The Malta Independent 18 April 2024, Thursday
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Pavements are policy Cinderellas

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 18 February 2021, 07:58 Last update: about 4 years ago

From one decade to another, one thing remains constant: Pavements are Malta’s policy Cinderellas. To me, this represents a deficit in everyday democracy.

The country’s policy elites – from governments to lobbyists - seem to have a fixation on big projects, whether in favour or against, but seem to have little interest in micro-policies which we happen to use every day. Pavements are a case in point. Somehow, inaugurating an accessible pavement, which people can actually walk on, has less glamour than inaugurating a highway or a huge complex. Same for protesting about such matters.


I have seen this under different administrations, across the years. The politics of pavements are relegated to a nuisance, a minor matter in agendas, subject to bureaucratic labyrinths and elbowed-out of the debate.

Now one may ask – why discuss pavements in an op-ed article when the world is facing so many urgent matters, from Covid-19 to climate change? Well, focusing on one topic in an article does not exclude focusing on other topics in others. But I strongly believe that pavements are an essential necessity in our everyday lives.

Through pavements we can enter and exit our respective residencies, our place of employment, shops and other venues. Through pavements we can walk from one place to another. In itself this can have various functions and meanings.

These include errands, physical exercise, and relaxation. You can walk and listen to music, to a podcast or to an electronic book. You can walk and look around, you can walk in the company of others, you can meditate, and you can explore the wonders of everyday life. Through your urban walks you can actually help create more demand for better pavements.

Indeed, this is much needed, because many of our pavements around Malta are a mess. An increasing number of pavements are occupied by tables and chairs. Others are subject to negligent construction. Sometimes, contractors appropriate or destroy pavements whilst carrying out their work. Even Government entities sometimes render pavements inaccessible through boxes, haphazard signage and other obstacles. Not to mention the various plastic barriers, bricks and other urban flotsam left lying about. Or the lack of ramps, even on newly reconstructed pavements, and badly planned drain culverts.

In various instance, bad workmanship excels. You may notice cheap plastic material over wiring and pipes which lasts a few days before being broken, immediately being transformed into holes. You see fragile pipes exposed under thin cement covering. You see shoddy work, which is quickly destroyed, especially when some ‘king of the road’ truck passes over it. In the meantime, all sorts of rubbish accumulates. Not to mention the amoral familism of certain residents.

Scaffolding is more often than not set up in a way which is contrary to accessibility regulations, making it impossible to walk on pavements. The situation becomes even more precarious when you have scaffolding structures concurrently in different parts of narrow roads.

Very often it is actually safer to walk on the street, despite this being very dangerous, also courtesy of some cowboy drivers who indulge in showing off their cars. Some actually park their cars on pavements or zebra crossings, in plain sight, as if wanting to make us envy their toys. Psychologists and cultural theorists have ample material for interpretation.

The recent proliferation of new forms of transport without proper regulation is not helping matters. Think of the food delivery bikes zigzagging and coming from out of nowhere. Besides, a lack of holistic urban planning also makes life very difficult for delivery men doing their job.

The cherry on the cake of bad planning is when road corners taken up by structures, tables and chairs, planters and all sorts of obstacles which make it impossible for drivers to see other cars coming unless moving halfway to the next road. Now just imagine how this makes things even more difficult for pedestrians trying to walk in a straight line on a pavement.

Walking safely on pavements is indeed difficult for everyone. But if you happen to have some form of physical disability, or you are elderly, or are walking with kids or a pushchair, the obstacles ahead render your commute even more precarious. Indeed, many people are actually discouraged to go for a walk, for example because of fear of tripping.

This is a basic violation of people’s rights in everyday democracy.

If you happen to want to take action on this matter you will quickly discover that authority over pavements is a never-ending maze. Local councils, government authorities, Ministries, and private entities compete for authority, very often meaning that no one can take decisive action if residents complain over lack of access. The buck just doesn’t stop anywhere.

Paradoxically, Malta’s Minister for Infrastructure, Ian Borg, seems to have quite a lot of authority in Malta’s government. He has been subject to much criticism over his road building policies, but at the same time he is by far one of Malta’s most popular Ministers, according to surveys. Wouldn’t it be great if Borg rides the wave of his own popularity and adopts resolve over the state of our pavements?

Wouldn’t it great if Malta has an entity which is specifically responsible for pavements which are accessible and built in a professional way? The entity could comprise representatives of government entities ranging from transport to disability, from local councils, civil society and experts in the field, such as planners, sociologists and architects.  

In the meantime, as a form of consolation for grievances, a Facebook group ‘No to dangerous pavements #BankiniSura #SafePavements’ was set up. Its proclaimed aim is to take a stand against dangerous pavements by exposing instances where pavements are damaged and left unrepaired, occupied by chairs, tables and other obstructions, are badly planned, and in general pose danger to pedestrians. Pictures of dangerous pavements are welcome in this group.


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



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