The President of Malta

Diskors tal-għeluq mill-Eċċellenza Tiegħu George Vella, President ta’ Malta, fl-okkażjoni tal-Malta Architecture and Spatial Planning Awards 2022. L-1 ta’ April 2023, (Diskors bl-Ingliż)

Honourable Minister for Public Works and Planning,

Honourable Ryan Callus,

Mr Oliver Magro, Chairperson of the Executive Council,

Perit Vincent Cassar, Chair of the Malta Architecture and Spatial Planning Awards Jury Panel,

Distinguished Guests,

It is a pleasure to be here with you this evening to celebrate local talent in various fields related to architecture and spatial planning. 

I want to join you, first of all, in saluting the memory of Perit Martin Xuereb.  Perit Xuereb was renowned for his landmark works on architectural projects across Malta and Gozo as well as in many other countries.  His state-of-the-art projects earned him respect and praise in his field both locally and internationally.  I encourage all, especially young professionals, to take inspiration from his works and aspire to achieve projects of the highest standards as he did.

This evening, in your presentations we had the occasion to see many of them.  We saw projects using best practices.  To me this is reassuring that should there be the will, we are more than capable to create safe, functional and aesthetically beautiful projects.  Tonight we witnessed professionals respectfully paying homage to the built, natural, social and industrial heritage of our country.  We learnt how run-down, derelict and abandoned spaces, trusted into the hands of experts who are willing to devote a considerable amount of time to research and to achieve sustainability, can be transformed into functional places to be enjoyed by individuals or the community at large. 

We saw exemplary restoration projects re-purposing historical buildings, based on the joint expertise of multidisciplinary teams, involving meticulous and well-researched methodologies, as well as use of indigenous materials that respect the legacy of the past, while at the same time, creating new forms and functions for present needs while reassuring future sustainability. 

In other words, we have acknowledged projects that created seamless transitions between the old and the new.  A confirmation that there can be happy marriages between the historic and the contemporary.  The conservation projects and the reuse of our industrial heritage are testament to this.

Furthermore, I was pleased to note that low carbon footprint materials and passive environmental measures were considered for all the categories awarded this evening.  Of particular interest were projects of public open spaces that create the public safe green areas within our densely built-up villages.  The recovery and rehabilitation of historic gardens for this same purpose is also commendable.  These are places that help restore the individual’s well-being.  We learnt to appreciate these open spaces even more during times when our mobility was restricted.

Mobility itself is becoming of prime importance, even from one’s health point of view.  I gladly note that efforts are being employed to pedestrianize urban areas.  Consideration of alternative solutions bring in a whole range of other possibilities. The concept of slow streets that has been adopted in Europe and beyond, to encourage the use of sustainable means of going places on foot comes to mind as one possible solution.  I am pleased to see that it has also been given due credit in your submissions this evening.  Rather than prioritising cars over pedestrians, or heavy traffic over bicycles, it is perhaps time for an integrated approach to mobility which provides the infrastructure for multiple forms of commuting.  

Unfortunately, we have not, as yet, found the right formula for efficient transport management in our densely populated country.  The window of opportunity for the right policies to be found and implemented before we all end in gridlock, is fading fast.  

Dear Guests,

I want to congratulate all the awardees and those who merited a special commendation for the effort and hard work they put in, in creating projects of excellence.  I also want to applaud the fact that this year the Planning Authority created a new category for Small Projects.  Even small-scale projects merit to be acknowledged for the positive impact they create.  Every one of us can indeed contribute to a better environment.

Seen individually, and from a sectoral point of view, all these projects are to be commended.

You give me and the rest of the population hope.

Some of you might be startled by this remark.  However, unfortunately, one has to put this in a context where we are seeing the development of a sad and dangerous head-on meeting of two trends that are working against each other.  We are witnessing the efforts of a sizeable group of interdisciplinary teams that create excellence, while at the same time there is a much bigger group of architects and engineers that are simply contributing to an ever-increasing sprawl of impersonal soulless construction, taking up all available open spaces. 

This phenomenon is justifiably a cause for public debate. 

Gozo is a prime example of this overdevelopment.  The natural landscape, which plays an important part as it is the primary attraction of the island, is being engulfed on a daily basis.  This uglification will eventually result in a negative effect on tourism.  We already know that many Maltese themselves are already looking elsewhere to spend a calm weekend, in a better natural environment away from the noise and dust of construction sites and roads clogged with traffic.  Our small communities are gradually losing their sense of identity.  This is short-termism that may be damaging the country in irreversible ways.

We need to appreciate and emphasise the direct impact that the environment around us has on our mental health and the broad well-being.  We owe it to ourselves to preserve an environment where we can switch off, in our own country, and not have to travel abroad to enjoy landscape, nature and fresh air.

Recent legislation to somehow ensure more competencies and controls of construction companies, and to introduce more awareness of the need for more security for construction workers themselves is most welcome.  However, enforcement across the board has to be seen to, not least and most importantly to avoid a repetition of sad tragic events of victims of buildings collapsing due to faulty workmanship, or as a direct result of uncontrolled work practices taking place in building sites adjacent to people’s homes.

Unfortunately, because of this urban sprawl, we are ending up with less and less arable land.  Should we not reflect on how this could, under certain circumstances, even impact our food security?

We are either sleepwalking into an overdevelopment disaster, or else we are rushing into it with eyes wide open.

The care of the environment around us, whether built or natural, ideally is meant to give us a sense of national pride, just like the projects that were awarded this evening. 

We have to ask ourselves what legacy do we wish to leave behind to our future generations?  We have a built environment which is rich enough from which we can learn our lessons.  We have capable architects, planners and structural engineers that I am sure can leave their positive impact on our infrastructure and the built environment.

I appeal to the Planning Authority and other regulatory authorities to be agents of change. 

To provide solutions to the current state of affairs. 

To recommend changes to structure plans and policies if in spite of all good intentions these are giving us unsightly streetscapes and buildings lacking character and beauty.  If need be radical decisions should be taken to stop practices that are not giving us the desired results.  This needs to start with immediate effect. The projects we are considering today give me and all Maltese citizens hope that we have the solutions in hand. These best practices point to a clear way forward. It is up to us to pick up the challenge and act. 

I want to quote Riel Miller, a pioneer of Futures Literacy worldwide who encourages us to ‘begin to shift and delve seriously into the contradiction between planning and determinism’. 

Let us use the unknown future to have the liberty and feel free to plan and prepare for what is to come rather than allow past bad practices to keep determining our actions today.

In Miller’s words let us be creative, innovative and transformative to be able to look into a future that shapes our present as well as our future quality of life.

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