Close your eyes, he said - Claire Bonello

Close your eyes, he said - Claire Bonello

“Close your eyes”, he murmured. “Imagine your favourite place. Where do you want to be?”

We were in a hotel. He was one of the top men at the Planning Authority. And he was asking where I’d want to be.

Actually he was asking  us all where we’d like to be. He was a keynote speaker at a conference about tourism and he was speaking about the infrastructure needed to make tourism sites attractive and accessible.

Everybody in the audience was nodding away as he spoke – quite passionately at times – about the need for open space, the historic fabric of the environment  and about greenery. There he was waxing lyrical about the need for nature in the urban environment, and green infrastructure and how liveability was directly linked with having some green spots interspersed with the utilitarian manmade buildings we inhabit.

It’s not often that the Planning Authority people are the most popular speakers in the room, but this was one time when it happened. That’s because he was stating the obvious, common sense conclusion – that we need trees, shrubs and vegetation around us and we are missing the lack of concerted efforts to maintain these green spots.

This is the reason for the public outcry following the culling of the trees in Balzan, the proposed removal of the trees on the road to Rabat and the disappointment at the barrenness of the Paola Square. There is a sense that despite much of the PR babble about green infrastructure, tangible examples of it aren’t in evidence around us. We have become accustomed to the hype about “place-making” and regeneration and harmonious urban contexts.

Unfortunately, many of these projects turn out to be samey, barren areas with no shade to speak of and saplings struggling against their stick supports – many years down the line. More often than not, we find ourselves longing for the original, unimproved version. The need to leave one’s mark is resulting in many “projects” which completely wipe away shared memories, historical associations and use of the place.

The criticism is not based on partisan lines but is a cry of loss at what has been wiped away

The criticism of these projects is not based on partisan lines (after all nobody has criticised the Triton Fountain project which is absolutely stunning) but is a cry of loss at what has been wiped away.  It shouldn’t be dismissed. As the incomparable people’s architect Richard Neutra once wrote, “The fact that a man does not realize the harmfulness of a product or a design element in his surroundings does not mean that it is harmless.”

Humans crave and need access to nature and suffer in its absence, yet few of us appreciate how fundamental that need is. Contact with nature confers on people salutary effects that are nearly immediate. Twenty seconds of exposure to a natural landscape can be enough to settle a person’s elevated heart rate. Just three to five minutes can bring high blood pressure levels down.

So – we have a Transport Master Plan 2025 and a National Transport Strategy 2050. I think they are excellent, far-reaching policy documents with well-substantiated conclusions and recommendations. It seems I’m wrong, because every time I quote them, everybody’s eyes glaze over or they stifle polite smiles. I have no idea why this is so. I can’t believe that the authorities have been had and allowed a bunch of tree-hugging hippies to compile these policies to the exclusion of experts.

I’ll just leave these two very relevant quotes from the Transport Plan 2025 and when we’re facing gridlock in some years’ time, we’ll know why. This is what the Transport Master Plan 2025 had to say about road-widening mania: “Within the organisational framework of road transport, one critical aspect that affects the road sector as well as other transport sectors is that transport policy and planning in Malta tend to be short-term in nature, with measures and projects primarily focussing on new road construction or increasing existing road capacity at problematic locations in isolation rather than considering the wider strategic policy context.”

Then there’s this interesting bit about car-fixation: “The increase in cultural car dependency is directly influencing levels of traffic congestion on the roads. The lack of integration of land use development and transport planning and the continued decentralisation away from the harbour areas that has taken place in Malta since the early 1990s, has generally had the effect of increasing the distance between homes and work places.”

And the supremely ironic observation about the benefits of trees as they are being hacked down at every conceivable opportunity: “However, landscaping and trees are, on the other hand, very important in an urban streetscape. If designed appropriately, trees and vegetation can have numerous benefits such as providing shade, bio-diversity, sinks for carbon dioxide, cooling qualities counteracting the urban heat island effect, buffering from road traffic and aesthetic qualities that encourage pedestrian activity.”

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