The Malta Independent 26 September 2021, Sunday

Back to the Drawing Board: Urban Green Spaces

Wednesday, 4 August 2021, 08:57 Last update: about 3 months ago

Mantas Stockus

If you open google maps and search for urban green spaces in the most densely populated areas of Malta, you will quickly realise that they are few and far between, considering the surrounding landscape of concrete.

But when you do find one, for example the garden of George Bonello Dupuis in Sliema, take a moment to answer the following question, where can we find shelter from the sun? 

It might sound absurd; however, when acknowledging the fact that the temperature in Malta from May until October rises above 20 degrees Celsius, the need for shade turns vital, especially during the daytime; therefore, to see an urban green space with playground equipment made of materials absorbing heat like a sponge, without any protection from the sun, makes one ask basic questions.


On the other hand, the garden of the Council of Europe located in Ta' Xbiex has trees and seems an ideal place to visit, not only in the early mornings or late evenings, but during the afternoons as well. And yet, it does not have one of the most important features of an urban green space: grass. Instead, the area is covered with concrete and soil, cutting out one third of the garden from the public use, and leaving one to wonder: what exactly is a well-designed urban green space?

Urban green spaces such as parks or gardens, where commonly trees are selected for their beauty and shade, and grass is kept short to allow picnics and other activities, have always had a recreational purpose for the public.

Princes Park in Liverpool, one of the earliest purpose-built parks, opened in 1843 when Richard Vaughan Yates, an iron merchant and philanthropist, bought the land and financed the construction. The Princes park paved the way for ideas like creating urban green spaces for the benefit of the public and creating them 'as a setting for the suburban domicile'. After 168 years, Liverpool alone has 250 urban green spaces across the city.

Ever since the realisation of the importance of urban green spaces in the 19th century, most cities and countries have embraced the notion and inaugurated parks and gardens for the public recreational use, offering a refuge from the city landscape, traffic and the ambience of business for anyone who wishes to sit back, exercise or hang out with a group of friends. They inaugurated 'reservoirs of collective memory,' in Ken Worpole's words.

Equally, urban green spaces are home for the local flora and fauna; thereupon, such a thing as the ecological context during the design process plays a key role if there is a strong will to 'create a green space with the best possible chance of flourishing in a range of different circumstances.' As urban green spaces are a far-reaching bridge with the local biodiversity and nature in general, endless possibilities open, especially with the current knowledge and technology, for those in front of a drawing board.  

Since people visit urban green spaces for different reasons, such spaces, according to the guide produced by the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment, 'should be designed to allow for choice, play and experimentation in how it is used and experienced.' The guide indicates that a well-designed urban green space is a balance between such things, 'offering separate areas to accommodate a variety of uses for people of both sexes, different ages and backgrounds.'

In a similar manner, the space should ideally reflect the identity of a place, culture of a local community and the complexity of a landscape; thus, emphasising on such qualities to make the space work for the public. In the end, it is all about producing 'stimulating environments that can be surprising and educational.'

Gothenburg, the second largest city in Sweden where it rains for 256 days a year,  has decided to embrace the idea of a rain city and invested in children's playgrounds 'to be particularly fun when it's wet' with 'dips in the ground to make the puddles deeper and more satisfyingly splashy, and water gushes down channels from lilypad-shaped rain shelters into a sandpit where children can make pools, rivers and dams.' By acknowledging the fact of rain and turning it into an incorporated feature when designing public spaces, Gothenburg is an example to follow, especially when we speak about the adaptation of plants, outdoor furniture and paving to the local environment, making the most of it to create a beneficial and interactive space for the public. 

Alongside what has been said above, an urban green space in a briefing produced by WHO Regional Office for Europe should be, first and foremost, located close to the public, establishing 'street greenery, urban gardens and green trails in close vicinity to urban residents, and use public open spaces for greenery.' Secondly, it must follow simple design features such as having 'clearly visible entrances or access areas, signing within parks or for greenways and trails, supply infrastructural features such as benches, waste bins, toilets and so on' to improve comfort of an urban green space use.

A well-designed urban green space is a place with a clear vision and function, and needs to be designed in a way to reach the maximum efficiency and benefit for the users. In the case of Malta, when designing urban green spaces, the design should make the most of the local biodiversity to create diverse settings as local plant species are less allergic to various diseases and, therefore, have fewer maintenance needs. In addition, the heat and sun need to be acknowledged; therefore, investing in tree planting, water points such as fountains and irrigation systems for grass to prepare an urban green space for different seasons, especially the summer. Finally, if the size of an area allows, the design should take into consideration such facilities as outdoor sport and playground equipment, open air cafes and places for performances and exhibitions. At the end of the day, a well-designed green space is all about how much it contributes to the identity, complexity and culture of a locality and becomes a place where the public can turn to when in need of refuge.  


Mantas Stockus is a Malta-based Lithuanian. He has an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Criticism from the University of Malta. Mantas is particularly interested in thought-provoking writing and haiku poetry.  


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