already congested Tigne’ area with more traffic, shading, and pollution. Like other examples of overdevelopment proposals around Malta, they are resulting in objections by local councils, non-governmental organisations, residents, and concerned citizens.

Which brings me to the other claim regarding open spaces. The thirty NGOs which recently formed the ‘Spazji Miftuħa’ coalition are active for the preservation of public spaces in Malta. In the coalition’s own words, ‘this includes public access to public spaces in Malta. We tackle issues related to open access, conservation of ecological features, management, and transparency.’

The coalition added that it was ‘formed in April 2020 in response to a proposal by government to restrict access to the two woodland areas of l- Aħrax and il-Miżieb to a private lobby’. Spazji Miftuħa is being backed by a petition which has so far collected more than 10,000 signatures in a few days, to keep public access open in such areas.

Indeed, Government should not be politically selective, non-transparent and restrictive in its consideration of public spaces - the Planning Authority should factor in the loss of space for residents when development projects are proposed. Policy processes related to access of public land should be subject to deliberative and transparent consultation rather than behind-the-scenes agreements with lobbies. Besides, all agreements should be published and subject to public scrutiny before being approved.

The sociological tool of Social Impact Assessments (SIAs) can be useful in providing evidence for policy making in this field. Through SIAs, one would be able to investigate the effects that a project is likely to have on people’s everyday lives in terms of culture, environment, politics, community, health, well-being, perceptions, fears and aspirations, needs, rights, and responsibilities, to name a few. In other words, SIAs allow for evidence-based policymaking.

To date, Malta lacks a structured policy which mainstreams this essential tool, and which provides for proper deliberation on public space. Therefore as things stand, the public will have to wait for ministerial Facebook posts, press conferences, and pre-electoral stunts to learn about access to public space.


Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Malta

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