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Healthy mobility in Sliema and beyond

As part of its mission to encourage development of sustainable communities, the Local Councils Association recently organised a most informative and positive public seminar in Sliema to discuss the report by the independent think-tank, The Today Public Policy Institute, on Healthy Mobility in Sliema: A Case Study.

Among those present were the lead author of the report, George Debono, who gave a comprehensive presentation on the issues to be addressed, and representatives from Transport Malta, Mepa, the police, the Sliema Residents’ Association and the Sliema council.

The presentation of the report focused on two main themes: the need to improve the street environment where people live and the pressure to reduce the dominance of cars in towns and villages.

Suggestions for improving the street environment fell under four headings: the creation of ‘home zones’ and ‘shared spaces’, making streets ‘age-friendly’ and the reduction of ‘zoning’ policies. These are well-accepted concepts internationally and constitute the basis for ‘giving the streets back to the people’ to encourage physical exercise and make them feel safe, contented and secure.

The home zone and shared space systems originated in Copenhagen more than 50 years ago, when the centre was temporarily closed to traffic and ‘pedestrianised.’ Contrary to expectations, local businesses thrived and it eventually became a permanent arrangement.

Thereafter, the idea of giving pedestrians priority over the car spread to residential and shopping areas in other countries with great success.

We live in an ageing world. Old people are not only forecast to be more numerous but will also live longer. Malta is predicted to become one of the EU countries most affected by an ageing population, with nine pensioners to every 10 working citizens in 50 years’ time.

This will have immense economic and health significance, which should be planned for now by creating ‘age-friendly’ urban environments, a factor that was warmly endorsed by the overwhelmingly elderly Sliema audience at the seminar.

The World Health Organisation recommends the development of ‘age-friendly cities’, which would encourage active ageing by optimising opportunities that would allow healthy exercise and participation in society.

Old people who live in empty, traffic-filled, drab streets are less likely to go out and indulge in healthy exercise and, therefore, will have a poor quality of life and lose their independence. Medical evidence indicates that this greatly increases the likelihood of depression, dementia and diabetes.

Malta must therefore give due priority to ‘age-friendly design’ of the urban environment, including the reversal of current ‘zoning’ trends that lead to the closure of old peoples’ social meeting places, such as their local corner shop.

Overridingly, there is a need to make the places people live in more pleasant by taming the traffic.

Taming the traffic means introducing lower urban speed limits, especially in the vicinity of schools and shopping areas, and greater traffic calming measures – not just sleeping policemen, which, by today’s standards, are regarded by planners as obsolete, but through a number of other more effective and aesthetically acceptable measures.

The ultimate objective should be to provide street conditions that encourage people to walk more and to use bicycles for short trips in preference to the car.

If local councils and road planners were to take the practical steps highlighted at the seminar held by the Local Councils Association, the life of residents in Sliema and elsewhere would be safer, healthier and more enjoyable.

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