Open is more is more - Mark Anthony Falzon
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Open is more is more - Mark Anthony Falzon

A couple of weeks ago, the Planning Authority approved plans to “rehabilitate open spaces” in a number of places around the country. At Għar Lapsi, the rehabilitation will include a “marble art installation and new lighting system”; at Naxxar, an “outdoor gym and street furniture”; at Dingli, an “outdoor gym and car park”; and so on.

Rehabilitation can mean many things. In this case, a costly exercise in which normal, unbuilt areas – and isn’t it telling that “open space” has become a category? – are assaulted by people who suffer from acute horror vacui, and filled with all manner of junk.

Perishable junk, too, as in the best it is, but this most perishable, strange, and pointless. One of the problems with street furniture, marble art installations, and the like, is that it is high-maintenance. It’s stuff that might work in a place like Switzerland, where the humblest footbridge in the remotest valley is regularly cleaned of moss.

Let’s agree that Switzerland in the Mediterranean we ain’t. Malta is not renowned for its standards of maintenance of public places and their contents. I could spend the rest of this piece listing examples, but I’ll limit myself to two.

I know of two kugel fountains, one in Rabat in front of St Paul’s and the other in Balluta. Both forgot how to spell ‘aquaplaning’ a short while after they were installed. In both cases, one half of the sphere enjoys perpetual daylight, the other perpetual darkness. The two fountains just sit there broken, static and sad.

The other example takes me to the Qawra seafront, where a few years ago someone saw fit to install outdoor gym equipment as well as a set of small spheres that supposedly represent the solar system. A tetanus jab is a wise precaution for those who attempt to use the first. As for the solar system, never mind, Newton was a dud anyway.

The Cottonera consultation document is pathetically poor

Readers will get my drift. Aesthetics aside if we must, the average life expectancy of street furniture and such clutter in Malta is about that of a broiler. Once the catering vans leave the inauguration party, everything is left to decay at the mercy of nature. Which, especially in an exposed place like Għar Lapsi, is in short supply.

I suspect that rehabilitating open spaces by cluttering them with stuff is simply a means by which government subsidises the private businesses that supply such stuff. You might say the same of roundabouts. A case in point is that opposite the Café Riche in Cottonera, which was once a perfectly fine patch of soil with quite lovely and low-maintenance shrubs and trees growing on it.

Until, that is, the rehabilitators moved in and installed a rock water feature. They also uprooted most of the trees and shrubs and replaced them with short-lived plants. The place now looks absolutely insipid. The rocks in particular are so hideous that the best I can wish them is a late-night date with drunken vandals. Still, the whole thing was good news for the contractors.

The Café Riche case brings me to Cottonera, and the plans to rehabilitate it. A strategy consultation document was issued earlier this year by the Fondazzjoni Kottonera, a unit headed by that undisputed sage of urban planning, Glenn Bedingfield.

Blaspheming in Parliament is one thing, stewarding a policy another. The consultation document is pathetically poor. It weighs in at a hefty 57 pages, most of which are revealingly taken up by photographs that look like they’ve walked straight out of a tourist brochure.

Almost half of the rest is a potted history and geography filler. (“In fact, Cottonera may be described as a historic niche bounded by water on the maritime edge and a line of fortifications on the land-side.” You don’t say.) Still, that’s not my point here.

My attention was drawn to the section of the document that deals with open spaces. I was especially interested in the proposal to rehabilitate the Santa Margherita area, which I happen to call home. For those unfamiliar with Cospicua, this is a corner of high ground in the city that happens to be very green (literally I mean, there are lots of mature trees) and well preserved.

Bedingfield’s Fondazzjoni plans to turn Santa Margherita into a “green corridor” that will “incorporate a series of gardens”. Nothing new there, because it already is and already does. But there’s more. The green corridor will be further greened by a play area, a kiosk, and a cultural centre.

The finished corridor will not be so green. In fact, I’ve a feeling that the terminology is doublespeak for what in effect will be the building up of one of the last remaining bits of peace in Cottonera. There are similar plans for Wied Blandun, an open space which government seems to want to turn into its kind of open space.

This, then, is what open space means to the people who matter: small gaps in the oh-so-cosmopolitan landscape of flats and petrol stations, which are built over with cultural centres, or cluttered with rusting outdoor gyms and kugel fountains that are quite stuck. 

mafalzon@hotmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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