Sunday 25 September 2022

Who needs unspoilt landscapes? Just pour some concrete over it

This column first appeared in Malta Today

When normal people go out for some fresh air in the countryside or along our rugged coastline,  away from the traffic and noise, they let out a sigh of relief; their senses are immediately calmed, and what they see around them is beauty and untouched nature. They feel mentally soothed by being in a wide open space where there are no buildings. 

But, when people like Ian Borg and his developer cronies look at the countryside their eyes bulge out of their face like cartoon characters and are replaced by $ signs (or in this case, Euro signs), as they mentally hear that clanking, satisfying sound of more money, Ka Ching!  Where we see beauty, they see juicy land grab prospects, and the potential to build more and more developments.  Where we see unspoilt landscapes they see a waste of space which would be a pity to leave as it is when they have a chance to pour concrete over it to make it more ‘accessible’. 

Every day brings with it news of a new monstrosity, wearing us down and plunging us into a sense of helplessness as yet another pocket of our sparse land is gobbled up and another scheduled building is threatened. I do my tiny part by dutifully registering my objections and once in a while there are small victories, but nevertheless it is a gargantuan task for all environmental activists and lobby groups to keep tabs on everything. I’m sure the frequency and sheer number of the development applications are not a coincidence, and are designed to make us weary and give up.  But why should we? How could we? This land is our land, after all, and it is all we have left. 

Even the small gardens which provide some much-needed respite and greenery to our villages are not being spared as we saw this week in Zebbug.  Not content with digging up agricultural land all over the island, Infrastructure Malta turned its sights on the area known as Ħal-Mula, demolishing the garden in order to widen the road. Steve Zammit Lupi, an independent councillor on the local council, stood alone in protest against the digger, telling the press: “The council was never advised about the works, and when requesting for works to be halted no answer was given. Residents came out to question what was happening, as they too were never notified of what was happening.”

The argument that this is Government-owned land is neither here nor there, for what is ‘Government’ but merely a temporary custodian of the country? And, as we have seen from daily traffic jams, despite all the upheaval caused by continuous roadworks, widening the roads does not solve anything but simply encourages more car use, and serves to solve one bottleneck, only to create more bottlenecks further down the road.  My question is, at what point will they run out of agricultural land to widen roads and start casually informing people they are going to demolish their homes in order to make the road wider?  If that sounds alarming or outrageous, at this point nothing would surprise me and, unfortunately, perhaps that’s what it will take for more residents to start fighting back, like Steve Zammit Lupi did, by physically going to the place where it is happening and taking a stand. 

As it turns out, environmental NGO Movoment Graffitti confirmed that the application to demolish the above mentioned garden had been withdrawn by the applicants in 2016, so there was no permit and Infrastructure Malta was acting illegally.  It’s rather rich isn’t it, when you have an official authority which falls under a Government Ministry breaking the law itself, rather than upholding it?  And we wonder why so many developers and contractors are doing whatever they like, laughing all the way to the bank as they excavate and demolish to the detriment of those unlucky to live next door, taking up more virgin land and continuing to build all these new developments even as the country is dotted by shells of empty apartments. 

What is laughable, but mostly tragic, is when I see a news item that the Government has decided to ‘rehabilitate’ some spot or other, which only sets alarm bells ringing. The latest is Romeo Romano Gardens in Santa Venera which is going to get a multi million Euro upgrade. According to reports, “With a vision to upgrade the garden in an organic style in a way that respects the style and atmosphere of the historic grounds, the concept will retain much of the natural aesthetic of the garden’s architecture…(there are) plans to turn the French-style garden into a greener and more elaborate public garden which will include a kitchen garden and family area for children.”

I would like to believe that the garden won’t be ruined by turning into an artificial area, uprooting trees and covering it by slabs of ugly concrete and devoid of any soul, but this administration’s definition of an upgrade is very strange.  The Mall garden in Floriana is one example and Paola square is another.  Why can’t they leave well enough alone?  Most of all why can’t they leave mature trees and natural foliage alone, preferring to chop and destroy and create a sanitised version instead?  From comments I have read, I’m not the only one whose heart sinks when I hear the word ‘upgrade’ because it usually means that someone is moving in to commercialise the place with a snack bar or restaurant in case anyone feels peckish; because, you know, Maltese families have such a long trek, hiking through the kilometres of woods and empty stretches of wilderness before they finally find themselves in the deserted terrain of…Santa Venera. 

Likewise, I got a sense of foreboding at the news that a discussion paper has been launched to discuss possible camping, caravan and picnic sites and asking for the public to send in their ideas.  We are told that, “The public is further encouraged to inform of the type of facilities required for possible inclusion on already designated sites for the respective activities, as well as how management of these sites may be foreseen.”  All of this fills me with dread because the word ‘facilities’ is already pointing to the possibility of tampering even further with these areas. Here is an idea for discussion:  how about we do not touch anything and let people enjoy the little that is left of unbuilt land in its current natural state?  

As for Zebbug, where Infrastructure Malta was busy demolishing a perfectly good garden, Ian Borg saw absolutely no irony in announcing a ‘renovation project’ costing €300,000 in the area of Tal-Grazzja, to upgrade this ‘recreational zone’ with new swings and pavements and planting a couple of trees.  Here’s a thought: rather than trying to feed us more of his ridiculous self-promotion, how about if he stops chopping down every single tree in sight instead?  He probably also needs a good therapist to put him under hypnosis to try and get to the root of this deep-seated hatred he has for anything green. Maybe he fell off a tree when he was young? Or maybe he crashed into a tree when he was riding his bike as a boy in his home village of Dingli? Did he stub his toe against a tree and vow to exact his revenge at every opportunity? 

Whatever it is, we need to know before he turns his unrelenting gaze on yet another godforsaken tree. One thing is sure: for a man who adores publicity he will definitely be remembered, but not in the favourable ‘prosit Ministru’ way as he imagines himself in his mind’s eye, but for single-handedly ripping out every single tree we have and then covering Malta with concrete.  

That will be some legacy, huh Ian?  It would be entirely fitting to build a (concrete) statue in your honour in one of the barren recreational areas you are so fond of, so that the pigeons can have somewhere to make their pit stop. 

Powered by