Missing the wood for trees

I found Giovanni Bonello’s article in this newspaper last Sunday regarding the relationship between trees and historical buildings – particularly our bastions – very stimulating.

There are people whose logic is limited to reasoning that since trees are good, removing trees must necessarily be bad
- Michael Falzon

Going out of Valletta, I often drive along Marsamxetto Road, which is built at the side of a part of the Valletta bastions that have been recently restored. The road itself was a later addition that, however, did not detract unduly the visual impact of the bastions.

However, I always tell myself how the magnificent conservation effort, for which this administration is to be commended, is being marred by the trees along the road and the electricity wires and brackets stuck onto the bastions.

Someone has recently decided to cover the wires with white plastic tubing. I suppose the intention is to reduce the negative visual impact. But this is a sorry half-baked idea with the wires still visible and the darker brackets still sticking out. The wiring should all go underground, and the brackets should be removed so that the electricity eyesore is totally removed from the picture. This costs money but I think it would be money well spent.

As for the trees, at the risk of being pilloried by the short-sighted sector of the environmental lobby, I insist that they also should be removed. Unfortunately there are people whose logic is limited to reasoning that since trees are good, removing trees must necessarily be bad. Trees are good in themselves, but this does not mean they have all been planted in the right places.

When someone suggested the removal of the two trees marring the magnificent façade of Auberge de Castile, all hell broke loose. Luckily they were removed, ostensibly after being severely damaged by a storm.

Look at the Auberge de Castile now, more so that its façade has been restored. Surely, those who insisted that the trees should not be removed by now must have realised their short-sightedness. Yet, I seriously doubt it.

Many of the trees that have been planted in such a way as to mar the facades of Valletta’s beautiful buildings, such as the Bibliotheca and the side elevation of St John’s Co-Cathedral are not even native to Malta and are an alien invasive species.

One particular type of tree – of the ficus genus – does untold harm to foundations and utility services running underground. This tree was successfully introduced to Malta because it was a fast growing hardy evergreen and needed no special attention, and for no other reason.

The introduction of alien species, more often than not, does more unintended harm than envisaged, but some of our self-styled environmentalists do not even recognise this fact.

The furore that is raised every time there is a proposal for the removal of such trees is incredible. I would understand this attitude if the proposed removal is capricious but not when there are quite legitimate reasons for such removal.

In a recent case, groups lobbying against the removal of some ficus trees went so far as to argue that since the trees are over 50 year old, they are protected – in spite of the fact that in practical terms the law protects native trees, not invasive species.

The lobby groups won as the authorities preferred to give up rather than confront the short-sightedness of the protesters. Giving great importance to the notion of conserving trees does not automatically mean opposition to removal of any trees in all circumstances. We should avoid not seeing the wood for the trees!

This is not a diatribe against trees but an appeal for common sense. I am all in favour of open spaces with the right trees in areas within the development zones but this does not apply to Valletta for obvious historical and aesthetic reasons. The Knights, in fact, prohibited the planting of trees in Valletta except in a few particular places. Although water conservation was probably the main instigator of this policy, it led to Valletta becoming an architecturally magnificent city.

One of the most practical ways for the creation of open spaces in developed areas is the application of the Floor Area Ratio policy by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. This should translate into raising the height of the buildings allowed on site but shrinking the footprint so that there are more open spaces, while keeping the same volume of building that would otherwise have been allowed to spread all over the area.

Unfortunately, in a few cases this policy was abused by not being applied correctly and as a result this Mepa policy has been unofficially suspended for some time; although now Mepa is proposing to apply it in the case of hotels conforming to particular parameters.

Controlling internal Mepa abuse by suspending good policies is yet another short-sighted way of doing things. Apparently, it is not only some environmentalists who do not see the big picture, albeit their good intentions. Mepa has started to do likewise.

As happens always, this is a country of extremes that consistently finds it impossible to discover the virtue of the middle way.

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