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And what about the residents of Valletta?

Joseph FX Zahra  -  11/05/2016 08:06

I was recently invited to speak at the Valletta Alive Foundation seminar with the theme “Valletta Beyond 2020”.  The presentations by a string of renowned architects, urban planners, arts and culture personalities and politicians provided ample scope for reflection and discussion. It is interesting that the points brought forward by most of the speakers converged on one point – a recognition that the authorities and the private sector have uplifted the architectural splendour and cultural standing of the city while reviving its evening and night life, but have generally neglected the needs of the residents.

Perhaps the regeneration of Valletta project focused too much on the revival of the city in the evenings, but not enough consideration has been given to the plight of the residents of the capital city. The regeneration of a city is not measured by the quantity of people in the streets, and how long food and drink outlets remain open at night. It is measured by how much the welfare of the citizens has improved, by how much they are willing to go on living in the city, on whether they can afford to do so, and how comfortable they are living in their homes.

Urban regeneration projects have failed in other countries because they have discounted the human and social side of such development. The main difficulties arose from the lack of consultation with the residents in decision making of renewal projects, the failure to take into consideration the welfare of the people in the city, the over-reliance on physical development, mostly construction for renovation, and the missed link between commercial development and the development of the local community. The transformation has therefore to be directed towards the various neighbourhoods of the city which can be reanimated with families, particularly younger families, living in comfortable and affordable residences with surrounding amenities.

The action list of a social reanimation of the city can include young family friendly initiatives, with the setting up of crèche and kindergartens. A primary health centre which caters for the needs of the Valletta community and with the setting up of residential homes for the elderly. It can consist of the promotion of independent outlets, grocery shops, butcher shops and confectioners in the neighbourhoods to fulfil the daily needs of the residents. The launch of home improvement schemes for city residents who are being crowded out by speculators and foreign buyers who are taking up neglected dwellings and converting these to boutique hotels and apartments for both short and long term leasing. My question is whether this is heading for over-capacity and the creation of a property bubble?

Valletta can only be appreciated by visitors, whether Maltese or tourists, if it is genuinely animated and lived-in and when one can experience the authenticity of the city’s heart and soul. Valletta can suffer the fate of Venice, a Disney-land experience, with residents being bullied out by commercialisation, where money counts more than residents’ needs and aspirations. Let us do something now before it is too late.